Friday, March 19, 2010

Polly Pocket and Mighty Max

What better toy to give curious young oral fixators than a little compact full of tiny, swallowable, and potentially delicious component pieces? These things were a choking hazard waiting to happen. In some cases, it didn't wait; it just hacked and coughed and received the child-size version of the Heimlich Maneuver. Yech.

Even with the building safety concerns over offering children protozoan-proportioned playthings, Polly Pocket and Mighty Max quickly became some of the most popular toys around. It seemed kids just couldn't get enough of the pocket-sized playsets. A brief choking stint was more than worth it in exchange for a chance to carry around an entire action figure universe in your pocket. I mean, really.

The concept behind Mighty Max and Polly Pocket was roughly the same mold adjusted for preset gender stereotypes. Both play sets featured small plastic cases that opened into a miniature dollhouse or action figure setting. Inside the fun chamber lay a slew of tiny hard plastic figurines and movable set pieces. There were all types of different scenarios and settings, but these toys were generally appealing on the basis of their small-size gimmick.

Unfortunately, their extreme portability made Mighty Max and Polly Pocket pieces extremely prone to loss. At approximately an inch or so in height, these toys were probably too small to be entrusted in the care of small children. Once you lost the main characters, the entire playset was rendered utterly useless until your parents came through with replacements. All in all, probably not the most well thought-out children's toy venture.

Logic aside, these things were hot sellers; their tininess was a novelty on which we couldn't afford to miss out. We could take these things anywhere. It was a pretty creative idea, of course: a dollhouse that fits in your pocket. It's like the doll version of a smartphone. Something that used to be a sedentary activity with a lot of bulky hardware was reduced to a convenient pocket-sized item that works on-the-go. Not totally necessary, but once someone has one we've all got to scramble for ownership.

The premise may have been the same for the Polly Pocket and Mighty Max toys, but the nature of the miniature worlds were vastly different. I was a Polly Pocket girl myself, but after further examination of the Mighty Max product line, I'm feeling just a smidgen underwhelmed with my tiny toy selection. Let's take a quick peek at what Mattel had to offer us, shall we? I think you might get an idea of what I mean.


The girls got this:


With a jazzy theme song like that, how could you deny the allure of these pearlized plastic chambers?


Whereas the boys got this:


Yes, that's right. Your eyes do not deceive you; girls get a little pink seashell-style enclosed dollhouse with a giggly cartoon spokessprite, and boys get a Skull Dungeon. In the boys' version, our hero sends a Frankenstein-esque monster plummeting to his death from the second story of the evil doctor's lair. In the girls', to contrast, our little blond darling gleefully enjoys a ride on a playground slide. Unsurprisingly, the girl version of the toy originated from a dad setting up his daughter with a super sweet makeup compact-cum-dollhouse. The boys' incarnation, we can only speculate, originated from awesome.

It may not have been a politically correct gender divide, but it was pretty standard toy marketing for the 90s. The girls got the vapid but cute dollies and boys get the guts and gore. It was just the natural McDonald's Happy Meal-style female/male breakdown.

That's not to say there was no gender cross-over with these things, though I'd put pretty strong odds that more parents felt comfortable buying Mighty Max toy sets for their daughters than Polly Pocket for their sons. There were also many, many more points of interaction available with the Mighty Max franchise. The Polly Pocket mini playshells may have come first, but the Mighty Max toys branched out into a legitimate mini-media empire.

Mighty Max became an animated TV series in 1993, following the adventures of young "Cap-Bearer" Max. Max receives in the mail a magical hat that granted him the power to transport him all over the world to fight evil in all of its monstrous cartoon incarnations. It had plenty of charm, plus it didn't hurt that Rob Paulsen provided the voice of Max. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, we're talking about the voice of Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pinky and Yakko from Animaniacs (and later Pinky and the Brain), and Throttle from Biker Mice from Mars. I know, I know. Throttle. I'll give you a few moments to gather yourself following such exciting animation revelations.



Nintendo subsequently developed the Mighty Max character into a Super Nintendo game, leaving Polly Pocket in the toy empire dust as she languished in her makeup compact-style shell shaped mini-playhouses. Mighty Max had quickly grown into a small-scale multimedia franchise. To be fair, from a Super Nintendo perspective it's way more fun to battle evil zombies than to play quietly with friends in your upstairs nursery. Polly Pocket just didn't have the cross-marketing potential to be developed into a game like this one:




In comparison, the Polly Pocket empire was far more modest. To its credit, though, it ended up the franchise with the most staying power.

