With boffo box-office receipts earned by "Gladiator" and "Mission: Impossible 2," the movie industry is predicting that it's headed for its best summer ever.
As if. It's on the toy-store shelves, not at the ticket counters, that the success of a blockbuster is determined. Anyone can come up with a semiplausible story, throw a few million dollars into it and hold the public's interest for a few weeks; just look at Rudy Giuliani. But if you want to know what's really going to fly and what isn't, you do what I did last weekend: Take a shopping tour of the major kid zones.
My first stop, the F.A.O. Schwarz outlet at Pointe Orlando, was already betting on figures and accessories inspired by Aardman Animations' long-awaited barnyard feature, "Chicken Run." The heroic hen Ginger was available as a solo purchase (outfitted with "tunnel digger and fence cutter" to help her escape captivity) or as part of the Chickenpult play set, a contraption that shoots her over the heads of tots and Colonel Sanders alike.
The line's whimsy, I noticed, is undermined by printed warnings that its smaller parts pose choking hazards to children under 3 years of age. (Worried about your kids putting foreign objects in their mouths? Don't give them gifts that show every sign of tasting like chicken.)
A few doors down at the Disney Worldport, the lumbering stars of "Dinosaur" were all the rage. For a measly $39, one could adopt a Dino Alive egg, which responds to human touch by bursting apart and loosing a tiny hatchling.
"Then you have to feed it," a salesman said. His promises that this repeatable action would ensure hours of fun tipped me off that he probably isn't a parent.
The Disney Store at the Florida Mall had a larger array of prehistoric paraphernalia, including a flying Pteranodon that emits authentic cries and flaps its wings when an intruder enters its owner's room. This toy, I realized, is best suited to teens: Who but a hormone-crazed youth desperately wants to be alerted to his parents' approach? ("No, Mom, I didn't say I was choking on a chicken in here!")
Many of the "Dinosaur" pieces were marked with emblems that differentiated Disney's official creatures from other manufacturers' generic beasts. You have to love a company that goes so far to protect intellectual property it doesn't exactly own. If the title Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" didn't send Victor Hugo spinning in his grave, imagine telling a paleontologist why you need to distinguish your "real" iguanodon from some Discovery Store knockoff.
In the mall's Warner Bros. Studio Store, "Battlefield Earth" inventory was relegated to a lonely corner. The flick's utter failure has led to rife speculation about a decline in star John Travolta's cachet, but a figurine of his villainous Terl made for easy bean-counting. Dividing the toy's $14.99 retail price by its 11-inch height revealed that the former sweathog is now worth roughly $1.36 per inch.
Perhaps Travolta won't take the hit for "BE" after all: His scale-model "likeness" bears a stronger resemblance to Billy Bob Thornton. Its packaging advertises the doll as suitable for ages 4 and up; there's no recommendation that it be bought only by high-level Scientologists.
The talking toy recites several phrases, including "Exterminate all man-animals at will!" But no matter how hard I pushed the playback button, I couldn't get it to say, "I want to talk to William Morris right now!"
The ides of merch
The Toys R Us store in Altamonte Springs was the motherlode of tie-ins. So new that they hadn't been affixed with price tags, the first few releases were on exhibit from the upcoming space opera, "Titan A.E." An action figure of protagonist Cale was vended in tandem with a Deluxe Power-Crush Exo Suit. With the film as yet unreleased, that gear's actual function is anybody's guess, but the transparent, man-sized chamber was a strong clue that some of the story will take place in a futuristic Port-a-Potty.
Also freshly arrived were "The X-Men," the heroes of the live-action comic book. If the picture tanks, none of its stars will enjoy Travolta's anonymity: One blister card specified its contents as a replica of "Halle Berry as STORM," momentarily diverting my attention from the deepest cleavage I've seen on an all-plastic frame since Pamela Anderson had her surgery reversed. "Ian McKellen as MAGNETO" was nowhere to be found, and it's just as well. After "Gods and Monsters," I don't think a McKellen doll should be allowed anywhere near the GI Joes.
When he does make it off the trucks, at least Sir Ian will have some fellow master thespians to keep him company. Down the aisle from the embryonic X-Men display rested the remnants of last year's " Wild Wild West" collection, now discounted to the low price of 89 cents per figure. Will Smith's James West was sold out, but statuettes of Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline were simply gathering dust. A Shakespearean background is a fine asset at Oscar time, but anyone who's been inside a toy store in June knows that the play's the thing.