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Official Article

Kenner Action Toy Guide '91

Sometimes the anticipation of what can be is even more exciting than the real thing. I found this to often be the case when I would admire the back of an action figure box growing up. Seeing the complete line of figures, vehicles and playsets was my version of “Window Gazing”. Looking at those images caused me to daydream about a life with toys I would never have or cause me to concoct an elaborate plan to obtain that one holy grail item. If the back of the box was a standard menu, the Kenner Action Toy Guide was the full buffet that proved my eyes were way too big for my stomach.

Packaged exclusively with vehicles or playsets, this magical booklet made me salivate over the ideas that the toy geniuses responsible for the original Star Wars, Super Powers and M.A.S.K. toy lines had hiding up their sleeves. With no internet, the only way we only knew what action figures were available was by sifting through the toys on the racks and occasional schoolyard rumor, so Action Toy Guide was like getting “inside information” for the young collector. To re-live the excitement I recently obtained the 1991 edition of the guide and boy was it a doozie. Ready to flip through the pages with me? Then let’s go! Page 1 starts off with a bang, it’s Batman in 3 plastic dimensions!

Wedged in between the release of Batman ’89 and Batman Returns, The Dark Knight Collection was Kenner’s attempt to keep Bat-Mania thriving and boy did they put Toy Biz to shame. To me this was the level of action figure artistry that Tim Burton’s film deserved, with detailed muscles, shiny paint and head sculpts that actually looked like Michael Keaton’s Batman. I personally owned the transforming Bruce Wayne with snap on Bat-Costume, because transformations are my favorite element of the super hero genre. I always thought the stylized bat logo design on his turtle neck was odd, but cool. I also had the Power Wing Batman that came with a weird, bat-shaped suction cup hover board. At least that’s the way I always used it. The Dark Knight Collection also had a full line of vehicles.

First of all, the color scheme of The Joker and his Joker Cycle is amazing. Basically a throwback to Caesar Romero from the 1966 TV show, it was wild fun and the Batmobile was so cool, since actual firing missiles seems like something you just don’t see any more in the world of toys. Liability? Lawsuits? In the 90’s we weren’t concerned with such things, just let me launch that Bat-Missile at my sister's face! One thing Kenner became famous for was re-purposing toys from other lines to create new ones and the Bat Jet is the perfect example. It’s actually just a Sprinthawk vehicle from the Silverhawks toy line painted black. Pretty crazy, huh? This won’t be the last instance of Kenner’s “creativity” you encounter on our journey today.

Swamp Thing was going through a short-lived bit of popularity in 1991 with the release of The Return of Swamp Thing starring Heather Locklear (one of my favorite films), a spin-off TV series and Saturday morning cartoon, so it made sense to throw some action figures into the mix. Whether or not you cared about the character, these were just plain awesome toys. As you can see, there were 4 different variations of the titular hero with one glowing in the dark, another changing color in water, a third that broke into pieces and my personal favorite, the retracting “Snare Arm”! Nothing was more fun to a 9 year old Hoju Koolander than inserting a pretzel stick into Swampy’s hand and squeezing his legs to reel it in. That’s entertainment, folks!

Swamp Thing had a group of mutants to fight, but they all seemed pretty generic me. What I did appreciate was the absurdity of giving Swamp Thing a playset. He lives in a swamp! All a kid needs is to run the hose on the grass for 2 minutes and it's practically the bayou. Instead they created a moss covered mound with a rising platform and plastic flowers attached to it. I mock the “Swamp Trap” playset, but I totally owned it and those plastic flowers were found in junk drawers for years afterwards. What really convinced me to buy it was the “Vine Snare” that let you snag the bad guys by the ankle and feed them to a Venus Fly Trap. What can I say, I’m a sucker for retractable ropes in toys. Next up, it’s Kevin Costner!

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves is one of those movies I have no desire to go back and watch, but at the time of its release I considered it a “classic”. The film had plenty of tie-ins, with “Everything I Do, I Do It For You” by Bryan Adams being a major radio hit and there was an infamous “arrow” shaped breakfast cereal, but the toy line was pretty much ignored. It kind of makes sense though, the film was really the cinematic equivalent of music by Kenny G. There’s a reason they call it “adult contemporary”, kids were staying miles away from it. Not that there was much to get excited about in the action figures, because as it turns out “Prince of Thieves” was a very apt title.

Sure, they sculpted some heads to look like Kevin Costner and Christian Slater for the character figures, but the vehicles were all hijacked from the Ewoks on Endor! You heard right, Robin Hood’s “Battle Wagon” and “Bola Bomber” were straight from the Star Wars Return of the Jedi/Power of the Force lines, with the only difference being that Wicket and his furry buddies pummeled Storm Troopers instead of the Sherriff’s evil soldiers. What’s more, “Sherwood Forest” was the famous Ewok Village playset with a few treetop attachments thrown on to disguise their laziness. Kenner must have figured, “Hey, Kevin Costner didn’t even attempt a British accent in the film, why should we try any harder than him?” The funniest part is that they went so far as to promote the products with little banners labeled "NEW!" Oh, brother.

Doing research for my article featuring a visit to the filming sites of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, I became aware of the animated cartoon the movie inspired, which actually featured the voices of the original cast (at least in the first season). This cartoon also had an accompanying breakfast cereal and action figure toy line. Historical Dudes like Ghengis Khan and Abraham Lincoln joined Wyld Stallyns in making music that would change the universe by being packaged with musical instruments, but what made these toys truly unique was that you could actually plug them into a stereo playing an accompanying audio tape with original tunes and play rock star for an afternoon. It's an "excellent" gimmick that was one part Jem and one part Teddy Ruxpin. The whole deal somehow passed me by in my youth, even though I counted the films among my favorites. If only I had seen this Action Guide sooner!

