Kenner basically became the name in action figures when it acquired the toy rights to Star Wars in 1976, a huge gamble on an unknown property—to the point that there weren’t even enough toys to meet demand upon release—that paid off in a colossal way. Throughout the 1980s, the Star Wars figures were the absolute cream of the crop of licensed toy lines. The problem, of course, was that even though it never left the public consciousness, it’s impossible to keep a toy line at the top of its game when the accompanying film series stops. After the release of Return of the Jedi, Kenner really had no choice but to switch gears. They did this with a few different franchises, after the popularity of Star Wars began to wane, first with the DC Super Powers Collection and then with The Real Ghostbusters.
As they entered the ‘90s, though, something unexpected happened. Small toy companies Banzai and Toy Biz had, essentially, struck gold. They both made deals that paid off in incredibly lucrative ways. At this point, Kenner, Mattel and Hasbro (who owned Kenner by this point) were basically the only names in action figures. Licensed properties were Kenner’s specialty in particular. But every other company wanted to recreate what they had done with Star Wars. And they nearly did. Banzai, then consisting of only around thirty people, made a deal with Saban Entertainment to make toys based on the then-upcoming Fox Kids series Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. That, of course, became a phenomenon.
Toy Biz, meanwhile, acquired all licenses to a nearly bankrupt Marvel Enterprises, hoping to essentially keep themselves afloat with toys in line with Kenner’s Super Powers Collection. They first did this almost exactly with the Marvel Super Heroes line, picking some of the best heroes and villains from across the entire Marvel Universe, giving many of these characters their action figure debuts. After Marvel Super Heroes kind of ran its course, though, Toy Biz shifted gears. They wanted to make figures based on a specific Marvel property, and so it seemed only a natural choice to take what had been one of their most successful comics throughout the 1980s (although it, too, was struggling at the time) and turn it into toy gold. That was of course X-Men, and it became a massive toy craze of the decade, with Spider-Man right behind it, both of them boosted by the success of their respective cartoon series.
Kenner kept itself afloat with the continued popularity of Star Wars and, especially, the Batman license. While Batman Returns had seen an infamously troubled merchandising campaign, the success of Batman: The Animated Series certainly kept the company on top, with both Batman Forever and Batman and Robin keeping the brand strong as the decade continued. But whereas they had nearly owned it in the ‘80s, the superhero game belonged to everyone now. Batman certainly generated huge sales, but all of a sudden, it was just one of dozens of superhero lines on the market, which meant that Kenner needed a new license to really draw attention (and dollars).
The problem was that the ‘90s (until the end, of course) didn’t really have a movie as astronomically huge as Star Wars. If anything, there were several attempts to strike that same kind of gold over again, often with disastrous results. Every studio blockbuster got its own action figure series, regardless of what it was. Sure, nowadays we’ll see almost everything get a Funko Pop or the occasional NECA special figure, but we’re talking about full toy lines with play sets and vehicles and accessories. Studios kept making these licensing deals for movies that should have seemed absurdly ill-conceived, marketing them to children, always seeming to think that they had the next Star Wars on their hands. Those included, but were not limited to: Waterworld, Congo, Wild Wild West, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Dick Tracy, The Phantom, The Shadow, Dragonheart, The Mask, Demolition Man, Independence Day, Stargate and Starship Troopers.
Kenner, naturally aware of this, bid on the license for a Universal/Amblin Steven Spielberg production that had a lot of buzz behind it, that already felt like an event long before it even came out. But it was also a property that presented a pretty large problem. The movie was Jurassic Park. The problem was that it was a film about dinosaurs, and there had been mass-market dinosaur toys for about as long as there had been mass-market toys. Kids love dinosaurs, yes, so it was an easy mark, but because of that, kids had plenty of dinosaur options long before a Jurassic Park toy series was even a glimmer in Kenner’s eye.
