Archive | August 2015

Toy Review: Spike, Shining Armor, and Princess Cadance vinyl figures, from Funko Toys

With the release of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna in late December, Funko and Hot Topic gave fans of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic animated series, two of the show’s major secondary characters to add to their collections.

With the Mane 6 characters already out in stores, the door seems wide open now for additional secondary and background characters to find their way onto store shelves. Of course, the realm of secondary characters still has plenty to go through on the checklist.

Spring of 2015 saw a few more of these characters come to prominence…including one that wasn’t actually a pony at all…

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Spike

Spike

He’s been a part of the My Little Pony legacy for many years…but it was largely within the Friendship is Magic series, did Spike gain a little more respect…and a small legion of fans.

The baby dragon assigned to be Twilight Sparkle’s assistant has been on some interesting journeys of his own. Spike’s time with the Mane 6 definitely helped him gain a wider perspective on things that were considered “girl’s stuff,” and he also ended up having a crush on Rarity. Some have considered Twilight and Spike’s relationship to be akin to a Mother and Son. To me, I saw them more like an older sister and an adopted brother, with the older sister kindly allowing her brother to join in with her friends and their adventures.

Spike’s figure is the first of a smaller wave of Friendship is Magic figures, that are not in the exaggerated FunkoPOP line-up. Even so, his vinyl material is made from the same type as the POP figures.

With animation, Spike’s form is exaggerated at times, but the sculptors at Funko managed to do a decent job translating him into 3 dimensions. They even worked on giving him more of a dynamic pose. Instead of just having his arms to his sides, we get his right arm with a raised claw, as if he’s ready to make a suggestion.

Spike (the Dragon)

The sculpt does shave down the size of his head’s scale ridge, and his eyes seem a little big when seen from the front. An impressive little detail, is the faintly-painted eyebrows over his eyes. They could have done away with this, but I think the light paint application works well! Size-wise, Spike is pretty close to his scale on the Friendship is Magic cartoon series, and puts him at chin-level with the main ponies in the Funko lineup.

Even with some minor issues here and there, I think he’s a great little purchase to add to many collections, and for many fans of the under-used “number one assistant,” is a great new figure.

Final Grade: A-

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Shining Armor

Shining Armor

As any series continues chugging along, numerous characters are introduced that were not part of the original story pitch. With the 2-part Season 2 finale, A Canterlot Wedding, many were introduced to Twilight Sparkle’s brother: Shining Armor. But he wasn’t just any sibling: he was Captain of the Royal Guard in Canterlot! (Twilight and Shining’s parents must be very proud of their two famous children).

Considered Twilight’s BBBFF (Big Brother Best Friend Forever), Shining’s role on the show has largely been of a supporting character. After the reappearance of the Crystal Empire at the start of Season 3, he and Princess Cadance were assigned to protect and rule over the Kingdom, starting with the beginning of Season 3 of Friendship is Magic.

Shining Armor

Much of the world press went crazy over the wedding of England’s Prince William to Kate Middleton in April of 2011, and in April of 2012, the royal wedding story seemed to make little references to England’s real-world union.

Much like Prince William, Shining Armor is befitted in a jacket that seems very similar, along with a blue sash. This also makes Shining Armor the first male stallion to be (almost) fully-clothed. The jacket also helps hide the seam between his head and body, making for a nice, clean assembly.

Shining also is a first in two areas regarding stallions produced by Funko for this line. Not only is he the first male unicorn, but he is the first medium-sized one, between the smaller Dr Hooves, and the larger Big McIntosh figure.

The one area of Shining Armor’s design that is a little wonky, are his eyes. By the looks of it, he was meant to be viewed from a 3/4 angle, giving a “too cool for mule” smirk. The eyes don’t work so well in a front view, which makes him go wall-eyed. Also of note, is that when seen from the front, his unicorn horn is placed slightly to the left.

As it stands now, Shining Armor’s figure is one of the better crafted ones, with the exception of being viewed from head-on. Given that he only wore his royal jacket just one time, I do wonder why they didn’t just release him as a non-clothed stallion, given his many other appearances sans jacket.

Final Grade: B+

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Princess Cadance

Princess Cadance

Probably of all the characters introduced in Season 2, Twilight Sparkle’s former foal-sitter and new sister-in-law, racked up quite a lot of fan-based eye-rolling when she was revealed to be another alicorn…though not quite on the same levels of power as Celestia, or Luna.

Princess Cadance

While Celestia and Luna seemed to buck the trend of being “pink pony princesses,” Cadance seemed to fit that role to a “T.” A sweet-voiced alicorn whose power seemed to be centered around love, she didn’t seem as deep or serious enough to please those who took the show’s world super-seriously. Much of her appearances have simply been relegated to being in bad situations, which leads me to feel that she’s almost the equivalent of an assistant. I mean, Celestia pretty much gave her and Shining Armor total control over the Crystal Empire, and put them in extremely-stressful situations in protecting the place from the evil King Sombra.

In regards to her Funko sculpt, Cadance did surprise me in several ways. My first thought was they had simply re-used Princess Luna’s mold, but much like some other pony sculpts, she’s a brand-new one! For example, Cadance’s wings are slightly smaller than Luna’s, and her neck seems thicker than Luna’s as well. They also added a slight airbrushing of purple to her wings, much like Cadance’s wings on the show.

Even her head isn’t looking straight-ahead, but is tilted down and to the left slightly. Cadance also has a pretty large shock of hair, though looking a little more like taffy than cotton candy, given the texture of the vinyl being used.

Like most first-releases, Cadance is not without some sloppiness, but she seems a little more sloppy in paint areas than Spike or Shining Armor. A positive is that the vinyl “seams” in parts of her face are not as noticeable as those on my Princess Luna figure. Even with these issues, I still find her release to be very well done.

