For those who have not been formally introduced, a Playmobil figure is a plastic toy about the height of your palm. It – no, he or she – has a round head with a simple smiley face topped with snap-on hair or a snap-on hat. He might be a firefighter, a cyclist or a medieval knight; she might be a vet, a police officer or a gardener. He is not Batman or Luke Skywalker; she is not Cat Woman or Hermione Granger.
In short, Playmobil is not Lego – and not only because it doesn't hurt as much when you step barefoot on the scattered pieces in a child's darkened bedroom. Playmobil is a German toy manufacturer that projects a certain refreshing innocence in its apparent conviction that not every toy needs to be linked to a feature-length commercial in movie theatres.
Until now that is: Variety recently reported that France's ON Entertainment has teamed up with two other film companies to make a $80-million Playmobil movie that will be released in 2017. Animation creator Bob Persichetti, who worked on Shrek 2 and Puss in Boots, will develop the film which will be produced in ON's Montreal studios. Meanwhile, Super 4, a Playmobil cartoon series featuring a pirate, a secret agent, a knight and a fairy, is set to air on international television screens next year; so far, the French-language Radio Canada is the one Canadian broadcaster that has picked it up.
In the industry press, the movie deal is widely interpreted as Playmobil's answer to last year's highly profitable The Lego Movie, and it is surely good news for Montreal's reputation as an international centre for animation. Still, it's a sad day for those of us who have felt Playmobil is a kinder, gentler toy made by people who still believe that children can invent their own stories. Lego signed on with the Star Wars franchise back in 1999; it almost went broke expanding into a wide range of licensed products and overly complex technical sets in the 2000s and is now careful to make very strategic deals with Hollywood to create themed sets that are only available for a season or two after the movie appears. Get your hobbits now because they may not be around next Christmas.
The Danish toy manufacturer has insisted it is not an entertainment company as it has expanded into video games, cartoons and movies, increasingly blurring the lines between its various themes and products: the Ninjago and Hero Factory cartoons functioned as ads for those sets while The Lego Movie created by Warner Bros. featured licensed characters such as Batman mingling with Lego's own generic figures.
Meanwhile, the Playmobil world remains simpler and less coded. Because its figures are anonymous people representing contemporary professions or historic types, the story lines are open-ended and easily manipulated by the child: One kid can be serving the passengers in the airplane set while another may be hijacking them. Meanwhile, over in Lego Hogwarts, they are busy recreating plots dreamed up by J.K. Rowling.
In the highly segregated world of children's toys, Playmobil also gets better marks for battling sexual stereotypes as it produces trains, hospitals and farms in which male and female figures can play a variety of roles. With Lego, you get the predetermined sexual stereotypes of the movies or generic figures made by a company that often seems confused by women. You can almost see the nerds in the creative department scratching their heads as they hunt about for recognizably female types to include in Lego's ever-growing line of mini-figure surprise packages: How about a geisha? Could we do a female skateboarder? Are clowns and chefs necessarily men?
In the sunny world of Playmobil, equestrians, racing-car drivers and farmers seem to inhabit places where occasionally 50 per cent of the population might actually be female. Of course, Playmobil does have a bright pink Princess Fantasy Castle set, but that pirate in the forthcoming Super 4 cartoon is a girl.
She also has a name – Ruby – as do her companions, Agent Gene, Alex the Knight and Twinkle the Fairy. Will naming Playmobil figures and identifying them with on-screen characters in TV and film help children play better? No, but it might sell more toys.