Another unique set of toys were those inspired by another Tim Burton movie, 1988’s Beetlejuice (that's once)! It may seem strange to release toys based on a movie 3 years after its release, but what really got the (ahem) juices flowing again was the Beetlejuice (that's twice) cartoon series. It changed the “ghost with the most” from a sleazy opportunist into a misunderstood rascal who kids could appreciate. Hence this series of figures whose main action feature was a removable head piece. I am pretty impressed that Otho got a figure, but it’s strange that Winona Ryder’s proto-Goth, Lydia did not. What’s up with that? As strange as these toys are, stranger is how I ended up with quite few to call my very own.

In 1992 during our annual visit to my grandparents house in small town Utah, I stopped into the second hand mom & pop sporting goods store on Main Street and got a big surprise. Pushing past the dusty ski boots and golf clubs I found a box of action figures discounted to $2 a piece!  Not only that, they were figures I never even knew existed. It was such a thrill, I ran back to ask my Dad for the $8 necessary to buy out their entire stock and he agreed.  I would kill for that experience again, that’s the kind of stuff I live for. Ultimately I ended up with the Alec Baldwin figure featuring a head that slid down his arm, Shish-Kebab variant of old crusty face that you poked swords through and Vanishing Vault playset, wherein a full-size figure was put inside a bed, tucked under the covers and then you pulled out a shrunken version of the figure. Weird and wonderful, that’s how I choose to remember Kenner's version of Beetlejuice (that's three, Iiiiiiiiiiiit's Showtiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime!).

From ghoulish hucksters to The Real Ghostbusters we go. 1991 was sadly the death knell of this once celebrated toy line, after the lackluster response to Ghostbusters 2 in 1989 (another one of my favorites) the writing was really on the wall. You can pretty much tell they were out of ideas by this point, settling for brighter re-paints of the original figures with ghosts attached to their faces. It was nice that they gave Rick Moranis a chance to shine by immortalizing the former Keymaster, Lewis Tully, in plastic form, but bringing the classic Universal monsters into the line was a bad move. Ghostbusters toys had been known for creating unexpected original ghouls like Granny Gross, so throwing a standard Dracula at us was really nothing to get excited about. The line may have ended with a whimper, but the Firehouse playset is still one of the best toys ever.

The guide also features a few pages of Starting Lineup toys, but for some reason they just listed team logos rather than showing the action poses of the figures themselves. Not that I had much to say about them anyway, but I was always amazed at how many players got a chance to be turned into fully sculpted trading cards. It was a pretty cool deal.

Well that about does it. I hope you enjoyed revisiting some classic and even some forgotten toys of the early 90's. So tell me, how many of these did you own for yourself? Did you have the same affinity for promotional pictures of toys that I did?

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Benjanime Posted on Jul 12, 2019 at 03:07 AM

if i recall, 1991 was when both the beetlejuice and ghostbusters cartoons ended, so it's kind of odd seeing toylines coming out at such a late time, especially when the real ghostbusters was starting to have really bad episodes late in the series.

MissM Posted on Mar 17, 2015 at 04:43 AM

I loved it when Kenner would do that! Their Ripley figure from the Alien toy line would get reused again for the Karen figure from the Congo toy line. I remember just being mind blown when that happened. I hadn't realized that parts would be reused for different toy lines. Obviously parts reuse made sense in the same toy line, but it was always a fun surprise.

I loved the Beetlejuice toy line, I had so many of these. I still do for the most part. Beetlejuice was big business back then. I am with you though, it always bugged me that there was never a Lydia figure. She was one of the most integral characters on the show! lol Just crazy.

Your mention of the booklets and images of other products was exciting for me too. I loved nothing more than looking at everything available and imagining the worlds I could play in if I could just own it all. lol

Hoju Koolander Posted on Mar 07, 2015 at 02:20 PM

@pikachulover Of course you do! If your collection ever goes up on eBay I'll be the first in line to snag your Phroompf doll and those booklets at a "reasonable price".

@Vaporman87 That's a good point. From my research there was a Napoleon figure in the Bill and Ted line that never actually made it to store shelves. Not that the kids were really clamoring to get a tiny dictator to re-enact historical battles with.

@NLogan Leave it tour resident detective to pull this one out. I was actually going to mention that in the article, but I figured 2 paragraphs was more than enough for a toy line most of us ignored. It is hilarious though. Mattel pulled a similar stunt when they repurposed a bunch of The New Adventures of He-Man toys for the Demolition Man figures a few years later.

NLogan Posted on Mar 06, 2015 at 10:27 PM

Don't forget that under Friar Tuck's robes was a Gammorean Guard body!

Vaporman87 Posted on Mar 06, 2015 at 07:56 PM

I love this type of promotional material. Sometimes you are given glimpses of products that never made it to the final stages. Perhaps interest fell off before the stuff could make out of the manufacturing facility, or some legal issue popped up. I know Trendmasters put out a promo book prior to them folding with images of what was supposed to come. I was particularly interested in the Godzilla: Doom Island line that saw limited distribution overseas but never made it to final worldwide distribution.

pikachulover Posted on Mar 06, 2015 at 03:33 AM

I have the 1992 book with Terminator and the Starting Lineup figures. The '92 book has the individual athletes. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Batman are in the '92

The ones for girl's toys were equally as good. I collect things like that. Pamphlets and backcards.

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