Why It's So Hard to Make a Good Toy Movie

The 'Lego Movie' franchise is one of the few that works, perhaps because studios are forgetting what makes a product magical in the first place.

Hollywood is mining your childhood toy chest. From Transformers, G.I. Joe, Legos, and Barbie, toys are the latest intellectual property receiving renewed studio interest in the hopes of spawning franchises and cinematic universes that will appeal to both children and nostalgic adults. But outside of a few hits, the challenge is proving to be almost as tough critically and commercially as Hollywood’s quest to turn video games into successful franchises.

From Masters of the Universe (1987) to Bratz: The Movie (2007), Hollywood’s toy story has mostly consisted of financial woes and projects caught in a development hell of broken pieces and missing batteries. Paramount’s Transformers films bucked the trend, at least commercially, though only the latest, and most well-received film, Bumblebee (2018), fully captured the kid-friendly spirit of the property. The strongest case that toys actually do have a place on our movie screens came in 2014 with The Lego Movie, which quickly spawned two spin-offs, The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017). With the early buzz surrounding the release of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, it’s evident that Warner Bros. has managed to set the standard of toy movies. But why is it that good movies based on toy properties are so far and few?

A number of movies based on toys are currently in development, and it’s a given that not all of them will be successful. Playmobil: The Movie, Ugly Dolls, Trolls World Tour, Barbie, Snakes Eyes, Masters of the Universe, and the recently reported Funko Pop! movie are all in various stages of development and production. It’s not the properties themselves that are the problem, but the potential execution. Last month, The Hollywood Reporter detailed Sony’s twelve-year struggle to find the power and bring He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to the screen again. The project has gone through a number of writers and directors as the studio seeks to find a way to bring the property to life, and avoid the pitfalls that shackled the 1987 Dolph Lundgren film. Barbie has faced a similar battle to screen as the film has shifted studios and actresses over the years (Amy Schumer, Anne Hathaway, Margot Robbie) as the project has searched for a tone and message. And although G.I. Joe has received two films, Snakes Eyes will reboot the series and focus on one character – a choice that seems against the very concept of the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero property that’s based on idea that individuals are stronger together. Given that Snake Eyes is silent and faceless, well it’s a choice that seems too ill-conceived.

There is a sense that when it comes to most of these properties, they’re being over-thought, and increasingly moving away from their original appeal, and those audience members they should appeal to most. For these movies to be successful, they have to come from a place of love for these properties, rather than simply a need to hold onto an IP for financial reasons. What does a movie for someone who loves Barbie look like? What does a movie for someone who loves G.I. Joe look like? The cynicism and over-calculation of these properties is holding them back from their screen success.

Most of the stories that children come up with while playing with action figures, dolls, or Legos are better than what we see in most of the television series and movies based on these properties. Too often, these properties are approached by studios in terms of strict rules and a level of realism, while the audience that most of these films are geared towards play without rules, at least without the rules that studio mandates concentrate on. Even adults who enjoy these movies can remember the kinds of universe defining showdowns that pit Aliens and Predators against Jedi, or forged brotherhoods between X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Licensing issues aside, most toy adaptations don’t have half the imagination that children do. And that’s what makes Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s The Lego Movie so special, brilliant even. It’s a film that captures childhood imagination by taking a comprehensive look at toys as both brands and possibilities for storytelling. It’s a film from the perspective of a kid, one that has a smorgasbord of references and characters that directly correlates to how a kid would approach playing with Legos. The Lego films tap into what our culture loves best about toys: their unlimited potential.

But Legos themselves, as toys that encourage literal world-building, invite this kind of moviemaking. What about our more structured toy properties? Not every toy-based movie can work on the same principle as Legos. Studios need to put their trust in the back of the box. You can pick up any Transformers, G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, or Barbie figure/doll and all you need to know is there on back of the package within the “file card.” Television shows and comic books have enhanced these brief descriptions and worlds, but the best of those media expansions have given into the fantastical, the nonsensical even, and operated with the understanding that these are toys. Any Masters of the Universe movie that takes He-Man out of Eternia and to Earth is one that places limits around the entire concept and sets itself up for the banal task of explanation within the rules and realities of Earth. The best way to elevate a toy is to further open up a scenario that encourages play, and that can’t be accomplished by attempting to ground or over-explain the logic or rules. A significant number of audience members, both young and old, left The Lego Movie with a desire to play with Legos. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Lego sales have gone up since the film’s release. If so, that would be an achievement that even comic book movies have struggled to earn. There’s no better testament that a film worked than if makes people want to go out and further step into the world they just watched on their screens.

The majority of studios who have gotten into the toy game have approached these properties through a very limited window and ask “what are these toys?” instead of “what can these toys be?” Those two questions of approach are the difference between Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) and Travis Knight’s Bumblebee (2018). Bay’s films work under the principle that these toys transform, they have various weapons, and they’re divided between good and evil. That approach has certainly yielded some exciting set pieces but lackluster stories that got caught up an increasingly muddled mythology that tried to over-explain answers to questions that never needed asking. Whereas with Bumblebee, screenwriter Christina Hodson approached the material by considering the link between childhood toys and adult toys – cars, and finding the connection between them through a coming of age story. Bumblebee doesn’t simply rely on what a Transformer is at its most basic concept, but asks what it can be when handled with the emotional complexity that children invest in their toys and their stories.

The LEGO Movie and Bumblebee should serve as the cinematic blueprints going forward, for those toys that encourage unlimited possibilities and those with set backstories that can still be treated as something more than hunks of plastic. There’s a shortage of good movies based on toys because many lack the screenwriters and directors who can tap into their childhood. The key to these films’ success lies with talent that has faith in these properties and celebrate the emotional complexity that toys can be imbued with. The best minds to bring beloved toys to the screen are those who know that taking them out of the package and handling with care aren’t mutually exclusive principles.