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kottke.org posts about toys

Robots in disguise

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

Some faves are problematic; others are merely embarrassing. 1986’s Transformers: The Movie may be both, but leans towards the latter.

You have to fit into a very narrow generational window to love this movie. It was really for late Gen X/early millennial cuspers, with a little bit of a hangover into millennials proper because of home video. But for the most part, if you’re a little bit older or younger, you’re either completely baffled by this cartoon or mildly surprised that it isn’t total crap.

I saw this film in the theater with my two brothers, one older and one younger. My mom and older sister saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off down the hall. None of us had any idea what we were in for. I would contend that of the two films, Transformers should have PG-13. Mild scatological humor is no match for beloved toys cursing and slaughtering each other.

As kids who loved the TV cartoon, we were literally invested in these characters. To the extent that a child can have net worth, a huge percentage of it was tied up in these toys, and the characters they represented. Here they are getting killed off right and left — ominous smoke pouring forth from their mouths, my god — and all Megatron can say is “that was almost too easy.”

The best analogy I can think of is this: suppose you’ve read the first three or four Harry Potter books. Those are all that’s available. You hear that there’s going to be a Harry Potter movie. But instead of a film version of the books you love, the movie busts right into the story from books 5, 6, and 7. You jump forward in time to a creeping totalitarian state, beloved characters are getting killed off right and left by Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and BAM! A half hour into the movie, Dumbledore is disarmed and blasted out of the tower.

You’re six years old, and you watch your Dumbledore die with Reese’s Pieces in your hand. Only instead of a wizard you read about in a book, he’s a robot that turns into a truck, and you have to go over your friend Davey’s house to play with him because he’s too expensive.

Then instead of a big funeral, you blast into outer space for another hour of heavy-metal soundtrack movie. More deaths. More metamorphoses. Planet-devouring robots. Cars who say “shit” and “god damn it.” “Dare To Be Stupid.”

On top of that, unlike Dumbledore’s underwhelming death in the film version of The Half-Blood Prince, the scene where Optimus Prime is killed is totally amazing.

I mean, that is almost Luke vs. Vader and the Emperor in Jedi good.

The problem with Transformers: The Movie (besides all of the problems with the movie and all the movies and TV shows that came after it) is really the toys. The whole show is designed to sell the toys. All the character deaths, the new generation introduced in the movie, and the magnificent decision to send the Autobots and Decepticons into exile in uncharted space, are all decisions made to create a market for more goddamned toys.

The toys, our physical proximity to them, the ability to shape and change them, and the ways we use them to play out narratives, are the mechanism for our affection. But they’re also intentionally disposable. It’s as far from respectable art in the traditional sense as it gets.

MovieBob’s Bob Chipman has a terrific video about this problem, specifically as it relates to Transformers: The Movie.

TL:DR — the decision to kill off most of the established characters actually forces the movie to make some compelling artistic choices. It’s a war movie where the generals and top lieutenants are killed off immediately, forcing a raw younger generation to make their own choices and mistakes. This in turn resonates with aging kids who’ve parents die and split up, who have either already faced or will soon face their own traumas.

The movie’s message — terrible things will happen, not everyone will make it intact, but you can find a way to go on — becomes a resource kids draw on as they grow up. Again, very similar to Harry Potter: just for us folks who were a little too old to catch the book before our childhoods ended.

Robin Sloan is a novelist, blogger, and media inventor. He’s also like three weeks younger than I am and grew up about three miles away. Unsurprisingly, he and I had very similar reactions to Transformers: The Movie.

I mean maybe it’s cliched to say this, or impossible with any credibility, but I’m pretty sure that movie was the most emotional experience of my life inside a movie theater? I can’t remember the whole experience with total clarity, but I do remember which friend I saw it with; I also remember my initial confusion — it didn’t announce its time-shift, so any young fan of the TV cartoon was initially like, “Wait… what?” — and, of course, THE DEATH OF OPTIMUS PRIME. What do you even say? Biblical, Shakespearean, and totally sci-fi, all at once. Megaton-scale. I wonder if the people who made the movie even understood what they were doing, what impact it would have.

Looking at it as an adult today. I think the movie is astonishing. Even for all its flaws, all the rough edges in its animation, sound, script, it just does *so much more than it had to*, particularly for a movie of that kind, of that time. The scale of it… I mean have there even BEEN any other movies with planet-sized robots? Has anyone else even DARED?

Maybe that’s what makes a movie — or any piece of media? — seem special: the sense that it isn’t merely “made to spec” but rather the special product of a confluence of people who cared, for one reason or another — and with a big dollop of weird luck thrown in, always — who made something sui generis. If Transformers: The Movie belongs in any category, it’s that one: Fully Its Own Thing.

Finally: the voice acting, including Orson freaking Welles, is outstanding.

The Force in a Jar speaks to you

posted by Susannah Breslin   Dec 24, 2015

You want the Force. But how do you get it? You buy it in a bottle for $16. It’s The Force in a Jar.

The Free Universal Construction Kit

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2015

Universal Construction Kit

The Free Universal Construction Kit is a collection of almost 80 adapters between various construction toys like Lego, Lincoln Logs, Duplo, and K’nex (10 toys in all). The kit is available as freely downloadable designs for your 3D printer. The MoMA announced the acquisition of the Construction Kit for their permanent collection earlier this year.

