”We have been chosen!” The little green Martians in Disney’s holiday hit Toy Story have but one wish: that someone will pluck them from their alien heap and take them home. Now that Toy Story has grossed $65 million in two weeks, their dream is coming true, sending parents rushing to toy stores in hopes of finding a squeaky, three-eyed creature to stuff into a Christmas stocking.
There’s only one problem. Disney didn’t make ’em.
In a marketing gaffe worthy of the Grinch, Disney’s tie-in team has — in addition to deals with the makers of Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, and Etch-A-Sketch — cranked out only some of the plush-and-plastic playthings from the computer-generated masterpiece. Namely, the stars — cowboy Woody and space ranger Buzz Lightyear, for whom there has been a huge demand. Unfortunately for the Magic Kingdom, the most striking scenes in Toy Story are based on cameo performances by stranger, scarier toys — from the Martians to the one-eyed Babyhead, who has Erector-set spider legs. ”Those are the other ones people are asking about, the ones they want,” marvels Toy Story director John Lasseter, who originally lobbied for the freakish doodads. ”It was a mistake those other characters weren’t developed.”
How did Disney slip up, especially when the home of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, a studio famous for its promotional acumen, was gearing up for an entire movie about toys? Depending on whom you ask, the reasons range from the shortsighted to the sinister. ”They did not [understand] the movie,” complains one Disney exec, who thought the appeal of mutant toys was lost on the company. ”They didn’t get it.” The high-tech visuals created by the computer animation studio, Pixar, confused Disney regulars who were used to ”simple animation and a rodent with ears.” And, says the exec, ”they’re going to pay the price for it. They’ll lose about $250 million” in total toy sales.
Chuck Champlin, the director of Disney Consumer Products, says the company was caught off guard by success. And unlike traditional Disney fare such as Pocahontas and Aladdin, Toy Story offered new challenges. ”This wasn’t a traditional look for animation, either,” says Champlin. ”By that I mean cartoon characters like those from Pocahontas or The Lion King can easily be transferred to merchandise like lunch boxes. But Toy Story characters are three-dimensional, and the production process is much more complicated.”
You can’t pin all the blame on Disney, however. Probably the most logical reason for the shortage is history: Toy manufacturers were gun-shy after the dark characters in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas tanked at toy stores in 1993. When Lasseter went to Thinkway Toys, the Toronto-based maker of Woody and Buzz, he was told the mutants would never sell. Hence Disney and Thinkway proceeded with what was safe—the movie’s heroes. ”We planned and designed the toys that we thought would work in the marketplace,” responds Thinkway Toys president Larry Chan, ”and that was Buzz and Woody.”