I’m mostly a hard-hearted person who rarely thinks fondly of any of my personal bygone eras. In general, I love being an adult way more than I loved being a kid. But one thing I do get nostalgic about are all the cartoons I watched in my formative years, which were many, and how much me watching something led to wanting (beyond reason) the inevitable toys based on that property. I had boxes and boxes of action figures that all got sold once I reached a certain age. That’s marketing at its best; kids love toys and they love cartoons, so naturally they’d go together. But it’s not always merchandise following art, not by a long shot. Often, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, the cartoons would be dreamed up to try to sell more swag.
Below are seven cartoons you may or may not know were based on toys. I’ve excluded ones we all know, like Transfomers and G.I. Joe.
GoBots/Challenge of the GoBots
Aww, poor GoBots. They’re always derided as being the knockoff transformers, but they actually predate the robots in disguise by about a year. Tonka owned these smaller vehicles which turned into smaller robots (sort of like Hot Wheels but with robot bits) and unlike Transformers, they were actually made of metal in a lot of cases. They were sturdier, but also slightly more dangerous. Their cartoon, Challenge of the GoBots produced by Hanna-Barbera, premiered in late 1985 and lasted the prerequisite 65 episodes before being canceled. When Hasbro bought Tonka in 1991, the GoBots universe was retconned to be an alternate Transformers universe. Tough break.
The power and importance of Playmates’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy line and cartoon cannot be overstated. After that proved to be insanely popular to a ridiculous degree, dozens of other superhero teams made up of anthropomorphic teenage dudes came out, with their own line of action figures in tow. None were perhaps more shameless than Mattel’s Street Sharks which first came onto the scene with this very informative action figure commercial.
I mean, they couldn’t be more like “See? We’re like the Ninja Turtles also!” Inexplicably, and perhaps it was an American-Canadian co-production, this got a cartoon series that garnered three whole seasons, with 40 episodes total, running from 1994 to 1997. The TV show also featured allies for the four sharks in the form of a human woman (not unlike April O’Neil) and a human man who enjoyed extreme sports (not unlike Casey Jones). It’s so laughably deliberate looking back, but I was sold.
This has to be one of the only instances in history in which a franchise was spawned from a greeting card. That’s right, the colorful, picture-tummied little bears began life in 1981 as characters on cards created by the American Greetings Corporation, LLC. In 1983, Kenner decided to turn them into plush toys and along with them, a couple of TV specials. Finally, in 1985, a fully-produced animated series which ran on ABC for a year and then in syndication for three further years. Remember the Care Bears’ Stare? What the hell was that?
This one is even funnier to me than the Street Sharks. ACE, the company behind Troll Dolls, decided they wanted to appeal more to the lucrative 6-12 year old boy demographic and so decided to ape the Ninja Turtles success (of course). By this time, circa 1993, the popular thing with the Turtles figures were them dressed up as other things (baseball players, ’40s detective, etc) so they decided just to do that immediately with their own version, the Stone Protectors, which really do look like they slapped Troll features on Ninja Turtles. In the story of them, they became a band, but each also had their own specialty, and also different colored real hair, and a different shaped stone. It was very predictable. The cartoon series was produced to hype the toys, but it only lasted 13 episodes. I still bought one. It was Max, the roller blader with samurai swords and a guitar. I mean, sure. (Note how the TV theme is basically a slowed-down version of the commercial.)
These might be the toys that were around the longest before a TV series was produced. Tonka Toys, not just for trucks and GoBots, also owned and produced this line of stuffed dogs that were famous for looking really sad. Why? Cuz they were in the pound! That’s right; the story behind these toys is that you’d buy them in a cage and let them out when you got home. If any smart kids out there could pick up on subtext, they’d realize if they didn’t buy them, the puppies might have gone to be put to toy sleep. A TV series was commissioned by Hanna-Barbera in 1986, following a successful one-off special, and it ran for two seasons of 13 episodes each. Drastic changes in between seasons meant that Season 2 was branded All New Pound Puppies. Fun fact: Future Batman: The Animated Series writers Tom Ruegger and Paul Dini wrote for this show.
Now this was actually an example of a pretty great toy getting turned into a really great cartoon. Trying to make a boy version (gosh, how sexist toys
used to be are, huh?) of their popular Polly Pocket toys for girls, in which a compact opened up to reveal a playset with tiny figures. So, naturally, what would boys like? Monsters and aliens and stuff! Mighty Max, with his sideways ball cap, t-shirt, and sneakers, was a kid just like us, only he had to fight big, ugly things, which were actually tiny things that you could lose VERY easily.
In 1993, Film Roman produced a TV series in Britain to tie in to the toys, but both the toys and the cartoon made their way over here. This was an excellent show. Max’s trademark red cap was actually the Cosmic Cap, something passed on from Mighty One to Mighty One over the years and it can generate portals to take the “Cap-Bearer” to different places in the world, and elsewhere. The show introduced Max’s allies: a mentor named Virgil who was a talk fowl, and a bodyguard named Norman, an immortal warrior who, we’d find out, was the basis for myths such as Thor, Hercules, Samson, Lancelot, and Little John. Two seasons of the show were created and it ACTUALLY ties up at the end. What a great program, I’m gonna watch it now.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Now, you probably already knew about this one, but I didn’t, so humor me. The legend behind the He-Man toy line is a complicated one, with some maintaining they were Mattel’s attempt to make Conan the Barbarian toys, but once they saw how violent and nudity-filled the movie was, they decided to revamp. This claim has been refuted by the brass at Mattel and they actually won a lawsuit about it brought by the Conan people. I’m sure it got settled once they said: “the toys came out in 1981; the movie came out in 1982.” At any rate, they made a whole line of Masters of the Universe toys and play sets in the early-’80s including enormous castles and vehicles. These weren’t your average 5 or 6-inch toys; these were hefty guys.
In 1983, the ever-reliable Filmation produced a cartoon series based on the toys called He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which eventually spun-off into She-Ra: Princess of Power. He-Man lore consists of a mixture of ancient settings and garb mixed with futurist weaponry and vehicles. Magic and technology fused together! 130 episodes were produced in a two-year span and it proved popular enough to get a Christmas special as well as a terrible Cannon Films movie made in 1988.
These are just seven that I could think of and that I had the toys of, but surely there are more. Share your favorite toy-to-cartoon franchises in the comments below!
IMAGE: DIC Entertainment
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Talk about old cartoons with him on Twitter!