Final Grade: B+

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The figures should now be available at your nearest Hot Topic stores, or on their main website. Shining Armor and Princess Cadance each retail for $18.50 apiece. In the case of Spike, his smaller size puts him at a cheaper price, of $12.50.

As of this writing, these three figures will also escape the exclusivity of Hot Topic in late September, when they become available through several other retail outlets.

I had thought that along with Shining Armor and Cadance, we’d get our first villain figure since Discord, in the form of Queen Chrysalis (who also appeared in A Canterlot Wedding). However, her absence does bring up a thought that has been on my mind since these figures were announced: is it possible that Funko might not give us the villains in the series, at this size? Sure we have Discord, but he’s in that grey area due to his reformation episodes.

Recently, pictures surfaced showing Chrysalis being a figure in the smaller, Mystery Mini’s series of Funko figures for the show, but it does make one wonder if she’ll have a larger counterpart or not.

As it stands now, the main secondary characters regarding royalty have all been released, which leads to my speculation that Funko will try to produce some of the more normal secondary characters we’ve seen the Mane 6 encounter, such as Zecora, or Ms Cheerilee. The upcoming Fall release of their Mystery Mini lineup also includes figure of Season 4’s characters of Cheese Sandwich and Maud Pie, which leads some of us to believe they’ll be joining their larger counterparts soon.

As one can see by the paragraphs above, there’s plenty of room for speculation in keeping the series going. With Friendship is Magic almost halfway through its 5th season, there’s bound to still be some momentum and demand for more characters.

Of course, the big question will be how long the line can last, since almost all of the more important members of the cast have all been released.

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A Peanuts Prospectus : Marcie, and the Summer Camp Romance

I think it’s a given that I really have a jones regarding the Peanuts stories that deal with romance, and the oftentimes, impossibility that they’ll end happily.

The 1970’s were largely a time where Charles Schulz began to shift the female focus away from his mainstays like Patty and Violet. In their place, Peppermint Patty and Marcie began to be some of the main female characters, right behind Lucy (who was still in the throes of her psychotic tirades on Charlie Brown depressed psyche).

While some have known about the rather complex love triangle that evolved with Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Charlie Brown (often without him realizing it), Marcie had to fend off some unwanted advances from another boy, in the Summer of 1976.

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As Peppermint Patty and Marcie are on their way to camp, Marcie tells Patty that there’s a kid behind her that is calling her names. When the kid keeps pestering her, Marcie hits him with the bus’ First Aid Kit.

One would assume the name-calling would cease, but the kid keeps at it. Each time, Marcie inflicts some form of punishment on him, from pushing him into the nearby lake, and also into a patch of Poison Oak. Luckily, Marcie gets some relief when the kid ends up in the dispensary.

However, once he’s out, the kid goes back to his old ways. One day while waiting in line, Peppermint Patty hears just what the kid has been calling Marcie (see right).

Needless to say, Patty is rather surprised that Marcie assumes this is a negative connotation.

It is during this altercation that we meet the boy, named Floyd. A mop of dark hair alights his head, and he tells how he just wants to get acquainted with Marcie. Patty is almost won over with the kid, until he calls her “Sir,” and Patty gives him a kick.

Patty tries to convince Marcie that Floyd’s calling her “lambcake” wasn’t mean-spirited, but Marcie just keeps assuming he’s being sarcastic (“if someone calls you lambcake, when you know you’re not a lambcake, that’s sarcasm.”).

Eventually, Patty sits down for a one-on-one with Floyd. With a dopey grin, Floyd tells Patty that he thinks he’s in love with Marcie.

“Well Floyd,” cautions Patty. “Love can be very painful.”

“I found that out on the bus when she hit me with the First-Aid Kit,” replies Floyd.

After the discussion with Floyd, Patty tries to get Marcie to soften on her stance. However, Marcie claims that since she’s never had a dog, a cat, a horse, or a hamster, she’s “not ready for a boyfriend.”

This reasoning definitely strikes Patty as odd, and she questions Marcie’s logic.

“Everything in its time, Sir,” replies Marcie, turning in for the night.

Even so, Floyd keeps trying to impress Marcie,but to no avail. He even attempts to get a cozy picture with her, and gets the business end of her fist.

Soon, Floyd has to go home, and asks to write to Marcie. However, as the bus pulls away, he comes to a startling conclusion (see right).

With Floyd now gone, Patty asks Marcie one evening, if being called “lambcake” was so bad.

“What about noodleneck,” asks Patty. “Or cementhead? People call each other lots of strange things without being really serious. You should think about that, Marcie.”

“I will,” replies Marcie. “Good night, noodleneck!”

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The theme of summer camp was often a big part of the Peanuts strips during their run. Most of them mainly dealt with Charlie Brown, who often equated going to camp, to “being drafted.”

When Patty and Marcie were added to the strips, they soon after became part of the camp stories. Romance also figured into a few other stories with them as well. One even involved the Little Red-Haired Girl being in their camp, and whom Patty felt inferior to upon seeing how pretty she was.

This story involving Floyd, lasted from July 19,1976, to August 7, 1976. Much like some of the series’ other-character romances, Floyd was never seen again after his one appearance.

The story was also given the honor of being animated in a segment for The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, in 1983. In that episode, Floyd’s appearance was changed as well. His hair was given a reddish hue, and his shirt was striped blue-and-white.

Much of the story was intact, but a few additional bits where Floyd attempted to impress Marcie, were excised for time (the segment was one of 4 that ran in the episode titled, The Lost Ballfield).

The story was one that often stuck in my head, in regards to Floyd. It seemed rare to ever see a male character try to pursue a girl in the series like he did. Most of the time, it was Lucy or Sally who seemed to be as persistent.