A history of the Cabbage Patch Kid craze

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2015

From Vice’s American Obsessions video series, a piece on the Cabbage Patch doll craze of the 1980s.

The idea for the Cabbage Patch doll was brazenly stolen from the original creator by Xavier Roberts, whose Wikipedia entry currently begins:

Xavier Roberts (born October 31, 1955, Cleveland, Georgia), misappropriater of Cabbage Patch Kids, is an American artist, businessman, thief and asshole.

His profile also states that he went on to create a series of bear toys called The Foreskin Bears. LOL. (via devour)

A.I. movie merch: Super Toy Teddy

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2014

Super Toy Teddy

Today I learned that Hasbro released a toy based on the talking teddy bear in Kubrick/Spielberg’s A.I. W? T? F? And of course it’s super creepy:

Noel Murray has the whole story, along with an appreciation of the movie and Spielberg’s direction of it.

A.I. in particular still strikes me as a masterpiece. I thought it might be back in 2001; now I’m certain of it. But it isn’t any easier to watch in 2014 than it was before my first child was born. Like a lot of Spielberg’s films — even the earlier crowd-pleasers — A.I. is a pointed critique of human selfishness, and our tendency to assert our will and make bold, world-changing moves, with only passing regard for the long-term consequences. Spielberg carries this theme of misguided self-absorption to child-rearing, implying that parents program their kids to be cute love machines, unable to cope with the harshness of the real world. He also questions whether humankind is nothing but flesh-based technology, which emerged from the primordial ooze (represented in the opening shot of A.I. by a roiling ocean), and has been trained over millennia to respond to stimuli in socially appropriate ways. A.I. blurs the lines between human and mecha frequently, from an early shot of Monica that makes her look exactly like one of Professor Hobby’s creations, to the way Martin walks, thanks to mechanical legs.

Toy stories

posted by Tim Carmody   May 03, 2011

One thing I will be doing from time to time this week is pulling down random books from my shelves and writing about them, under the belief that the internet is better when not all of it comes from the internet. Here’s the second installment (you can read the first here).

One of my favorite writers, poets, and teachers is Susan Stewart. She’s just one of those people who radiates intelligence and fun.

She also helped show me that you could put both of these things into critical writing — that plain, everyday language and willfully studied, obscure language were both traps.

Here is an audio recording of her reading one of my favorite of her poems, “Apple,” which begins:

If I could come back from the dead, I would come back
for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first
break, and the cold sweet grain
against the roof of the mouth, as plain
and clear as water.

This poem also includes a Twitter-worthy quip: “If an apple’s called ‘delicious,’ it’s not.”

And here is an excerpt from one of my favorite of her books (which I’m pretty sure was originally actually her doctoral thesis), On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection:

Problems of the inanimate and the animate here bring us to a consideration of the toy. The toy is the physical embodiment of the fiction: it is a device for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative. The toy opens an interior world, lending itself to fantasy and privacy in a way that the abstract space, the playground, of social play does not. To toy with something is to manipulate it, to try it out within sets of contexts, none of which is determinative… The desire to animate the toy is the desire not simply to know everything but also to experience everything simultaneously…

Here is the dream of the impeccable robot that has haunted the West at least since the advent of the industrial revolution. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mark the heyday of the automaton, just as they mark the mechanization of labor: jigging Irishmen, whistling birds, clocks with bleating sheep, and growling dogs guarding baskets of fruit. The theme of death and irreversibility reappears in the ambivalent status of toys like the little guillotines that were sold in France during the time of the Revolution. In 1793 Goethe wrote to his mother in Frankfurt requesting that she buy a toy guillotine for his son, August. This was a request she refused, saying that the toy’s maker should be put in stocks.

Such automated toys find their strongest modern successors in “models” of ships, trains, airplanes, and automobiles, models of the products of mechanized labor. These toys are nostalgic in a fundamental sense, for they completely transform the mode of production of the original as they miniaturize it: they produce a representation of a product of alienated labor, a representation which itself is constructed by artisanal labor. The triumph of the model-maker is that he or she has produced the object completely by hand, from the beginning assembly to the “finishing touches.”

It’s a kind of writing that’s totally within the boundaries of the historical and theoretical conventions of the academy, but is also always rhetorically and imaginatively precise and correct, from the individual syllable to the grouped processions of images.

I can’t tell you how rare that is. Probably you know already.

Awesome. Director Michel Gondry recently posted a

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2006

Awesome. Director Michel Gondry recently posted a YouTube video where he is pictured solving a Rubik’s Cube with his feet. A few days later, this response debunks Gondry’s effort as a stunt. When I read the title, I half-expected the person to claim that Gondry had used CGI to fake the solving, but that wasn’t likely because Gondry doesn’t like to use special effects in his films. The actual answer is decided low-tech and clever, just like his movies. BTW, here’s someone solving the Cube with one hand in 20 seconds. (via cf)

Update: Regarding the CGI, then again…. (thx, oscar)

Popular toys of the last 100 years. Candy

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2005

Popular toys of the last 100 years. Candy Land was the most popular toy sold from 1940-1949.

The Rubik’s Cube — and the attendant

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2005

The Rubik’s Cube — and the attendant speed-solving contests — are back.