After sitting through another deafening version of Transformers, Parvathi Nayar realises that Scrabble the Sequel could well be next on the cards
Wild cheering in the cinema hall — primarily from the young male demographic — when Optimus Prime appeared onscreen was the most entertaining take-away from Transformers: Age of Extinction. It also underscored Hollywood’s primary interest in turning toys into films: the readymade audience that exists for it.
I hadn’t subscribed to the appeal of these shape-shifting toys till recently, when I went on the Transformers ride at the Universal Studios theme park in Singapore. The hyper-realistic 3D was a visceral thrill. To experience Optimus Prime up close and personal, to ride to battle with the Autobots and decide humanity’s fate was a complete immersion experience.
By contrast the 3D in the new Transformers film — the fourth in the franchise, and directed by Michael Bay — was more headache-inspiring than anything else. My enthusiastic fellow-viewers obviously didn’t subscribe to my tepid response. Unsurprising, therefore that the franchise is going strong, with possibly at least two or three more promised in the future. Depending on how you do the numbers, Transformers comes in either as the twelfth or fourth highest grossing film series.
Toys make for great cinematic characters as in the heart-warming Toy Story trilogy. Hits such as these have subsequently generated toys based on characters in the films. But with movies like Transformers, we are talking reverse engineering: taking toys that actually exist in a child’s world, then a movie comes along to create the myth and backstory around them.
Steven Spielberg apparently suggested that the move of the Transformers to the silver screen in 2007 should kick off with a film about a boy and his car. It was smart advice — a masterstroke that captured both the boyhood appeal of the toys and its grown-up translation. Just as the G.I. Joe film franchise does justice to Hasbro’s G.I. Joe toys. These toys with their multiple movable parts, which started retailing in the early 1960s, practically invented the term “action figure” as a way of describing dolls for boys.
However, the first credit for toy-to-movie goes to Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, released in 1977. Subsequently, toy companies such as Mattel, Kenner and Hasbro figured that films based on cute dolls and macho action figures were a logical way to expand their universe. It was, after all, a significant part of our childhood world: inventing marvellous if improbable scenarios that centred on our dolls, stuffed critters and action figures. Movies made around actual toys, in a sense, try to make real those childhood screenplays in our heads.
As it turned out, turning authentic toys into films wasn’t a guaranteed recipe for success. Masters of the Universe may have been imaginative playthings but the 1987 movie (with Dolph Lundgren playing He-Man and Frank Langella as Skeletor) was panned, as was the rather dreadful Mars Attacks! based on a series of collectible trading cards. Admittedly, there’s something of a cult following now for these films, based on the “so bad it’s gotta be good” appeal.
Some went straight to DVD such as the animated Candy Land: The Great Lollipop Adventure (2005) and the Barbie computer-animated films. On the big screen, there continue to be duds — Bratz or the recent Battleship. In fact, Transformers might be a money-spinner but doesn’t garner much critical acclaim.
All that changed with The Lego Movie this year; audiences everywhere sat up and took notice. ‘Everything is Awesome’ about The Lego Movie from its opening weekend take (US$69.1 million) to the smart storyline and cool production values. It almost defies the imagination that plastic bricks could stack up to become one of this year’s best films and generate a much-hummed tune.
The Lego Movie has inspired a sequel and awakened Hollywood studios’ interest in reviving other films based on toys such as Hasbro's Ouija board and Mattel's Hot Wheels. It’s all up for grabs — trading cards, action figures, stuffed toys, even board games.
Fantasy films about converting board games into real life — such as Zathura, Jumanji or Cluedo — have already been done. So who knows how the dice will roll; the next big thing could be Monopoly the Movie, followed by Scrabble the Sequel. Or Pictionary the Prequel.