Thankfully, Kenner sidestepped this issue in a lot of interesting ways from their very first wave of figures. The first and most notorious thing they did was to stamp the initials ‘JP’ onto every single dinosaur. Each animal was basically branded with this, which also factored heavily into the marketing, with ads that pushed kids to “look for the JP logo!” It enforced an idea that these were the real deal, that these were the dinosaur figures to look for, and to forget about everything else.
Honestly, though, it’s the other thing they did that proved much more interesting. By virtue of by and large not being produced by action figure companies, most dinosaur toys up to this point were static and immobile. Jurassic Park proved its worth right out of the gate by designing dinos that begged to be played with, making sure each figure had an action feature that no other toy based on that specific creature had. That, even more than the JP logo, was what truly helped to set Jurassic Park apart at the time.
The first wave of dinosaurs consisted of a surprisingly eclectic group, including several species that did not appear in the film, right out of the gate. The standard edition dinosaurs included Velociraptor, Dilophosaurus, Pteranodon, Dimetrodon and Coelophysis. Velociraptor and Dilophosaurus were also released in a side wave of electronic figures called “Dino Screams.”
At the same time, some of the larger dinosaurs were given deluxe packaging with an added dino damage feature. These figures—Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Young Tyrannosaurus Rex, respectively—all featured a kind of “realistic” feeling skin as well as a “dino damage” feature allowing a portion of skin to be torn away to reveal the blood and bone beneath.
Of course, for kids especially, the highlight of the first Jurassic Park wave was the titan herself, the Electronic Tyrannosaur figure, towering easily over everything else, which would make a roaring noise when you stomped its feet.
The human figures presented much more of a problem, in a couple of different ways. First was the fact that Kenner didn’t bother to obtain licenses to any of the actors for the first wave of figures, so while the clothing would be similar, the faces wouldn’t remotely match with the characters seen in the movie. They were pretty much equivalent to the stunt doubles in Spaceballs version of the cast of Jurassic Park. The bigger problem, which probably tied into the initial hesitance to obtain character likenesses, is that kids are naturally much less interested in playing with the human characters than they are the dinosaurs.
I, like always, was a notable exception to that, as I always wanted to be as faithful as possible when creating scenarios and playing with toys. Plus, staging a dinosaur rampage just means more if Alan Grant is involved, you know?
Kenner sought to overcome this by giving each figure a wealth of accessories. Sure, kids might not care who Ellie Sattler is and even if they wanted a Nedry, he looks nothing like the movie, but kids love grappling hooks, right? This was what just about every other blockbuster toy line was doing, though, and it clearly didn’t work. Throwing in rocket-firing accessories and hoping for the best was much more of a Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves school of thought, and that had turned out pretty disastrous. Thankfully, Kenner also made another, smarter decision by packaging its human characters with baby dinosaurs, so that kids still got a dinosaur no matter what figure they bought. Even if it was a small one.
Jurassic Park was no stranger to playsets and vehicles, either. They were, in the ‘90s, just what toy lines needed to stay afloat. So the Jurassic Park series saw two jeeps, a command center play set and an attack copter. But with only one movie to milk and most of its main characters taken care of in the initial line, there were immediate problems as to how to keep the series going.
That, naturally, leads us to the very weird Jurassic Park series two. At first, things don’t seem so strange. Just a bunch of repaints of figures from the first series, some with changes to better reflect the actors. After that, things start getting a little more odd, as we get into “Dino Trackers” and “Evil Raiders.” Yes, Kenner jumped right in after the successful 1993 series to start creating entirely new characters and introducing them into the toy line with their own backstories and mythology. Have an old Jurassic Park toy in a red cap or an open vest and you can’t possibly place who he’s supposed to be in the movie? Well, now you know why. He’s either a Dino Tracker or an Evil Raider.
Harpoon Harrison made his living as an alligator wrestler in Florida, according to official lore, then started tracking escaped animals all over the globe before being hired onto the Dino Trackers. He was also a former colleague of the Evil Dr. Snare. Jaws Jackson, who looks like a standard red shirt JP employee, is actually half Blackfoot Indian and apparently had a PhD from Columbia. He joined the Dino Trackers in hopes of protecting the dinosaurs from poachers, while Sergeant T-Rex Turner, a former manager of a Kenyan game preserve, heads this team devoted to keeping dinos safe from poachers. Meanwhile, the evil Dr. Snare, Scrap Davis and Skinner are all about poaching the dinosaurs. Again, this information only comes from the figures themselves, as they’ve never made any other appearances.
