Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Starscream (Animated)

Transformers Animated toyline, by Hasbro, released 2008

All the old sins in all the new ways

With the financial success of the live-action Transformers movies, Hasbro sought to reboot their animated presence with a new show that not only re-imagined the Transformers and their world, but to place it far outside the shadow of Gen-1. While Gen-1 was being honored with the Classics line, a new animated series would go live on Cartoon Network.

Transformers Animated would deviate heavily from previous incarnations of the franchise, depicting a small team of military washouts trying to protect the AllSpark while stranded in Detroit. While it was determined to be a new show, it did still take cues from numerous past iterations: the show was replete with subtle (and some not-so-subtle) references to the Gen-1 continuity, while also incorporating elements from Beast Wars and the Unicron Trilogy.

Starscream, being re-imagined along with the rest of the franchise, took his place near the top of the villain pecking order. Early on, he is established to be THE main villain before Megatron’s presence is finally felt and he returns throughout the series, showing every bit the guile, manipulative intelligence, and outright vicious might, he was stated to have in Gen-1 (but showed less and less of as the series went on).

Transformers Animated had a decidedly more cartoon-y feel to it, eschewing the increasing anime look of the Unicron Trilogy, and embracing a more American animation aesthetic. Starscream was thus redrawn with a highly stylized look and feel that visually captured his own nefarious nature.
Appearance – 4 out of 5
The toy very nicely captures the look of Starscream from the show, down to the claw-like fingers and the rakish smile. The proportions of the limbs are especially worth noting because of how stylized they are in the series and how those proportions were successfully transferred to the figure itself. The one shortcoming of its look is in jet mode, where the bulk of the ship doesn’t jive with the sleek slenderness found in Starscream’s jet mode in the show, though this is a reasonable concession for the human form’s otherwise spot-on appearance.

Construction – 3 out of 5
Hasbro has a reputation for really rugged toys, but this line had to make some compromises. The plastic used to make the toys feels a little thin at times and joints are noticeably lacking in strength. This toy doesn’t quite have the heft to it you might expect and, holding it at certain angles, can make it seem almost flimsy. Make no mistake, it’s perfectly adequate – good even, when compared to other toys – but falls a little short of Hasbro’s otherwise usually high standards.

Movement – 4 out of 5
In humanoid mode, the toy moves nicely, with a lot of great action poses possible. In truth, the figure is more poseable than many action figures. The transformation sequence is especially smooth, in many ways feeling almost automated. Pull the nose of the ship forward and the arms and legs swing back almost on their own, making the figure transform in almost a single move.

Extras – 1 out of 5
The figure comes with two missiles that it fires out of its arm cannons, but otherwise includes no other additional weapons or trinkets. As stated previously, this is appropriate for the character but still is a let-down.

Packaging – 4 out of 5
The Animated line’s packaging was quite good, though a little pastel. Not anything wrong with pastels in and of themselves, but they can make for indistinct packaging art. The boxes were otherwise very sturdy and distinctively shaped, and included character information and story notes, all of which added to the experience of purchasing the toy.

Overall – 4 out of 5
This toy was right on the cusp. Giving it a four feels overly generous, but giving it a three feels unfair. It’s firmly right between an adequate toy and a good toy, but it definitely isn’t great. The look and transformation process is definitely to be praised, but the construction quality is lacking (again, at least compared to Hasbro’s standards) and the lack of additional attachments or weapons is more noticeable than usual here.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Starscream (Classics)

Transformers Classics toyline, by Hasbro, released 2006

Hasbro Knocks It Out Of The Park

In the mid-2000s, Hasbro returned to their roots with the Generation One toyline. However, they reimagined them by using modern toy construction techniques, modern modeling, and modern sensibilities and fusing them with classic characters and designs from the original series. The result was the Transformers Classics toyline, what might be argued to be one of the Hasbro’s most popular lines, marrying fan-favorite elements with approachable new sensibilities.


At this point, there isn’t much to say about Starscream that hasn’t already been said. He’s a perfect villain, capable of decimating foes and friends alike. Treachery is more than merely his calling card but a way of life. He’s so villainous that he isn’t even trusted by the other bad guys. Now THAT is a villain.

The Classics toyline was a very ambitious and well-meaning way for Hasbro to please it’s long-time fans but also invite in new fans that had either come to the franchise thanks to the live-action films (love ’em or hate ’em, they were successful) or hadn’t really even been into the franchise. It was a winner all-around; the Gen-1 fans would like the classic takes on the characters while those less rooted in the past could enjoy vibrant and colorful characters that were excellently made.

