The future's looking wobbly

Hot on the heels of My Little Pony and Mr Potato Head, the Weebles are about to bounce back into toy shops across Britain. Jonathan Thompson reports from Rhode Island on the 'newstalgia' phenomenon
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On the outskirts of Providence, Rhode Island, an eight-foot tall Mr Potato Head stands resolute under the blazing New England sun, guarding the entrance to Hasbro's international headquarters. Behind him, and through the big glass doors, employees stride down broad corridors clutching armfuls of toys, as a remote-controlled post cart delivers the morning's mail. In the workshop, intriguing, half-finished prototypes litter the desks, while a posse of unpainted My Little Ponies stand quietly to one side. Just audible over the noise, a large R2D2 model whistles and beeps to itself in the corner.

On the outskirts of Providence, Rhode Island, an eight-foot tall Mr Potato Head stands resolute under the blazing New England sun, guarding the entrance to Hasbro's international headquarters. Behind him, and through the big glass doors, employees stride down broad corridors clutching armfuls of toys, as a remote-controlled post cart delivers the morning's mail. In the workshop, intriguing, half-finished prototypes litter the desks, while a posse of unpainted My Little Ponies stand quietly to one side. Just audible over the noise, a large R2D2 model whistles and beeps to itself in the corner.

Gazing around the building, I get an inkling of how Charlie Bucket must have felt when he walked through the gates to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Hasbro's headquarters are - perhaps even more so than Mr Wonka's fictional establishment - the stuff that children's dreams are made of. But I'm not here to gawp at the huge variety of toys on display, nor sneak a glance at the hastily covered-up models for Star Wars: Episode III. I'm here, some 40 miles north of Boston, to relive a little bit of my very early youth - and witness the rebirth of a playroom classic.

The Weebles - as almost anyone of a certain age will tell you - "wobble but they don't fall down". For nearly a decade after their launch in 1972, these cheery, plastic, egg-shaped characters could be found in millions of toy boxes and pre-school pockets across the world. The majority of today's twenty and thirtysomethings will have played with them at some point but then, in 1982, they suddenly wobbled off the radar. Now, more than two decades on, and after 18 months of meticulous planning, Hasbro is preparing to dust off one of the most successful brands in its history, and relaunch the Weebles.

Presiding over a meeting in the Mr Potato Head Conference Room, Maureen Smith, Vice President of Hasbro's Playskool division, explains the move - which will be supported by a multi-million pound marketing budget on both sides of the Atlantic.

"It's part of a society trend - what we're calling 'newstalgia'," says Smith, as the 12 new inhabitants of Weebleville wobble happily on the desk in front of her. "What's old is new again, and people are rediscovering elements of things they grew up with. Today's mum was the little girl who played with Weebles when she was younger, and we want to let her experience that play with her own children."

The Weebles of 2004, however, bear only a passing resemblance to the vintage of 1972. When they are officially relaunched across the UK next week, the parents of today - or the "little boys and girls of yesterday" depending on your perspective - will struggle to recognise the plastic characters they grew up with. Weebles still wobble, of course, and are weighted to ensure that they'll never fall down, but they have evolved from chubby humanoids who flew helicopters and visited the circus to luminescent animals who attend barn dances and "grow macaroni on their farm".

Hasbro's market research, I am told, has convincingly proved that toddlers respond best to animals and bright colours, so modern-day Weebleville has been formed accordingly. As a result, the new playsets are based around a central farmyard theme, with two of the main characters, Demby and Diddy - a married couple comprising, improbably, a blue hippo and a purple cow - tottering around growing macaroni for their friends. The logic behind this is impeccable: "Everybody loves macaroni cheese, right? So that's what Weebles do," explains Smith.

"There is a kind of history repeating itself here," she elaborates, "but when you repeat history in this industry, it has to be done in a way that's new and fresh. It can't be the same old product."

Many would argue that the old product shouldn't have been killed off so easily. Despite bowing out of toy shops around 1982, the toys' portly forms have maintained an unlikely presence in popular culture ever since. In recent years, they've popped up in places as diverse as Massive Attack lyrics ("Weebles wobble, occasional squabble, But what happens when the bomb drops down?") and the sitcom Friends, where in an early episode - "The One With The Boobies" - Rachel tells a psychiatrist about happy afternoons spent playing with the toys: "It wasn't just the Weebles, but it was the Weeble Play Palace, and - and the Weebles' Cruise Ship. Oh, which had this little lifeboat for the Weebles to wobble in." On the internet auction site eBay, original Weebles sets in mint condition fetch up to £300.

