At first, like a lot of people, I was disappointed that Playmates didn't pick up the Futurama license. It would have been cool to have both these series as compatible with each other as possible. It's as disappointing as Hasbro overlooking the Indiana Jones license while they do Star Wars, because in each case both sources come from the same licensor, are of similar quality and reputation, and have virtually identical appeal to fans and collectors. The assigning of Futurama to less prominent licensees also calls into question FOX's handling of the show, but then that's been in question ever since they relegated it to Sunday at 7 PM, effectively cutting its airdates per season almost in half due to football preemption. All of it is a sad fate for a show that consistently packs more entertainment per half hour than anything else on television, and has successfully brought back the combination of sharp satire and solid storytelling that The Simpsons pioneered but lost their hold on around 1997.
That rant aside, I've grown more accustomed to the idea of MAC handling this line. I've never collected a MAC line before, so I don't know what to expect in terms of quality control or availability, but I like what I'm seeing so far. I also like the fact that they present competition to Playmates. Whether or not sales of this line could ever outstrip The Simpsons, with a 12-year legacy and daily syndication reruns backing it up, I think Playmates has pride in their name and wouldn't let another company make them look bad. That possibility is there considering some of the things MAC is doing differently....
One of the bigger differences and certainly the biggest drawback for MAC is the lack of voices. The voices on the Simpsons line are at the center of its marketing and have helped draw a lot of attention to the line. Everyone loves the quality of the voices, although the kind of playsets you have to buy to make them work is sometimes questionable. But talking has never been a make or break feature for an action figure line. It's a novelty, a gimmick, fun at first, but you can only push the button so many times before it gets boring. There's nothing all that innovative about Playmates' voice quotes. In this day and age of high technology, they would have had to shoot for Furby-like interactivity to impress, a feature they clearly try to imply in their slogans but do not provide. I can download voice quotes on my computer and hear them at the push of a button if I want. The action figures themselves are where the majority of appeal for the collector comes in.
On the level of action figures, MAC has a distinct advantage over Playmates, namely, articulation. MAC gets lots of points for lots of points on Fry and Leela, with what appears to be neck, waist, wrist, elbows, biceps, shoulders, knees, thighs, and hips. These are real action figures. MAC wins 16 to 4 against Playmates. I'm not sure about Bender, but then I'm not sure what they could do for him besides rubber bendy limbs, which usually come out cheap-looking and can never really be straightened perfectly. Playmates made a big compromise on articulation to keep the price down, making Simpsons some of the least articulated figures on the market today. That decision would have bothered me even more if they had got the Futurama line. Futurama is a much more action-oriented show, with lots of running, jumping, shooting, and fighting along with the humor. The Simpsons characters are basically a huge collection of fat couch potatoes who wouldn't be much more flexible than the Playmates figures in real life. Although that is one more reason I would have liked the figures to be able to sit down. At any rate, if it's a choice between voices and posability, there's no way I would give up articulation on Futurama figures, but I would consider it for the Simpsons. I don't feel articulation detracts from the appearance of animated character figures significantly more than it does other types of figures, and the benefits are certainly exactly the same.
MAC is in new territory as far as I know, never having done an animated line, but their sculpting looks comparable to what Playmates has done. Fry's eyes look a little buggy and maybe too far apart, but then looking at Playmates' Homer and Bart, they look pretty much the same way. It's a hard look to capture exactly right, since even on the show the Groening characters don't always look like themselves when shown directly from the front. The Bender figure actually looks perfect, and the hair and body shapes on all look very well done. I do wish they had sculpted Leela with a half-closed eye, which is a frequent look for her and more dramatic. Playmates has gone too far with sculpting in "active" facial expressions, like on Milhouse, Lisa, Krusty, and Barney, but I think it's important to give some characters a less basic, more expressive look, especially in the area of the eyes, or in Leela's case, the eye. Homer and Fry look appropriate when spaced out, but not every character should look completely sedate.
In the area of playsets, MAC is giving us mini 3D backdrops for each figure. It's hard to say whether these are better or worse than Playmates' playsets. With MAC we'll get an interesting display themed for every single figure, not just a select few. But with Leela, they seem to have concocted a non-canon, more generic backdrop, and it may be hard to find good ones for other figures too. While Playmates can sort of capture a location, MAC won't really be able to attempt that. Neither of them are big enough to do that really well though, and at least MAC won't be trying.
Accessories are another area both seem comparable. Each seem to be coming with a handful of accurate accessories lifted right from the show, and sometimes even pets. At least some of them can be held by the figures. MAC has done some impressive stuff, with a Nibbler complete with litter box and dark matter, that looks like he might even be partly articulated. The toy lines are lucky that the shows work lots of distinctive items into the storylines, and it's good they've taken advantage of it.
In the area of vehicles you can hardly compare. The Simpsons are doing a car with molded-in figures, while MAC has opted to do what looks like a Galoob Action Fleet-type mini Planet Express ship. Both companies are backed into a corner in this area and can't do much better at this point. I'm curious to see how featured the Express ship is, but it doesn't look too promising to me, and doesn't even come with any micro figures. I'm not too thrilled about the Simpsons car either, where I am hoping for more features than just voices.
One key area I almost forgot is price. Playmates has got the market cornered on this one. You can't beat $4.99. I believe MAC's Buffy figures in this scale retail for $9.99 at the lowest, which is definitely a stretch. I'm afraid that would hurt the success of this line significantly. You really are getting a lot with the articulation and the large display backdrops. But if they could get these down to $7.99 they would be right on target.
Yet another area is that of the secondary figures and products. Here MAC has totally blown away Playmates as far as I'm concerned, with the 8" Nibbler. The only thing on Playmates' plate that compares is the Evil Krusty Doll, but for some reason this rumored product did not show up at Toy Fair. A shame, since it would sell a lot better than their talking rag dolls and computer accessory gimmick figures. Large action figures can be all the small ones are and more. Any opportunity to make a toy that's practically a life-size version of the character should not be overlooked. 8" Nibbler might be a little small but he'll pass. He'll be one of the coolest figures of this type since the 1984 large Stripe and Gizmo from Gremlins. This product is for sure a chance only someone like MAC or McFarlane would have been willing to take, not Playmates or Hasbro.
One last weird area would be that of the special mail-away and exclusive figures. Simpsons started out with a gimmick repaint Homer, although this year is doing something more interesting with a newly sculpted Pin Pal Mr. Burns. MAC's kind of in the same boat, apparently with a Chef Bender on the drawing board with nothing more than new accessories, but also a new body sculpt of Leela...in a leather dominatrix outfit of all things! Unless I've forgotten something, this is non-canon for the show, and not particularly in character. I wish they had done her in her bikini from A Flight to Remember instead. At any rate, I'm not going to turn my nose up at any scantily clad Leela figure, but less blatant pandering to the fanboy contingent would be appreciated.
So, overall, I think I'm now actually happy with how these licenses have played out. MAC seems like a capable company, and they've clearly already made some better decisions than Playmates. Playmates is not as likely to make any huge blunders, but they're also less likely to take any chances. The competition is not going to be a bad thing for either line. I'm sure Playmates' Simpsons will last longer and produce more characters faster than MAC's Futurama, although I hope MAC has a big surprise success here, especially if they can get these down to a competitive price. I'll enjoy listening to my Simpsons figures while posing my Futurama figures, and I'll enjoy looking at them all. If the two lines don't exactly fit together, that's pretty much how Matt Groening intended it anyway.
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