I think the story stands out, because I can definitely recall some moments in my youth where I may have (as the phrase goes) “come on too strong” to some people. Floyd definitely has that overly-eager way about him, and it seems some girls aren’t quite into that (well, unless you’re a famous celebrity).

At the end of my Peanuts Prospectus, I always like to take a little time to shout out to the Charles M Schulz Museum. If you’re a fan of Peanuts, I strongly recommend clicking the image above to go to their Facebook page.

Episode Review: Star vs The Forces of Evil (Season 1, Episode 11) – Mewnipendence Day / The Banagic Incident

Last week saw a major episode release regarding Star vs The Forces of Evil. Not only did Star Butterfly end up entering the terrifying St Olga’s Reform School for Wayward Princesses, but the episode spent a full 20 minutes telling the story!

This week, the 2-segments-per-episode format returns, with what seems to be a little history lesson about Mewni, and an earth quest that Star partakes in.

Well, enough chit-chat…let’s dive right in!

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Mewnipendence Day

Mewnipendence Day

As the episode begins, we find out that Star has invited a number of persons to partake in celebrating Mewnipendence Day with her.

The events call for a re-enactment of the battle that drove the kingdom’s monster population away, leading to the founding of Mewni. However, Marco’s questioning over certain events, causes Star to have second thoughts.

Meanwhile, Toffee has a new plan to help Ludo obtain Star’s wand. Though the majority of Ludo’s minions are willing to go along with it, Buff Frog is the one who questions Toffee’s motives.

Watching episodes of Star, I and many have been curious about the history of her dimension. Though its founding story is truncated given the run-time, we do get a pretty decent summary on what happened many years before.

I can’t help but wonder if much like the Telmarines in Narnia, the Mewnians were displaced humans from our dimension, that just found themselves in this other world, where they learned about magic. Heck, part of their heritage is growing corn, so my head-canon is that they could be displaced Iowa farmers!

Given Star’s reactions, I assume this is the first time she has put on her own Mewnipdence Day celebration. As such, when she gets a first-hand review of the accounts of the battle via a children’s pop-up book, she begins to quietly contemplate what she’s been taught her whole life.

On the other side of the fence, Toffee continues his quiet machinations, right under Ludo’s beak. It is a little strange to see Ludo acting like a little kid for much of the episode, which makes me wonder if this was largely Toffee’s doing, aka placating him until he can serve a proper purpose later on. As well, Toffee also seems to be ‘modernizing’ Ludo’s castle, given we see him utilizing some more advanced technology.

It was also nice to see some animosity between Toffee and Buff Frog. Though not the smartest monster there is, the loyal Buff provided some of the more memorable moments in the episode, including one in its final scenes.

This episode seemed a little light on the comedy at times. The underlying theme of Star contemplating the holiday, let alone Buff Frog’s reactions to Toffee, put it in the realm of something a little more serious, with some lighter sprinklings of comedy thrown in.

On the plus side, there was a little more emotion in this episode than St Olga’s, but even with some character and story advancement, there still didn’t seem to be an overly satisfying feel to the whole episode. Good effort, though.

Final segment grade: B

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “Now we can begin making costumes, and after that-THA BLUDDY BATTLE CAN COH-MENCE!…YESH, MAHR-COH?”

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The Banalogic Incident

The Banagic Incident

While trying to stave off boredom one day, Star is quickly entranced when she reads about an item called The Banagic Wand (“Earth’s coolest magical treat!”).

Fascinated by this earthly magic item, Star eagerly tries to get Marco to help her find it, but he ditches her due to his karate lessons.

Star then decides to set out on her own, on a perilous quest to find “a better store,” wherein lies the limited supply of that, which she seeks!

Given her inter-dimensional naivete, we’ve seen Star misunderstand some earth-customs and items in the past. Segments like School Spirit and Fortune Cookies have given us metered doses of her going a little overboard, but this segment thrusts her out into our world, in a major way.

Banagic almost feels like a dare put forth by the writers and storyboard artists: how crazy can we make Star, without breaking the audience?

Pretty much from start-to-finish, Star seems to be in one of the most manic modes ever, almost like her boredom has driven her to insanely pursue this new item. I will admit having my own insane bouts of ‘must find this limited item’ syndrome (had an attack of it last Friday!), but I think the concept can only be pushed so far before the audience asks to be let off the bus.

For those who have read creator Daron Nefcy’s original comic concepts of Star (where she is a delusional grade-schooler who “imagines” the world around her to be full of magic), this segment almost feels like it’s paying a small homage to its roots. This can be seen in some areas, where Star misinterprets certain people and places, as something else entirely.

A panel from one of creator Daron Nefcy’s original comics involving a younger Star Butterfly.

Star’s manic personality in this episode does start to wear a little thin in regards to where she’s taking us. Though in a sense, I can’t entirely fault them suddenly making it as if her brain fell out.

I’ve seen such character detours in other series like My Little Pony, and Urusei Yatsura. The magical girl Lum in Urusei would sometimes have episodes where she’d also go on cutesy-crazy autopilot for some storylines, while being a little more serious in others.

On the other end of the segment’s story spectrum, is Marco, who attempts to work through his latest karate training, while trying to fend off the taunts of the annoying Jeremy Birnbaum. It’s nice to see a little more side-development regarding Marco and his karate lessons as a ‘story B.’ At least it beats a ‘when in doubt, send in Ludo’ subplot.

Though it is intriguing to see Star go on a quest, it feels like the episode is attempting to stretch out a joke a little too long, and it snaps from the strain. Even Marco’s story feels a little too tacked on. It almost felt like they could have just had him leave at the beginning of the episode, and show up back at the end, and it wouldn’t have really mattered.