Appearance – 5 out of 5
These toys look beautiful. They are nicely reminiscent of their Gen-1 origins which is critical, but they also transform very much like the characters from that show. For Starscream (and like his Seeker brethren), his wings flip, his arms fold in, his legs combine, and his nose extends from within his chest. Just like in the show, so to does this toy deliver.

Construction – 5 out of 5
Hasbro is known for rugged toys and this one delivers. From the missiles to the wings and everything in between, the plastic is tough and durable, but also with the necessary give. The joints are solid and study, but can also pop back into place should the unthinkable happen. This is a rugged toy that can go anywhere and endure just about anything.

Movement – 4 out of 5
While this toy does a few small issues with movement, they pale in comparison to the dynamic poses that eleven joints allow this toy to take. There is a slight issue with the balance being a little awkward, with the center of gravity in robot mode being very high (almost in the shoulders), leading to a slight tendency to tip over, but the movement and flexibility more than make up for it.

Extras – 2 out of 5
The toy comes with detachable wing/arm missiles, as well as instructions for the transformation process, but that’s it. There’s no stand and no platform. While appropriate for the character and the toyline, it is unambitious for an otherwise excellent toy.

Packaging – 5 out of 5
In a word: perfect. The packaging is vividly colored, study and yet not too hard to open, and it gives a wealth of information on the character and the world he inhabits. It is replete with artwork of both robot and jet mode and is engaging to the touch. Almost everything a child (or fan) could ever want in a toy’s packaging is found perfectly executed right here.

Overall – 4 out of 5

The Classics toyline really is one of the finest toylines Hasbro has ever done, and anyone has ever done. From the construction to the colors to the packaging, everything is just perfect. There is little more you could reasonably ask from a toyline that these don’t deliver and this toy especially is a shining example of that.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Mo-Larr vs Skeletor

Mo-Larr vs Skeletor
by Mattel, released 2010, inspired by the Robot Chicken sketch of the same name

A Parody Becomes Canon…sort of

Convention exclusives such as this Comic-Con toy don’t usually get reviewed because, well, I don’t really consider them toys.  I am of the opinion that toys are meant to be played with and enjoyed and when toys are packaged specifically to be collectors’ items and are essentially meant not to be played with, and certainly aren’t meant to be played with by their target demographic (IE children), then I consider them something else entirely.  Still, I thought this set was worth discussing so here we go.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe are one of the reigning champions of the 1980s toys.  A classic example of a television show being created to sell toys, Mattel stumbled into a masterpiece by hiring soon-to-be Hollywood power players in the form of writers and directors.  Coupled with memorable, if sometimes dorky, PSAs (much like GI Joe), He-Man would become an entertainment powerhouse whose legend would endure to this day.

And then came Robot Chicken.

The irreverent Robot Chicken, started in 2005, is a sketch comedy series done using claymation and often starring classic 1980s toys (and often even using their own figures) dealing with typically very mundane issues.  Characters from He-Man have been frequent subjects of these sketches, including one widely regarded sketch about Skeletor, He-Man’s nefarious skeletal nemesis, needing to visit a dentist.  You can probably see where this is going.
Appearance – 5 out of 5
The toys are beautifully made, plain and simple.  Skeletor not only looks like he did from the original toyline, but much as he does in the inspirational comedy sketch.  The same is true with Mo-Larr, looking flawlessly like he does in the sketch and appearing in-line with how the original figures in the toyline looked.  The weapons and equipment provided are not just perfect replicas of the accessories from the original toyline, but are improved with sturdier plastic and better paints.

Construction – 5 out of 5
Much like their appearance, these toys benefit from stronger plastics and better construction.  They are hefty and sturdy not just in their frame, but also in their clothing/armor which is mobile and flexible and yet still very rugged.

Movement – 4 out of 5
The figures have numerous joints that are very sturdy and solid.  A limb moved into a position, however outlandish, stays there.  There are some slight issues with the hips and shoulders not immediately wanting to move certain ways, but these are in keeping with human anatomy.

Extras – 4 out of 5
While the chair in the diagram doesn’t come as a toy (it’s just part of the diorama), the figures have plenty to do.  Mo-Larr comes with an assortment of vague dental-looking equipment, including mirror, pick, rinsing nozzle, and even giant floss.  Skeletor, on the other hand, comes with two versions of the Sword of Destruction; one that is complete and one that is designed to combine with He-Man’s Sword of Power.  Skeletor’s Ram’s Head Staff round out the collection.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
The package doubles as a makeshift (if unambitious) diorama of the Eternian Dentist Office where Mo-Larr works.  The packaging is very evocative of the original He-Man figures and playsets, but there’s little mention of Robot Chicken anywhere on the packaging.  A few other figures are shown on the back, but it isn’t clear if or when they might be available, nor is there any real explanation as to who the characters of Skeletor and Mo-Larr are in case the recipient of the toy isn’t a He-Man fan.  Which, admittedly, isn’t likely.

