The Phantom Menace

There was great excitement among Star War fans when the Phantom Menace was released in 1999, more than 20 years after the first Star Wars film. Now there was a new hero, a young lad destined to become Darth Vader. This was a prequel and Luke, Leia and Han were not yet thought of. Instead there were characters like the fearsome Darth Maul with a scarlet and black face and devil type-horns. Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi Master and a beautiful handmaiden called Padme Naberrie and Queen Amidala were the stars of this movie.

The toys from Phantom Menace soon ousted the memorabilia from the previous trilogy. The shops were filled with mugs, books, rucksacks, pencil cases, sweet tins and mousemats bearing pictures of Darth Maul, Anakin Skywalker, Queen Amidala, Qui-Gon Jin and, most of all, Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar was everywhere; for a while he seemed to be the ‘in’ figure from the film, the crazy character kids would go for. That’s what the manufacturers had hoped and they were completely wrong. Darth Maul turned out to be the hit and when the first wave of action figures arrived, it soon transpired that there were not enough to meet the demand.

These action figures were brilliant because they could talk, an innovation which was made possible by a battery operated device called a ‘Commtalk Reader’ which resembled a mobile phone.  This gadget cost caround £20 and came with a demonstration chip plus a chain to hold extra chips as they were acquired.  Each four inch tall action figure was packaged with a transparent oblong chip containing several phrases from the film.  The chip had a small peg onto which the figure fitted, and when the chip was placed over the reader it was activated, making it sound as though the figure was speaking.  Several chip messages could be stored, so that characters could interact and each chip had a hologram of the character it featured.  Two buttons on the reader made lightsaber and blaster sounds.

The figures were made by Hasbro.  Highly detailed with plenty of highlighting, realistic looking plastic clothing and good facial likeness to the screen characters, they included Darth Maul, Jar Jar Binks, Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Later, more were added.  There was some clever marketing – the Battle Droid could be obtained in four guises, ranging from perfect to severely battle damaged and, of course, real fans would need the entire set.

Many of the vehicles were spectacular.  With the tremendous advances which had been made in plastics technology and paint techniques since the release of the original Star Wars toys in the 1970s, the new vehicles really did resemble those from the film.  Several small models, approximately six inches long, were available.  They were intended to hold one action figure and included Sebulba’s Podracer, Anakin Skywalker’s Podracer and a Trade Federation Droid Fighter.  Larger ships, such as the very elegant yellow and silver Naboo Starfighter, had extra features, like light and sound, lift-up cockpits and torpedo launchers. 

One of the most popular items were a series of animated saving boxes which not only had sound, but moved and interacted with each other.  Manufactured by Tinkway Toys, these Interactive Talking Banks featured beautifully made figures of Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan.  They uttered phrases such as ‘You will be a Jedi, I promise’, and ‘The Council has granted me permission to train you’, as they performed combat actions with their lightsabers.  The units played the theme music from the film, too.

The other toy in the series was a modern day automaton.  Featuring Jar Jar Binks, it showed the zany creature performing the strangest dance, a kind of hyped up Twist to the music from the Cantina scene in the original Star Wars movie.  Very clever and extremely noisy!

With girls in mind Hasbro produced an excellent range of Queen Amidala dolls.  Ultimate Hair Queen Amidala allowed children to recreate the fantastic hair styles from the film as she came complete with a collection of hair combs, clips and other accessories.  Hidden Majesty Queen Amidala had a servant girl mask so that the Queen could be revealed as her alter ego character.  The Portrait Edition Collector’s Series of Amidala, featuring the Queen in elegant black or red gowns, were very lovely, though expensive,  at around £50.  In addition, 12 inch figures of the main characters were available, and some, such a Qui-Gon Jinn looked very like their screen images.  The slightly smaller model of Anakin was particularly realistic. 

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