Final segment grade: B-

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: *singing* hm-hm doo, do-doo, a lit-tle bitta-ba-nana, a lit-tle lot-ta ma-gic!”

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Star Butterfly): “I swear to baby dolphin giggles, I will find the Banagic Wand before this day is done!”

Well, that was…interesting?

Episode 11 felt a little like a mixed grab-bag of content. With a Mewnian-history-related first segment, and a ‘wacky hijinks’ second segment, it reminded me of how I felt regarding episode 6 (which featured the segments Mewberty and Pixtopia). However, I was more willing to accept the weird humor of Banagic, than the forced humor of Pixtopia.

Mewnipendence Day definitely feels like another piece of the puzzle in understanding the backstory to Mewni and Star’s royal relations. However, the puzzle I was more intrigued by, was seeing how Toffee was continuing to play his little ‘chess game’ regarding Ludo and his ‘pawns.’ Some minor character development and cameos, also makes one wonder what’ll be coming in the next episodes.

The Banagic Incident is probably going to be considered a little “too weird” by many who watch the show. Playing around with Star’s naivete can be fun, but it felt like they may have gone a little too manic, in trying to stretch out the laughs in this episode. School Spirit was an episode that showed Marco and Star off on separate adventures, in a way that managed to balance pretty well. In Banagic, it just feels that Star’s questing story steamrolls over the smaller ‘plot B’ story of Marco’s.

*Well, another episode down…and only two to go. Yes, in case you didn’t know, Season 1 of “Star vs The Forces of Evil,” is only 13 episodes long! Though word is the thirteenth episode will be a full one like “St Olga’s,” episode 12 will be another 2-for-1 format. Next time, be prepared as the characters partake in an “Interdimensional Field Trip,” and be thrilled as: “Marco Grows a Beard.” Though we’ll have to wait a full month until September 14th, to see just what they’ll have in store for us. Courage, people…Courage!*

Raiders of the Lost Toyline: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

*For every Toyline that takes hold like Star Wars or My Little Pony, there are many that never get beyond their first steps, and quickly die out. In this column, we’ll take a look at some of those Lost Toylines*

In the Summer of 2005, there was much teeth-gnashing by many moviegoers. It wasn’t enough that George Lucas had made Darth Vader whine in agony with James Earl Jones’ voice, but to many, Warner Brothers and Tim Burton were committing a major crime against childhood, by (re)making Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The majority of those who were upset, claimed the studio was remaking the 1971 film (titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), which was based off of author Roald Dahl’s most famous book. Even with Burton and Johnny Depp telling theater goers that their take was closer to Dahl’s writing, many just claimed Depp wasn’t as awesome as Gene Wilder’s take on the Wonka character.

A promotional image from the 2005 “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Aside from giving Willy Wonka “daddy issues” and making him a pale-skinned eccentric, there wasn’t really that much I could see to complain about. Then again, I’m sure many would express the same ire if word came that The Wizard of Oz or The Neverending Story were going to be more “faithfully adapted.” Plus, I never really held the 1971 film in as high of a regard as some people (live-action musicals were not a staple of my childhood viewing ‘diet’).

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Unlike the 1971 adaptation, Charlie’s distributor Warner Brothers knew there was money to be made from merchandising. Familiar companies like NECA Toys, and MediCom(known moreso for its collectibles in Japan), were soon touting their wares. But in a press release from Warner in January of 2005, it was announced that a lesser-known company would be joining in on the mix(ture).

That company was called Funrise Toys (oh, clean up that dirty mind right now!). Though NECA and MediCom would craft more specialty items like Wonka Bar style throw-pillows and collectible vinyl dolls, Funrise’s products focused on the film’s younger demographic. The results were puzzles, games, and…action figures.

Several of the products Funrise Toys produced in conjunction with the film.

The other two companies would also make figures, though they would moreso focus on those of Willy Wonka, and several of the Oompa Loompas. Funrise‘s figure releases were more notable, as their assortment would contain the only figural representations of the films’s 5 lucky golden ticket winners.

The full assortment of figures included:


Willy Wonka    Augustus Gloop   Violet Beauregarde    Veruca Salt

     Mike TeeVee     Charlie Bucket      Oompa Loompas

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Each figure came in a blister pack, along with a green base, and a sculpted candy plant, based on the same designs of those seen in the film’s Chocolate Room.

The green base that comes with each figure is identical, with a peghole for each of the specific plants, as well as a peg for the figures to use for standing. The only difference among the bases, is the one for the Oompa Loompas, that has an added peg for the additional Loompa to use.

One would assume that with a major summer film like Charlie, the figures would have been popping up at every single toy/retail store. Instead, it seemed very few of the retailers bit at Funrise’s offerings.

When the series of figures was released that summer, it was (scheduled) to be released in two waves (to the best of my knowledge). I recall seeing figures of Wonka, Charlie, and Augustus at a Spencer’s Gift shop, as well as a few Wonka’s at a Toys R Us. However, I never saw any of these figures hit the big-box retailers like Walmart, or Target.

As for the release of the additional figures (aka ‘the second wave’), I couldn’t find any information on how Violet, Veruca, Mike, and the Oompas escaped into consumer’s hands.

The only place I ever saw the additional figures show up, was on eBay, and most of them were being sold from overseas. While many of the auctions for the film’s figures were made up mostly of the first-wave figures like I had seen at Spencer’s, if you were patient, every-so-often the others might show up. Of course, they wouldn’t come cheap (I recall an unopened Violet figure going for around $70 on one auction I watched, a few years after the film came out).

The figure’s packaging appears to have also not fared well since their initial release. Finding a ‘Mint on Card’ rendition of each figure proved to be well-nigh impossible. Every carded figure I obtained had bends or slight tears in their cardbacks. As well, the adhesive used to hold the plastic bubble to the card, had begun to wear off on several of the cards I have. Below, you’ll see a few examples of the packaging ‘problems.’