Overall – 4 out of 5
This is a great little set.  Mo-Larr’s a funny character and it’s nice to see toys that are geared more at fun than being too serious.  Mo-Larr is sturdy enough to be played with as a conventional He-Man character and a Skeletor figure this mobile and this well-made is a welcome addition to any collection.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — AstroBoy

by Bandai, released 2004

The Icon of Anime gets a Toy

This week’s toy is a rare gem in that it is not part of a larger series.  The AstroBoy toyline was produced by Bandai shortly before the release of the CG adaptation of the classic anime and manga series, no doubt in an effort to drum up interest in the newest generation of fans of robot superheroes.  Why I consider this a rare gem is because this toyline disappeared about as quickly as it appeared, and with little fanfare going or coming.  But what we were left with is a fantastic toy that will hopefully stand the test of time.
If you don’t know who AstroBoy is, you probably aren’t an anime fan.  AstroBoy is to anime what classic M&Ms are to candy, Lost in Space is to science fiction, and Pong is to video games.  The series, created by Osamu ‘the Grandfather of Anime’ Tezuka, is of the same ilk as Gigantor and Speed Racer and was released in the United States alongside series like those as well as Johnny Quest and Space Ghost (the original, not the talk show).

AstroBoy is a Pinocchio-esque story about a young boy who is a robot with phenomenal superhuman powers (such as the ability to fly, super strength, etc).  Much of the series focuses on his efforts to understand humanity as it is his combating the forces of evil.  As one of the first manga series (and subsequently one of the first anime series), it established a lot of the characteristics and traits that anime would follow to this day.  The series ended in Japan with AstroBoy’s death in an effort to save the world.  It goes without saying that in the United States, the final episode was not aired.
Appearance – 4 out of 5
This is a beautiful toy that really stands out.  The action figure looks just like the character from the show, from the colors to the expression on his face to the style of his hair.  The proportions are well preserved and the anime look (notorious for not transitioning too well to ‘real’ depictions) is done very well with this toy.  The lack of textures is a small issue because, like in the manga and the series, a stylized simplicity takes precedent.

Construction – 3 out of 5
The toy is well constructed and sturdy, but there is little to stand out about the figure.  The plastic is above-average in its durability, but is far from remarkable.  There is some heft to the figure but nothing that’s really worth mentioning.  The inclusion of obvious joints and seams is what keeps this score from being a bit higher.

Movement – 5 out of 5
At first glance, it would appear that this toy is extremely mobile.  With hips, shoulders, and elbow joints, this figure looks like it can take on the world.  Upon closer inspection, though, it’s revealed that each limb has a fairly limited range of motion.  The arms can only swing up and down, from the sides to over the head (180 degrees range of motion).  But because the arms are angled, it feels much more natural.  The hips likewise have a limited range of motion that is saved by the unique angling.  The knees, though, can not only bend but can also rotate, granting the legs the appearance of a far greater range of motion than it first seems.  These little tricks to feel more ambulatory than the figure actually is makes it all the more intriguing to handle and play with.  This kind of cleverness in the design is almost more interesting than true move-any-which-way-yet-unnatural variety.

Extras – 2 out of 5
There isn’t really much extra to this toy, but that’s in keeping with the concept of the character (AstroBoy doesn’t have many gimmicks like ray guns or the like).  There is a small set of cards that are meant to activate AstroBoy’s different powers, but the cards are simple cardboard and the powers work regardless, so their inclusion is moot.

What extras there are happen to be built into the toy.  AstroBoy’s shins open up to reveal chrome mechanizations.  His chest opens to reveal his heart (which lights up with sound effects).  His left hand shoots off.  He has rockets built into his feet (yes, they fire), and when you turn his otherwise immobile head to the left, his eyes light up.  As cool as these little powers are, however, it would be nice to have some additional pieces.

Packaging – 4 out of 5
This toy has some beautiful, if simple packaging.  It’s distinctive, colorful, and it gives you all the information you need: the history of AstroBoy the franchise, the history of AstroBoy the character, a layout of his various powers and features, everything.  While there’s nothing groundbreaking, the packaging in general is just a fine example of doing everything right.