So, to review. Girls donned shiny ballerina tutus to hang with Polly, Dana, Stephanie, Billy, Becky in one of these:



And boys fought nuke rangers and neutralized zomboids in one of these:



It may not be a particularly enlightened marketing strategy, but hey, it worked. We all got what we wanted, more or less. In my case, I'm tempted to say less. I could have battled the killer T-Rex in the dino lab. Instead, I lost valuable formative hours revealing wrapped stuffed animals in Polly's Party-Time Surprise. Yes, that's right; I might have ended up with aspirations to be an adventure-seeking archeologist, but instead I learned the value of always bringing a well-wrapped birthday present with a shimmery bow. Reach for the stars.

23 comments:

Midna said...

I had loads of Polly Pocket toys when I was younger. My mum posted most of them to my younger cousin when I outgrew them, but I managed to keep a few; the money box, vanity table and briefcase. I also had the pencil case but am not sure what happened to it :(

Cee said...

Have you seen the "new" polly pockets? They are just these tiny dolls with plastic clothes...no houses I don't think. But they are kinda cool.

Swoosh said...

ohh man i wanted a mighty max set so badly as a kid. my mom would never buy me one though

Natballs said...

I was fucking OBSESSED with Polly Pocket. I had almost all of them. My mom still has them!

Gwen said...

OMG!!! We were just talking about Polly Pockets the other day. They sure don't make them like they used to!!! XOXO

Heather said...

I just found my old polly pockets a few weeks ago in my parents basement!

Meg said...

I don't know if I am considered a child of the 90's, but looking through your blog you have really triggered some memories for me! I guess I would actually be a "child" of the 80's and a teenager and 20 somethings of the 90's!

Amber K. said...

I still have my Polly Pocket (the same one in your opening pic) in my old room at my parents' house! lol. If I remember correctly, I think it came with a built in stamp...

Literary Crap said...

I have about ten Polly Pocket sets. I remember being so proud that I had all the pieces and was so responsible with my tiny, choking hazard toys...except for the flower girl from the wedding one. My sister lost it somewhere in a rental car when we were on vacation.

The new non-choking hazard PP bug me. They don't fit in your pocket! They're huge!

Kate said...

Yes! I remember playing 'urban planner' with my Polly Pockets. I opened them all up, got out black, green, brown and blue construction paper, and made an entire town for them. There were roads, ponds, forests and all the Polly Pocket shells were houses.

I've been nostalgically looking for more Polly Pockets, but apparently all they make are bigger dress-up dolls now. >:(

Anonymous said...

The only Polly Pocket I ever had was out of a happy meal and was far inferior to the originals. Nonetheless, I loved the hell out of that thing. I distinctly remember constantly walking around my house singing that damned song. It's a miracle my parents never strangled me.

Sadako said...

Mighty Max even had the better song. And a cool bird thing named Virgil.

I never had any Polly Pocket stuff except for one that I got as a gift.

I also have to mention the PBS's Arthur version of PP--Polly Locket, a doll whose face opens up so that you can put a picture inside it. Somehow that feels deliciously subversive.

Shane said...

This is one of those toy lines I was really too old to be playing with, but did anyway.

I had one that was a dragon head and the rattlesnake one in the commercial.

The Mighty Max brand may be long gone, but this is one of those concepts that you could tie in with almost any property. There could have been some great potential for Avatar or Alice in Wonderland playsets for instance.

RAY J said...

Polly Pocket was soooo popular in 2nd grade - that and the Littlest Pet Shop! I remember bringing them to school and all us girls would bust out ours on the playground during recess!

I HATE how much bigger they made them - I saw em (Polly and Littlest Pet Shop) in the stores recently and they're at least 3 times the size they were when we were kids! How disappointing - the fact they were tiny was what made they aweseome!

I think still have mine somewhere in my parents basement...

Anonymous said...

After the little pocket playhouses they came out with slightly bigger ones, including a ski lodge that couldn't fit in your pocket. I also got a pair of sneaker in elementary school just because it had Polly Pocket dolls in little bubbles on the side. I couldn't wait to wear out the shoes so that I could cut out the little dolls and play with them. Unfortunately, they were no longer popular by the time those shoes were trash.

Shoshanah said...