Examples of abrasions and adhesive problems on several of the figure’s packages.

While looking online, I was able to find some early prototype images on one site. What was most notable were the figures of Veruca, Mike, and Willy.

(left) prototype, (right) final product

Veruca’s prototype image shows a different type of candy tree, and unlike her pink purse being a removable object, it is actually underneath her fur coat (which is how she wears it in the film as well).

(left) prototype, (right) final product

(left) prototype, (right) final product

Mike not only has a different candy tree as well, but his prototype shows the ‘flaming skull’ image that the character has on his t-shirt in the film. For reasons unknown, this design was not included on the final figure release, even though the assortment image on the back of each figure’s card shows the proper shirt design.

(left) image from figure’s cardback, (right) final product

Speaking of the back of the figure’s cards, one interesting difference can be seen regarding Willy Wonka. The figure image on the back shows Willy with an open-mouthed smile, whereas the final sculpt differs greatly. It may be just me, but it almost looks like they did a last-minute head re-sculpt. My guess is they were trying to make Wonka look more enigmatic, but the end result looks like either his head’s too big, or his top hat shrank in the wash.

Along with the single-carded figures, Funrise also released a Wonka Figure Assortment consisting of Willy, Charlie, and the two Oompas, but without their candy room bases and plants.

After 2005, it seems Funrise did not consider another attempt at being the main action figure producer for a feature film. According to their current website, they are currently producing additional plush and toy offerings, for successful brands such as My Little PonyPound Puppies, and they also appear to be the official license holders of a toyline I recall from my youth:Tonka Trucks.

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Originally, I was going to end this Raiders article here, but a little voice in my head reminded me of something. In looking for information on these figures online, I think I am the first person to ever do an article on these ‘lost toys,’ and as such, I could very well run several in-depth reviews on each of these figures. There are only a few other reviews of this figure series online, and they only covered the Willy Wonka figure.

There’s not a whole lot to these toys, but I think there’s plenty to analyze and review, and besides, I’ll be adding a little more information to the World Wide Web. Be on the lookout for my 3-part review of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory action figures, in the not-too-distant future.

*Coming Soon*

Toy Review 1 – Willy Wonka, Oompa Loompas, Charlie Bucket

Toy Review 2 – Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde

Toy Review 3 – Veruca Salt, Mike TeeVee

Episode Review: Star vs The Forces of Evil (Season 1, Episode 10) – St Olga’s Reform School For Wayward Princesses

While numerous “Starco” fanshippers out there were chomping at the bit for episode 8’s segment titled Blood Moon Ball, I was moreso eager for this episode.

St Olga’s Reform School For Wayward Princesses
has been a part of the show’s lore since the first segment, Star Comes to Earth. After causing chaos after obtaining her family’s ancestral wand, Star’s biggest fear is that she’s got a one-way ticket to the notorious school…only for her parents to say they aren’t going to send her there (“…yet.”).

In the segment titled Party with a Pony, it was revealed that Star’s best friend, Flying Princess Pony Head, was going to be sent there as well, escorted by several masked men with glowing eyes.

starep10-04

Star’s nightmarish, imaginative vision of what the inside of St Olga’s could be like, from the segment, “Match Maker.”

Star brought up her fear of the school in the segment titled Match Maker, where we get a view into her mind at what she imagines goes on inside there. As well, the Sleep Spells segment had Princess Smooshy, an escapee from the school, intending to switch her face with Star’s, and have her take her place.

Many of us wondered if the showrunners would continue to milk St Olga’s reputation as the show went on, but were surprised when 10 episodes in, we got this one.

But enough of my rambling. Let’s dive right in, and talk a little about one of Star vs The Forces of Evil’s most notorious locales!

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St Olga's Reform School For Wayward Princesses

St Olga’s Reform School For Wayward Princesses

Star calls Pony Head at St Olga’s, to wish her a Happy Birthday! Star confides how she wishes she could party with her ‘bestie,’ but when Pony Head expresses several forms of individuality, she is hauled off, and the call is terminated!

Star then decides to break Pony Head out of St Olga’s for her Birthday, along with Marco’s help. This leads to them sneaking in with a fresh group of “new recruits,” getting to see just what lies inside the towering walls of one of Star’s worst fears.

Most episodes of Star focus on a theme, and with St Olga’s, the theme seems to be about individuality, vs conformity. St Olga’s promise (which is even laid out in a mock commercial we see), is to rectify ‘wayward princesses,’ and make them worthy of their royal heritage, and noble bloodlines.

It is also interesting to see how both Star and Marco treat what they are seeing. Marco, who has no royal duties hanging over his head, doesn’t see the place as being a big deal (at first), other than being just a super-posh finishing school. Star on the other hand, who has to live with her royal title and eventual duties, sees the ‘true horror’ of what is going on within the school’s echoing hallways.

Unlike the episode Party With A Pony, I found myself being a little less negative towards the mouthy Pony Head this time around. Maybe it’s just the humor in seeing how the school reformed her, let alone that rather ‘abrasive’ voice of Jenny Slate’s, twisting her tone to be slightly more proper.

At St Olga’s, the imposing edifice is presided over by Miss Heinous (voiced by Jessica Walter). Much like Toffee in the segment Fortune Cookies, Heinous keeps a very stoic composure. However, when she lets her guard down, we see that she’s got a few secrets that she’s trying to hide.

She even seems to deduce that Star (though not giving her name) is from Mewni, based on the heart-shaped marks on her cheeks. This led me to wonder: is there more than one Princess throughout the land of Mewni? I was figuring Heinous would pounce on Star, if she realized she had one of the most notoriously wayward Princesses in her school now.