Overall – 4 out of 5
This is a fantastic toy.  It’s a little basic, what with the lack of extra parts and the unremarkably good construction, but it’s a blast to play with, has a lot of little features, and is sturdy enough to survive years of play.  Plus, it’s just fun to handle and pose, which often times makes for the best toys of all.  This is a great toy that enjoyed a limited run, but will hopefully be remembered by fans and collectors alike.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Michiko and Hatchin

Mitchiko and Hatchin
Produced by Shinichiro Watanabe and Manglobe Studios, released 2008, available on Hulu

Thelma and Louise meet Lupin the Third

When anime is mentioned, most people think of giant robots, adorable animals with special powers, hyper-dramatic martial artists with phenomenal powers.  In short, they think of sci-fi/fantasy.  And when you think of the lead of an anime show, one tends to think of the neurotic, young but well-meaning male either destined by fate or just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And when you think about anime’s settings, it’s either a future version of Japan, or modern-day Japan, befitting the Japanese origins and heart of anime.

Michiko and Hatchin is different on all counts.

A show so realistic as to be gritty and often ugly, the show revolves around two women – the criminal & recent escapee Michiko and her daughter Hatchin – as they navigate an undefined (but very Brazil-like) Latin American country.

The show is hard to watch.  Not because of any flaws, but because of its tremendous perfection in execution.  The show pulls no punches, especially when dealing with poverty and crime, both of which are rampant throughout.  The nominal heroine of the story, Hatchin, is living with an abusive foster-family in a real-world Cinderella-like story.  Michiko, upon breaking out of prison, comes and liberates Hatchin before embarking on a nigh-Quixotic quest to find Hatchin’s father and Michiko’s missing love.

But the series is far from romantic.  Michiko’s delusions about her missing boyfriend, Hiroshi, are a common theme through each episode, becoming increasingly obvious towards the end.  The search for the deadbeat dad becomes increasingly dangerous and the danger-oblivious Michiko often dives right in with little regard for those around her, even Hatchin.

It’s an ugly world found in this story, one rife with corruption, brutality, poverty, and death.  And yet, somehow, hope is everywhere.  Each episode deals with the enduring optimism that blossoms even in those harsh circumstances.  And through it all, there’s the story of a mother and daughter growing together, even as they face mounting hardships.

Story – 4 out of 5
The story is simple.  After Michiko breaks out of prison, she’s endeavoring to reunite her family.  Pretty much every episode revolves around this one goal.  But as the situation gets more complex – especially with the involvement of multiple crime syndicates – things perpetually go from bad to worse, which Michiko and Hatchin just trying to stick together and keep their heads down as they try to survive.

If there’s one shining aspect about the story, it’s that NOTHING gets glorified.  Criminals are, by and large, extremely petty and filthy things.  Sexuality is often taken to its most base forms, passing well out of anything appealing and into the realm of just being gross.  Everything is laid bare in this series, but without being overtly caustic.  It’s just the way of the world that this story takes place in.

Art – 4 out of 5
The art is deceptively good.  It isn’t hyper-stylized, but it also never devolves into exaggeration like you might see in other anime series.  Characters are always in proportion, buildings always look realistic and believable, and even the simplest objects like guns and cars appear just as they would in the real world.

Animation – 4 out of 5
Much like the art, the animation is better than it first appears.  At an initial glance, the animation seems perfectly serviceable but nothing outstanding.  But as the show goes on, it becomes clear that there’s an understated perfection at work.  Movement is very fluid and also very realistic, with none of the blockiness seen in some anime seeking to cut corners.

Characters – 4 out of 5
Like the world, the characters are all well-developed, very realistic, and really ugly.  Hatchin alone is probably the single decent human being out of an otherwise sin-filled cast.  Every character is corrupt in at least one fashion (if not an array of vices) and every character is guilty of multiple horrific acts, even Michiko.  But the trick is that none of them are ‘bad’ in isolation.  While nobody is exonerated of their ills through their story, their motivations become clear and how a person could turn into whatever monster they have become is rendered very believable, if not familiar.

Acting – 3 out of 5
Having watched the Japanese voice acting cast, I can’t speak for the English team.  I do think there may be something to be said for watching the show with Spanish-speaking actors as the show is set in South America (with signs and announcements matching the location).  While the acting was not exactly outstanding, it was definitely more than adequate.

Overall – 4 out of 5
A four doesn’t quite exemplify how important this series is and deserving of being watched it is.  Anime revolving around female protagonists are kind of rare, especially women like this.  This is not a big-eyed schoolgirl drama.  This is an crime story, set in a very realistic world.  The blemishes of reality are on full display and then some.
Many people will watch this show and not ‘enjoy’ it.
Some people will watch this show and not ‘like’ it.
Everyone will agree it’s ‘good’, and a rare gem deserving of attention.
If you want to see some female protagonists challenge our notions of women-characters and heroines, then this is a show to watch.  If you want to see a show that stretches the limits of what anime can do, then this is a show to watch.