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'The Toys That Made Us': Netflix celebrates Barbie, He-Man, and 'Star Wars'

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Toy designer Dave Okada in The Toys That Made Us. (Photo: Netflix)

If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix that’s not a standup comedy special or Bright, your eye may be caught by The Toys That Made Us, a new documentary series about the toys of your youth. It’s an eight-part series, and its first four are now up on Netflix, with an episode each for Barbie, He-Man, G.I. Joe, and Star Wars merchandise. Each clocks in at a little under an hour and chronicles the history of each of these toy phenomena. I was really psyched to watch this: I used to do a little toy collecting, my daughters used to play with seemingly hundreds of Barbies, and I have a He-Man’s Castle Grayskull (it’s where He-Man lives, silly!) collecting dust in my basement. In other words, I’m the sweet-spot target audience for this docuseries.

Well, it stunk. I made it through three of the four episodes (sorry, G.I. Joe). Executive producer and show creator Brian Volk-Weiss has taken a fascinating subject and reduced it to moron-level intelligence, with painfully “humorous” voice-over narration from Donald Ian Black (think Patton Oswalt’s voice but way more cutesy and irritating). Volk-Weiss lined up lots of interviews with key people — toy designers, toy executives — and proceeds to bury many of their interesting observations by chopping up their comments and constantly re-inserting the narration to overexplain everything.

There’s a great story about the creation and marketing of Barbie, but if you really want to know about it, you should turn away from Netflix and read M.G. Lord’s great book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, the definitive text. Lord pops up frequently in the Barbie episode, but every time she starts to gather a good head of interpretive steam, the film cuts away from her to give us more wacky toy humor via the narration.

Similarly, in the He-Man episode, there’s an obvious great tale to tell about the bunch of male Mattel employees who delved into their inner boys to come up with the dementedly masculine He-Man mythology (Skeletor! She-Ra! The immortal slogan “I have the power!”). But The Toys That Made Us almost buries the narrative by slicing and dicing the interviews with the men involved in He-Man world-building with a jumpy incoherence. I wanted to hear more about how the work of the fantastic comics illustrator Frank Frazetta was a key He-Man inspiration, or more details about the way the ads for Charles Atlas’s body-building technique inspired the name “He-Man,” but The Toys That Made Us zips past this stuff after cursory mentions. My advice: Look at these episodes for the visuals — all the vintage footage of TV commercials from the 1960s and the 1980s — and just enjoy the nostalgia of it all.

The Toys That Made Us is streaming now on Netflix.

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