This episode is also the first to buck the regular two-segments-per-episode trend, with the whole story taking up almost 20 minutes! Even given more time to tell its story, I was surprised how the episode seemed to fly by. The run time does allow for some longer moments, and even some quieter ones.

One such moment, is when Marco, Star, and Pony Head find themselves in a room with stone pillars, unfamiliar markings, and a mural on the ceiling. We have no idea what the room is for, but given how the scene took the time to show it, makes me feel that we’ll see it again before the season is over.

The episode’s pacing also feels a little ‘stunted’ in areas. It doesn’t ‘flow’ as well as I would have hoped after the last episode. In a sense, it reminded me of the stop-and-go feel with how the Mewberty segment in episode 6 was structured.

Also like Mewberty, the majority of the animation in this episode also felt like a lapse in quality from episode 9. My guess is that this episode was also being worked on by Toon City studios, shortly after they took over from Mercury Filmworks. The squash-and stretch of the characters, let alone some of the line quality seems a little awkward in places, almost like they were still getting the hang of the ‘proper’ way to animate the characters.

Even some of the dialogue seemed a little strange at times. Usually, I’m right on board with Eden Sher’s vocals as Star Butterfly, but there seemed to be something a little ‘off’ in some areas of the episode.

I didn’t expect the best episode ever, but I had hoped for a little deeper story regarding St O’s. Pony Heads’ reappearance also brought us some more character development for her as well (albeit minimally), but it just feels like the episode is a little too flimsy overall for me to give it a higher rating.

Final Episode Grade: B

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “So this is how it ends...on a cold checkered floor by a pile of soiled linens, wearing an eyepatch.

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “So this is how it ends…on a cold checkered floor by a pile of soiled linens, wearing an eyepatch.”

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Star Butterfly):

Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Star Butterfly): “Why are you saying that? You don’t even have pinkies!”

In conclusion, St Olga’s Reform School For Wayward Princesses is a decent episode, though I couldn’t help but feel that it could have gone a little deeper with the subject matter.

I sensed that in some areas, it could have gotten a bit more story development, to help solidify the ‘individuality vs conformity’ plot point. As well, Star has an emotional moment near the end of the story, that I wished I could have actually cared more about. It was prime ‘onion-cutting’ material, that just didn’t cut it.

The introduction of Miss Heinous and certain elements of the school have also opened a new plot thread, that like the one in Fortune Cookies, has left us with some more world-building to consider. I hope this means we’ll be getting more calling cards from “The Forces of Evil” pretty soon.

The episode also manages to make Marco-Diaz-in-a-dress an entertaining concept, not to mention showing us a few callbacks to previous characters, and incidents. There’s even a fun moment for ‘magical girl’ fans when Star gets her own ‘transformation’ sequence (though not as detailed as Sailor Moon’s, it still is a fun few seconds, and includes a catchy tune added by composer, Brian H Kim).

*With 10 episodes down, it definitely feels like some chess pieces are being set up on the board, regarding where this season is heading. Next week, the show returns to its standard two-segment format. The first segment titled “Mewnipendence Day,” sees Star and some of her Earth friends re-enacting an event from her planet’s history. In the second segment, titled “The Banagic Incident,” Star goes on a quest for a “magical” Earth product, but things don’t go according to plan. See you back here real soon, for a review of the next episode.*

Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Follow That Bird,’ 30 years later

When thinking back to my early years, the Summer of 1985 stands out in my mind for several reasons. It just so happens that during that Summer, my favorite film was released on the world.

However, I wouldn’t see that particular film until a year later, on VHS. The only film I can recall seeing that Summer, was Follow That Bird, the first major feature film to utilize the Sesame Street characters from the popular PBS television show.

As our Summer Vacation in California began to wind down, I recall my Dad taking my cousin and I to a theater down the road from my Grandma’s. In that darkened auditorium, we were soon witness to seeing one of America’s most beloved television shows, come to life on the big screen.

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As the film begins, a group of birds calling themselves The Feathered Friends, pride themselves on placing orphan birds in loving homes. One that has recently been brought to their attention, is Big Bird himself. One of the group’s members, Miss Finch, decides to help him.

Miss Finch meets with Big Bird, to discuss “his problem”

After convincing Big Bird that he would be more comfortable with an all-bird family, Big Bird leaves Sesame Street, and moves to Ocean View, Illinois. He is placed with a bird-family named The Dodo’s, but try as he may, Big Bird doesn’t feel comfortable in his new home. This leads to him running away, intending to get back to Sesame Street.

When a news program reports of Big Bird running away from his new home, Miss Finch claims she is going to find Big Bird and return him to the Dodo’s. Meanwhile, Big Bird’s friends on Sesame Street decide to head out on a cross-country trip to find him.

Along the way, Big Bird runs into some helpful people, but also has to stay one-step ahead of The Sleaze Brothers (played by actors Dave Thomas & Joe Flaherty), who want to catch Big Bird and display him in their 3rd-rate circus.

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Even though the children of the 1980’s were bombarded with toy commercials disguised as television shows, I think many of us can agree, that the rampant “PC/protect-the-children” vibe was not as prevalent as it is today. The Care Bears film had an evil head in a book that wanted to take over the world, and even the Disney-produced Return to Oz had some scenes that traumatized quite a few people. Though Follow That Bird never got into such dark territory, it still was treated moreso like a real movie, even with its numerous songs.

The film also tries to assimilate Sesame Street into our world, with the simple sets from the television show, amped up to feel like a real street. As the camera moves around, we see the other side of the street, and down the block. Unlike the more brightly-lit stage set, this version feels a little dingier, though no-less-welcoming.

Though it is Big Bird’s story, there doesn’t really seem to be much that changes regarding him. By the end of the film, he’s still the same 6-year-old, 8-foot-tall bird we’ve known, though has gone on an adventure of his own, outside the normal confines of his nest.

