How Star Wars Turned Toys and Action Figures Into a Cultural Phenomenon

By Jordan Kushins on at

To hordes of fans who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy, owning the toys was a fantastically hands-on way to connect with the big screen blockbusters. Plastic Galaxy is a new documentary that tells how those collectibles came to be—and ultimately changed the toy industry forever.

Now it's all but impossible to imagine a time before Star Wars—when it just simply did. not. exist.—but in May of 1977 the world experienced a complete cultural revelation at the cinema, and beyond. Though there was a plan in place with toy manufacturer Kenner to produce a series of figures based on the movie's main stars, the demand was like nothing anyone had ever seen, and had zero way of predicting.

The company's designers were faced with the challenge of turning tangential characters into physical objects, often-times with little more than a brief cameo and incomplete, black-and-white sketches to go on. Mini Stormtrooper helmets were roughed up with Bondo; Jawa jackets were fashioned out of brown socks; and short runs of whoopsies made it into production, like Blue Snaggletooth, a rare, early Kenner version of the Snivvian Cantina-dweller who ended up in entirely the wrong colour, and donning silver disco boots (all that was visible in A New Hope was a brief shot of his face).

While this film is definitely one for the fans, there's a lot to love about the first-hand tales from those who helped create some of the most enduring childhood playthings of all time, and watching it will no doubt rustle up some emotions for anyone with a Star Wars nerd in their life. My older brother was indoctrinated while seeing The Empire Strikes Back in the cinema as a two-year-old, clutching an R2-D2 figure for the duration of the film. We spent many, many (many) family road trips stopping at every antique mall and thrift shop for a beeline to the tchochke counter to see if there were any wayward souls from Endor, Hoth, or Bespin to rescue (and this was way before to the Internet turned tracking treasures down a quick click away).

Obviously the toys were an effort to capitalise on the success of the Star Wars phenomenon, but the impact it had on those who bought, sought, and have still hung onto the collectibles is genuine. Maybe the most nostalgic part of the whole thing is summed up with this: "What makes Star Wars great is what makes the toys great: There's so much imagination involved."

You can rent Plastic Galaxy for $4.99 (£3) on Vimeo. [Variety; The Dissolve]