Bratz still thriving amidst the criticismz

As a mom to a girl I have to say that Bratz make me cringe. Everything about them makes me want to lock my daughter in the attic until she’s 35. The clothes. The big cosmetic-surgery-gone- wrong lips. The suggestion that all of life’s problems can be solved through shopping. I just can’t seem to find any redeeming value in the dolls, myself.

But I know my views may be a little totalitarian, and I know that plenty of moms are okay with Bratz and it’s unlikely that I’m 100% right and they’re 100% wrong. (Just don’t tell my kids. If the kids ask, I am always 100% right.)

So with the new Bratz movie coming out I thought I’d try to keep an open mind and check out the buzz; maybe I’d overlooked something. As per my usual, I started over at Rotten Tomatoes to get a feel for what the reviewers thought.

Ah, yes. Well. When I checked, the Tomatometer was hovering around 9%. As in, 91% of reviewers thought it was awful. Whoops.

So then I hopped on over to the Boston Globe to get the lowdown, and reviewer Ty Burr doesn’t hold back:

If you ever wanted a movie to put in the time capsule so future generations can puzzle over the bankruptcy of our current kiddie culture, “Bratz” is it. A live-action film based on a line of dolls, it’s pure marketing chum for tweeners: a proudly shallow, purposefully bland ode to girly-girl narcissism. I could actually feel my brain stem shrivel up as I watched it.

Sadly, that’s about the nicest thing he had to say. It got worse from there.

Still, another writer delving into the Bratz phenomenon opened her piece by admitting the incredible pull the dolls seem to have:

The Bratz universe was humming along as usual this week at the Toys “R” Us flagship store in Manhattan. Like bees to honey, little girls buzzed about shelves lined with those famous pouty dolls with huge heads, plush lips to put Angelina to shame, and bared, toned midriffs.
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There was much to choose from: Bratz Babyz. Bratz Kidz. Fashion Pixiez. Magic Hair. Bratz Spiderman 3. Bratz Shrek. The Bratz RC cruiser. Alarm clocks, CDs, video games. “I love it!” one girl cried, actually jumping for joy. “Look at all the makeup!”

The article goes on to say that the actresses in the movie dress “more wholesomely” than the dolls, because if they wore similar clothing they’d look “sleazy.” Psssst! I’m pretty sure that if the girls would look sleazy in those clothes, probably the dolls already do.

Bottom line? The movie is atrocious, many parents find the dolls representative of ideas and fashions we don’t want for our children, and yet the brand is still wildly popular and selling well.

I don’t get it. Maybe they can hypnotize people with those big, vapid eyes.

Which matters more, the movie or the toys?

I’ve talked before about the love/hate relationship I have with children’s toys based off of popular movies and shows. Some of the toys are awesome; saying “toys with commercial tie-ins are bad” is far too broad of a brush. On the other hand, I’ve not been shy about sharing my opinion on the omnipresence of junky little toys *cough*cough*Happy Meals*cough*cough* along with each new feature film. And really, tying in favorite characters with the consumption of junk food is a whole ‘nother topic for another time.

Nevertheless, the reality is that the production of licensed merchandise isn’t just changing the world of children’s playthings, it’s changing media production companies, as well.

Want to learn more? Go read Toy Story 3: The Cash-In over at Times Online. Author Kevin Maher had me right from the intro:

I blame the Decepticons. Although they attempt to destroy humanity in Michael Bay’s Transformers, what they signify to the wider movie-going world is far more sinister. By their presence alone — as living toys in a toy-friendly movie adapted from a toy-tie-in cartoon based on a vaguely innovative 1980s toy — they represent the reductio ad absurdum of mainstream cinema’s increasingly obsessive relationship with, well, toys.

The article runs the gamut from current offerings to the pivotal moment that may have kicked off the current climate of toy tie-ins:

In 1977, when [George Lucas] chose to take Star Wars merchandising profits rather than box-office receipts, he set a modern movie precedent. The merchandising wave that followed peaked with the likes of ET, Batman and Jurassic Park (which famously included a shot of Jurassic Park toys in the Jurassic Park souvenir shop).

(I always knew that Lucas guy was smart.)

The entire article is well worth the read, but if you—like me—are often inclined to think ill of the “mainstream” media spewing its commercialism everywhere, pay attention in particular to this bit:

Becky Ebenkamp of the marketing trade magazine Brand-week, suggests that these same toys might just be the very reason why we get to see films such as Broke-back Mountain and Syriana. “Hollywood studios need to have a movie that’s toy-friendly out there,” she says. “These movies are the ones that carry the studios for the rest of the year. That means they carry the smaller films, and the so-called indie films too.”

In other words, the Transformers water blaster pays for the production of Flags of Our Fathers.

That may make it a little easier to swallow the next time your kid starts begging for some plastic monstrosity you’d rather pretend you didn’t see.

Hasbro wants you to monkey around

I think it’s fitting that I came across this right after we were talking about the dramatic increase in children’s toys/ entertainment having an online component. It’s like I’m psychic, or something! Except not really.

Anyway, it turns out that Hasbro has recently launched a couple of interactive websites for kids, Monkeybar TV and Monkeybar TV Jr. Both sites allow kids to play games online; the main site also links off to videos (most often commercials, it seems) which you can view.

The “junior” site is geared towards preschoolers “and their parents,” which, thank goodness, because heaven knows that four-year-olds need to spend more time online, and why go visit PBSKids.org or Discovery Kids when you could take your small child online somewhere that they’ll surely end up begging you to buy something?

Ahem.