Big Bird meets The Dodo’s.

When it comes to the characters introduced in this film, the Dodo family seems a little more low-tech when it comes to Muppets. Though full-bodied figures, their expressions are largely static, and most of the time, it’s hard to tell if even their beaks are moving.

Pretty much the one Muppet whom it seems plenty of craft was put into for her introduction, was Miss Finch, who uses a character-build very similar to that of Big Bird’s. As the film continues, Miss Finch seems to be made out to be the bad guy (bird?) in the film. Given her huffy attitude and narrowed eyes, she often wears a look of perturbedness.  but when one gets right down to it, she’s simply acting on the thought that she’s doing the right thing. She doesn’t get a huge kickback for placing Big Bird in a bird family. If anything, her biggest character flaw, is that she is constantly in the mindset that Big Bird needs to be “with his own kind,” which are birds.

That becomes the overall theme of the film, when one sees that Big Bird has had friends of all shapes and sizes on Sesame Street. Even Oscar who isn’t the most vocal about friendship, surely cares for ‘the big yellow turkey.’

The emotions at time definitely seem genuine, and it shows what was often one of the key ingredients in many productions with the Muppets: you grew to care and believe in them! When Big Bird leaves Sesame Street, he definitely ‘feels’ like he’s sad to be leaving people behind who love him. Even in a song he sings near the end of the film, I’ve seen some people remark about how the song touched them emotionally.

Sid (Joe Flaherty) and Sam (Dave Thomas) Sleaze, on the hunt for Big Bird.

Sid (Joe Flaherty) and Sam (Dave Thomas) Sleaze, on the hunt for Big Bird.

Of all the characters, the only real bad guys we have, are The Sleaze Brothers, Sam (Dave Thomas) and Sid (Joe Flaherty). Most of what we see that makes them bad is how they conduct their circus. At one point, they refuse to let a boy down from the ferris wheel, unless he pays 10 cents. They also steal his apple for good measure, which then leads to an interesting story callback at the end.

Though in truth, it’s largely Sam who is the real bad guy. Sid is moreso the dopey brother who goes along with the plans. Even so, Sid’s grand schemes are within reason. He is moreso a toned-down ‘sleaze’ of a bad guy, but we still get down that he’s not someone we want to spend time with.

One moment that always stuck with me, occurs at the end when the Sleaze Brothers attempt to get away with Big Bird, and some of his friends give chase. The moment for me belongs to Gordon (played by Roscoe Orman), who tries to convince Big Bird to jump off of a moving vehicle. Showing how innocent his 6-year-old mind is, Big Bird refuses, claiming that what Gordon is proposing is dangerous.

The best part is when you see Gordon growing frustrated, and like an exasperated parent trying to find a way around the situation goes: “You have my permission-just this once!”

And I thought Doc Brown’s “OUTATIME” license plate broke the character-count limit!

The road trip portion of the film feels like the place where the story really comes alive, as we get all sorts of little vignettes, both with Big Bird, and his friends.

As a kid who was big into cars, getting to see all the different vehicles being driven stuck in my head, not to mention in one scene, you see The Count driving his car down the road. Sure, the Sesame Street Muppets were fine walking down the street, but here, it was amazing to see they could even drive!

Big Bird does encounter a couple of kids on a farm, who allow him to stay with them for a bit. The little moment almost is about the most child-to-bird interaction we get in the film, and it leads to a nice happy-go-lucky song, before Big Bird has to run when Miss Finch spots him! One thing that I found rather endearing, and shows what a big heart Big Bird has, is before he rushes off into a nearby hayfield, he still takes a few seconds to give the kids a hug and bid them goodbye.

Waylon Jennings (right) gives Big Bird a few tips on thinking positive.

There’s quite a few musical numbers as Big Bird takes to the road, and some definitely have a way of sticking in your head. One of the more memorable ones is sung by country singer Waylon Jennings, who plays a turkey truck driver, who gives Big Bird a lift. Word was that after filming Follow That Bird, Jennings and Big Bird’s Muppeteer Caroll Spinney, became good friends.

Jennings is just one of several small cameos in the film. Much like The Muppet Movies, Follow That Bird included ‘very brief cameos’ by the likes of Chevy Chase, Sandra Bernhard, and John Candy.

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Follow That Bird was the only feature-length film revolving around the Sesame Street Muppets, until 1999, when The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland came out. Given how young I was when the last Sesame Street film came out, it was a given that I was most likely not among the crowds that went to the newer film.

Bird definitely feels like a time-capsule film, and while not as hugely-loved as other films of the era, I still think it stands up pretty well after 30 years. The film also has some little jokes that the kids won’t catch, but it doesn’t ever get dirty. One joke that I’m sure the parents got a chuckle out of, was the city of ‘Ocean View, Illinois.’ For a land-locked state, that’s definitely a joke in itself. As well, director Ken Kwapis even gets to make a little homage to a scene from the film, North By Northwest.

I have wondered what some kids of this generation would think upon seeing the film. In the 3 decades since its release, Sesame Street has changed quite a bit. Elmo usurped Grover for ‘cutest monster’ in the 1990’s, and much of the show these days seems to rely moreso on characters in composited play-scapes.

Would they be as accepting of this story as I and many others were, back in 1985?

Book Review: We Don’t Need Roads – The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, by Caseen Gaines

Sometimes, I pine for the olden days of making-of stories in books. It used to be that a couple hundred pages would be devoted to telling us about behind-the-scenes material in some of the hardcover tomes I’d come across.

Sadly, in this day and age, much of that material is truncated to make it seem that everything during the production went smoothly. In place of large quantities of descriptive dialogue and cast/crew quotes, we’re left with little info “nuggets,” and lots of color imagery.