I used to love my Polly Pockets, and my brother definitely had that first Mighty Max set you posted. They still do have Polly Pockets but she's grown massively in size. I guess choking hazard is a bigger deal now.

amber renee said...

I LOVED polly pocket -- i think i even have them in storage somewhere! from the 20sb comment group and stopping by to say hello! very happy to meet you and all of the wonderful people there. would love to swap links, be friends, etc! feel free to add your link to our link directory~ xoxo

Anonymous said...

As a boy of the '90s, I had the volcano playset in the first picture, as well as another big set that was an actual huge-ass monster with a missile-launcher arm that opened into a playset.

They were amazing.

PaperCameraScissor said...

Never heard of the mighty max.
My dd had millions of the newer polly. One time my ds stuck one of the polly shoes up his nose--thank goodness i had long nails at the time.

thanks for posting the video --brings backs memories of all the cool toys. I am a 80's girl but i still love the 90's

Meg said...

My sister & I had the not-so-portable Polly Pocket village. The houses were shaped like, well, houses, and there was a big sheet of plastic to set them up like a town, sidewalks and everything.

I kind of want to go play with them now...

G r e n o u i l l e said...

holy shit! i had many MANY mighty max's... those were good times! thanks for the post!!

Octavio Bannach said...

I loved the Mighty Max cartoon when I was a kid. I'm re-watching, It's still awesome! =B

Michelle said...

Oh gods, I remember Mighty Max now!! Even the cartoon—it’s all coming back to me now! *sings* They WERE the “Polly Pocket for boys,” and they were awesome, too. It’s a shame my brothers never had them…I did buy some boy toys (I distinctly recall one set that was some kind of floating sea research station or something…maybe it was LEGO?) I also played with my brothers’ Hot Wheels vehicles and Super Van City a LOT. However, I was an insatiable collector of Pollies, Puppy in My Pockets, Littlest Pet Shops, Pound Puppies, Barbie, etc. I loved anything to do with animals, and anything that was a house or business or town/city or other place. I was more into the miniature accessories and locations themselves than actual dolls. I’d arrange the town, decide where everybody lived and worked, and play out every kind of scenario. I had the Polly sandals, too.

Thanks to the marvelous Only Polly Pocket website, I figured out that I owned 62 Polly toys (including compacts, actual building-shaped ones, lockets, vehicles, and a magnetic playset....I currently have 22. How can I ever forgive my mom for giving away 40 of my most cherished possessions? ;_; I did own most of my favorites, but there are still SO many others that I DEARLY wish I’d gotten...and color variants, oh, the awesome color variants!! These toys were sheer genius. Now in the toy section, I tend to look for the G4 My Little Ponies and maybe one Littlest Pet Shop animal (though the new things don't deserve to bear the same name) or something Disney Princess or whatever...but truly excellent toys like these are few and far between.

Yeah, the gender divide is of course not exactly ideal…imo, neither toy line is necessarily more or less or better or worse than the other. It would depend upon the kid. I suppose Polly could be tougher to develop into a show unless you established all the characters and locations well, and could come up with enough entertaining situations taking place within and around the town (or far away...vacation episodes are almost always great...just look at I Love Lucy.)

Ideally, both girls and boys could feel free to enjoy Polly Pocket AND Mighty Max. Honestly, I guess the exciting and badarse fantasy of the latter always appealed to me, but I really loved the greater realism of PP…I recognized the places she introduced, yet her versions seemed so much more awesome than the real-world ones. I wanted to lose myself in Pocketville and go live there. I still do. So that’s precisely what I did. It was a utopia.

And what wouldn’t I do to return to my 90s childhood?? I was born at just the right time in this regard—1987. We seriously had the best of everything—TV, movies, video games, books, toys/collectibles/fads, food/drinks/snacks, etc. It’s now as if the only way to make anyone’s childhood optimal again is to raise a kid with the same stuff you had, if you can possibly find it…or to somehow force the world to revert to the ways of the 80s and 90s. The 00s and 2010s just aren’t cutting it; sorry. Nickelodeon, Lisa Frank, Disney, and other companies have made some efforts to cater to the nostalgia of their loyal older fans, but it’s not quite enough. I miss the stores that I frequented as a child (MY KINGDOM FOR A BRADLEES!!!), the clothes that I had, the general awesomeness and carefree days of being a kid and having fun all the time—okay, much of the time. *sigh*

Digg This!