The second series also included many new creatures, some of which were not actually dinosaurs. But it also saw the debut of major dinosaurs like Gallimimus and Carnotaurus. The line started to die off again in the mid-‘90s, with the figures finding their way into discount bins until of course Jurassic Park fever struck once more as the buzz began surrounding the 1997 sequel. While not as critically acclaimed as its predecessor, The Lost World: Jurassic Park was a hit nonetheless. In no small part because of that success and especially the leftover excitement of the first one, The Lost World also generated a lot of toy sales.
Kenner very much took an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to The Lost World. The human characters once again took drastic liberties (try to find one similarity between the Dieter Stark figure and Peter Stormare) with the cast and once again each one came packaged with a baby dinosaur. The dinosaurs themselves once again focused on the major standouts of the film, while also introducing new dinosaurs that did not appear in the movie, just as the first movie’s toys had done.
For example, the Lost World series introduces a Spinosaurus that is very, very different from the one that would eventually be seen in Jurassic Park III. Chasmasaurus was another standout dinosaur figure of that line that did not factor into the movie. Toys like the Junior T-Rex, Pachycephalosaurus and Parasaurolophus, on the other hand, more accurately reflected the film itself.
Again, there were deluxe dinosaurs with Dino Damage, like a new Stegosaurus, naturally based on the design of the sequel, rather than the that had been included in the first film’s toy line. Again, there were vehicles and play sets. In this regard, though, there wasn’t as much to work with from the film’s settings, so the biggest play set was a recreation of the heroes’… trailer.
The original designs of the Lost World figures clearly made an impact on other Lost World merchandise, too. In the tie-in video game for PlayStation, when one plays as the human hunter, the design of the character is exactly the same as the Dieter Stark figure. Similarly, when a player unlocks Spinosaurus in the game Warpath: Jurassic Park, it is the same design as that dinosaur’s Lost World figure. Like the original movie, Kenner’s Lost World line also released a second wave.
After the sequel came and went, Kenner still tried to keep the brand alive by releasing another new toy series in 1998 called Jurassic Park: Chaos Effect. In this instance, the initial plan was to use the toy line to hopefully accompany an animated series of the same name. That cartoon, naturally, never saw the light of day. Interestingly enough, this was not the first time this had happened to Kenner. The successful Aliens figures of the early ‘90s were made based on an Operation: Aliens cartoon series that never made it to air, hence the drastically different designs of some of the characters and the new approach to the Xenomorphs.
Also much like the Aliens toys, Chaos Effect was all about splicing the DNA of dinosaurs with other species, both extinct and modern. The whole toy line and planned cartoon spin-off attempted to focus on a melting pot of DNA splicing gone wrong, including figures like Ankyloranodon, a combination of Ankylosaurus and Pternanodon. Many figures planned for the series were never released, which is not surprising as the toys did not sell as well as those directly based on the movie, and were meant to tie into a cartoon that never actually got picked up.
Although Hasbro had purchased Kenner in 1991, the company had been still doing its own thing through the bulk of the decade, having its own ups and downs. In 2000, Hasbro closed the Cincinnati headquarters of Kenner and all of Kenner’s product lines were merged into Hasbro. Chaos Effect was the last Jurassic Park line bearing the Kenner logo, while Hasbro made toys for Jurassic Park III and later the Jurassic World films. The toy success of the franchise certainly continues to this day as the series remains as big as it has ever been. Because of that, it’s important to remember where it started. At a time when every blockbuster needed its own action figure series, no matter if it made sense or not, trying to base its entire success on something that most kids already had plenty of toys of. It was an uphill battle from the start, but it found success. In that success, Kenner proved that when the idea is right and the market potential is sound, toy companies—much like life—find a way.