Growing up, I became enamored with behind-the-scenes material, which made me want to move either into the world of special effects, or animation (I chose animation, receiving my BFA in 2003). I often think my interest in these materials, stems from my Dad. He was an engineer, and was also fascinated by how things worked.

Back to the Future was one of those films we often connected over when I was growing up. I recall wondering about the 50’s, and we’d go down to the library, looking through microfiche of old newspapers from that era. My parents had fond memories of those times, when department stores would take up whole city blocks, street cars ran through downtown, and a world where my Dad and his friends would wander for miles without parental concern.

Over the years, those of us who know Back to the Future, have often stored away in our heads, some of the big stories on the making of the film. There have been several documentaries made for the DVD/Blu-Ray releases, and a movie tie-in book released in 1990 (see left) was one of the first items I recall picking up and reading that had additional insight. But to some out there, it felt like there was still more material to be revealed.

That was what Caseen Gaines felt. Though far removed from the the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the English teacher from New Jersey, parlayed his love of popular culture into several books on the topics of Pee-Wee Herman, and the 1983 film, A Christmas Story. Though like myself and thousands more, he harbors an affinity towards one of the 1980’s most-remembered films.

We Don’t Need Roads – The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy could easily have been an 800 page “brick” of a book, but Gaines’ final page count keeps it “light” at 268 pages. There is plenty of rehashed material that could have been thrown in, but much of that is kept to a minimum. Instead, Caseen’s goal was to find information, that hadn’t been brought to light in the 25-30 years of the trilogy’s existence.

Over the course of several years, Gaines was able to interview dozens of people who had worked on the Back to the Future trilogy, including its director Robert Zemeckis, co-creator/writer Bob Gale, and even actors like Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown), and Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly).

Much like how I like to structure my blog posts, Caseen has a way of giving you a story that sounds like you’re in the moment he’s describing. One that he focuses on in the first chapters, involves a moment where Robert Zemeckis, and editors Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas, reviewed some of the first footage shot with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly. It’s meant to be a pivotal moment in the film’s history, and not one that I’ve heard recounted before now.

Stoltz’s involvement in the first Back to the Future has often been part of its lore. When first-pick Michael J Fox was unavailable (due to his commitment with the TV show Family Ties), Eric was recommended by the head of Universal Pictures to fill Marty’s Nikes. However, after several weeks, it was decided that Eric’s characterization wasn’t working, and the filmmakers were able to get Michael, letting Eric go on his way.

A scene from the first few weeks of Back to the Future’s shoot, with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly (middle), looking at George McFly (Crispin Glover).

Though the book doesn’t get candid interviews with Stoltz, there’s plenty of material that seems to suggest that his method acting may have been a little too serious for the film. One example is that Eric insisted that everyone call him Marty on set. This type of method acting worked so well, that Christopher Lloyd didn’t know Eric’s real name until word came that he had been dropped from the picture.

This material is one of several stories that Caseen delves into, but he also gives some additional insight into 2 incidents from Part II’s filming that weren’t widely known:

– The story of how Crispin Glover sued Universal for using his likeness in the sequel, as well as the casting of Jeffrey Weissman to “stand-in” for Crispin’s 1955 scenes in Part II.

– Stunt woman Cheryl Weaver’s near-death experience when a stunt went horribly wrong, and her subsequent lawsuit for compensation.

These stories along with Stoltz’s termination, feel like the major tent poles of the book, but he also peppers the book with plenty of material from his interviews, to keep you turning pages.

Harry Waters, Jr, as Marvin Berry

One that was particularly interesting, was some backstory on Harry Waters, Jr, who played Marvin Berry, the lead crooner of The Enchantment Under The Sea dance’s live band (and cousin to a Mr Chuck Berry, in the film’s universe). Waters explains about his casting process, as well as his surprise when he was asked to actually record/perform the vocal tracks for the big Earth Angel dance number for the film.

My original thought regarding the book when I first heard about it, was that it was only going to cover the first film, but I was surprised to read that It also covers topics from the film’s sequels, let alone provides information beyond 1990, sharing stories of others who took their love of the film,and turned it into something more.

Those who come to the book expecting lots of dirty laundry and mud-slinging, may not be the appropriate readers for Mr Gaines’ book. We Don’t Need Roads reads like a book written by a fan, who knows that there are others out there like him, who always want a little more. As well, it won’t leave newcomers to the Back to the Future behind-the-scenes world in the dust. They’ll be just as entertained by what they find, and it may open them up to explore the myriad other behind-the-scenes materials that many of us fans have known about for years.

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As a self-proclaimed Entertainment Nut, I am often incensed and a little sad that most of the cool stuff that I’d love to see, rarely ever makes its way to my neck of the woods. However, I jumped into action when I found out Caseen Gaines would be talking about, and signing his new book at Quimby’s Bookstore nearby.

Author Caseen Gaines at Quimby’s Bookstore, discusses some of what his latest book uncovers about Back to the Future.

Caseen had visited here before, and told us that when coming, he liked to bring “toys” to the event. This time, his items included a replica of Marty Jr’s hat from Back to the Future Pt II, as well as a costume-pair of Marty’s 2015 Nike shoes.

Hearing him express his candid thoughts on what he experienced, as well as his recollections about writing his other books, I quickly found myself being put at ease with his stories. I think it helps that Caseen is a theatrical person as well (he also works for a theatre company in New Jersey), and therefore, has a penchant for storytelling to groups of people.

Though it was a small crowd that showed up for his appearance, he definitely kept our attention, and at one point, pulled me out of the audience to help explain something that happened during filming of some scenes (probably helped that I was dressed as Doc Brown, though circa 2015).

Thanks, Caseen! See you in October at the We’re Going Back event!