Look, there’s no denying that this is a brilliant marketing move on Hasbro’s part. The market for this sort of thing is hot right now, and giving today’s ‘net-savvy kids yet another avenue to worship various brands is only going to increase Hasbro’s sales.

On the other hand, with so many places for kids to get online and play, already, can Hasbro step in and claim the attention of these kids?

Viv from Cool Moms Rule says yes:

I thoroughly enjoyed all the activities I tried out over at MonkeyBarTV.com, and there were lots more I could have selected.

In addition to the free games and videos, there are contests and tournaments (some of which require registration) and—of course—plenty of links to the Hasbro store where you can find any and all of the associated products you simply must have, Moooooom, please please please.

The few games I looked at seemed like they would be fun, but the site as a whole seemed oddly familiar until I pulled it up side by side with the Cartoon Network home page. (Oh well; you know, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!)

If you see some brand lines on the Hasbro site that your child really loves, and you feel like he or she can enjoy the games without succumbing to the not-so-subliminal message of “buy more stuff,” then you might want to check Monkeybar TV out. Otherwise, you may just want to stick to the kid-friendly sites you already know and love.

Playful Perspectives: Toys that interact online

Playful Perspectives is a new feature wherein your intrepid Toy Box Mommy (that’s me) and The Toy Guy jointly tackle a topic to give you twice the insight and perhaps slightly different takes on an issue.

Once upon a time, there were toys. They required children to put their hands on them and use their imaginations, and they were very good. There were also board games and games like marbles, which required children to interact and think, and they were also very good.

Eventually the internet came along, and then after it had invaded pretty much everyone’s homes, it provided online kid-appropriate games, and they were good, too. (My children are particularly fond of Chuzzle.)

Now we have toys that used to require hands-on and imaginative play which now require logging on to the computer and doing things online in order to “play” with them. Webkinz, Bella Sara and Test Tube Aliens come immediately to mind, for example. It’s a trend that’s expanding and isn’t going away anytime soon.

Me, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I love it when my kids resort to more “old-fashioned” play, preferably the kind that has them running around, getting exercise, and tiring themselves out. On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of truly educational and fun, clever online options which are absolutely wonderful for today’s net-savvy kids.

But I do think it’s time for kids to get a taste of their own medicine, too. So I’d like to suggest a few new toys to the big toy manufacturers.

Webkinz Barbie. When you take this Barbie out of the box, she whines that she hasn’t been allowed to play Webkinz in days and her monkey needs more kibble. Set her at the included desk and she logs on and ignores everything you say. Periodically she shrieks with glee and tells you she just won a bundle playing Cash Cow. Your child must log in to Webkinz and add her as a friend to get her to respond to them at all, and then she will play online with them but respond “that’s boring” to any game suggestion that takes place outside of Webkinz. Suggested retail price: $19.99.

Test Tube Pokemon. Each tube of glop must be fed a steady diet of tiny plastic creatures before morphing into a new breed of Pokemon right before your eyes. Holding the hatched creature up to your computer screen when logged on to the command center site allows your pet to learn how to say its name over and over again in a series of increasingly annoying high-pitched whines. Depending on the message sent to it, your creature will either disappear under the bed or become wedged in-between the seats in the car within one week. Suggested retail price: $4.99 (so that you’ll buy a bunch of them).

Heely Island. These magnificent wheeled shoes allow your child to skate along most any surface, as well as logging on to a mystical world where they can skate into other children at full speed without fear of grounding. Instead, some children will form gangs, while others will be voted off the island and sent away on an iceberg. Great for building social networking skills! Suggested retail price: $1500. Tell them to start saving their allowance now.

Yes, once again I wonder why I haven’t been snapped up by the toy development industry. I clearly understand the business and have a unique visionary perspective.

What do you think about the recent spate of internet-tie-in type toys? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? And don’t forget to go check out The Toy Guy’s take!

A gaming phone is coming… maybe

If there’s one thing I like more than technology, it’s new technology slapped on top of old technology!

Well, no. Not really. But take, for example, the very popular cellular phones that double as MP3 players. I don’t see the lure, myself, but I’m apparently in the minority. I see a lot of teens with them. Me, I like my phone to be a phone and my MP3 player to be an MP3 player and… well, you get the idea. But I do use the calendar on my phone, so maybe I have some weird double standard of what I believe a cellular phone ought to be able to do.

In actuality, I think I’m somewhat opposed to anything that makes a cell phone more appealing to kids. It’s not that I don’t like (love) cell phones, it’s that I dislike the marketing that makes children want them. Kids shouldn’t need cell phones. Kids should be climbing trees and riding bikes and not pestering me for a phone.

Anyway, it appears that Sony may be gearing up to cross-breed their PSP technology with mobile phones. I love how the article characterizes Sony’s position as complete denial, though:

Sony Ericsson has filed a U.S. patent application for a mobile device with video game features, but said on Monday it is not poised to launch a phone based on its PlayStation Portable (PSP) video game brand.

[...]

“We’re continually evaluating other propositions but they have to be credible propositions. We’re not interested in sticking parts on phones that destroy the brand equity that’s been built up by Sony,” Sony Ericsson spokeswoman Merran Wrigley said by phone on Monday.

So, basically, they’ve filed for the patent but don’t want us to think they’re actually doing anything with it. That makes sense.

My understanding of industry-speak is a little rusty, but I think this means one of two things. Either they haven’t found the partner willing to shell out the big bucks they want, yet, or whatever they’ve come up with so far is really terrible. Either way, I’m unbothered.

In fact, I think I’ll go dig through my recycling. I’ve got a couple of tin cans in there, and if I can find some string, I can tell the kids I decided to get them their very own phones!