To prove that Demby, Diddy and the new breed of Weebles have got what it takes to repeat this success, I am taken through the multi-coloured corridors of Hasbro, past a towering statue of Sulley from Monsters Inc, and the Star Wars prop of Han Solo frozen in carbonite, to the Fun Lab. Here, from behind a one-way mirror, toddlers and their mothers are observed and filmed while playing with Hasbro's prototype toys.

Today, there are three local children aged between nine and 17 months getting to grips with the Weebles in the Fun Lab. In the darkened observation room, Nancy Koretsky, one of Hasbro's senior brand managers, is taking notes.

"We're looking at the play patterns and the function of the toys," says Koretsky. "This way, we can identify potential issues and make changes. We want to make sure it's fun for the child, and not frustrating. The toys need to be recognisable and easy to play with, and in this case, the children have to be able to hold them in their hand."

During the course of the session, the Weebles are carried, chewed, put down plastic chimneys and thrown around the room by the eager young subjects, before 12-month-old Nicholas from Massachusetts discovers one of the hidden microphones. Doing a passable impression of a Weeble himself, he grabs it and wobbles impressively towards the exit without losing his balance, before he is finally caught and the microphone is retrieved.

The new generation of Weebles were born just a few offices down the corridor - at the desk of one of the company's leading designers, Craig McElhaney.

"It all started with the simple pear shape. We made sure they had the right rock and the right roll, and then the characters slowly took on lives of their own," smiles McElhaney. "Later, we started talking about the Weeble language.

"They drive Weehicles, and we also have Wegetables and the Wescue Wagon coming out," he continues, before adding without a hint of irony: "You can apply wee to just about anything."

This innocent faux-pas, I am told by one of McElhaney's British colleagues, is nothing unusual at Hasbro. An early name for one of the new Weeble characters was Major Wedgie, which - along with a recent My Little Pony called Morning Glory - was vetoed swiftly on this side of the Atlantic.

Perhaps fittingly, the man in overall charge of this gigantic cross between Santa's grotto and Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, Alan Hassenfeld, bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Gene Wilder, who played Wonka in the celebrated 1970s film of the book.

Like his Hollywood doppelganger, the 55-year-old company chairman is larger than life. Hasbro legend has it that Hassenfeld - whose grandfather founded the business with his two brothers in 1923 - once flew across the country to George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch dressed in full Obi-Wan Kenobi costume to bid for the rights to manufacture Star Wars toys.

"I like playing with toys - is there anything wrong with that?" asks Hassenfeld, shortly after I sit down next to him in the Hasbro canteen. "In our industry we deal with so many different things, but as adults, we often forget what it was like to be kids - that a child's work is his or her play.

"Toys, like human beings, go on sabbatical: they go on vacation for a while," muses Hassenfeld, whose father "gave birth" to Mr Potato Head. "Weebles went on a long sabbatical - they went around the world on a wacation [sic]. Then we got a message from them saying: 'Hey, it's about time we came home, so you'd better have a place for us.' Every once in a while, it just feels right.

"The concept of something wobbling but not falling down is a nice message for kids: you just keep bouncing back. To me, that's a positive message."

Whether this positive message will translate into hard cash - or Weebucks as I hear mentioned more than once during my visit - remains to be seen. Hasbro is investing over £1m in the Weebles' British relaunch, and more than four times that figure in the US.

John Baulch, publisher of Toys 'n' Playthings magazine, says that Hasbro is simply continuing to plunder the safe market for retro toys, or the "newstalgia" that executives refer to.

"There is a feeling in the toy industry that relaunches like this are happening as part of a more cautious climate in retail generally," says Baulch. "Retailers aren't taking big risks or gambles, and to establish a toy from scratch is obviously a greater risk.

"Just because something worked 30 years ago, doesn't mean it works now, but there must have been something in the play pattern that made Weebles succeed the first time. It's not rocket science. Often, certain lines just need a tweak to make them a little more relevant. This is part of an ongoing theme, and it's not going to go away - brands are going back to their heritage."

The Weebles relaunch, says Baulch, is just part of a bigger retro movement, which began last year with the reincarnation of a glut of iconic toys, including My Little Pony, He-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - swiftly followed by the Chopper bike. Nintendo will also attempt to tap into this rich vein next week, with the launch of a "classic" Gameboy - complete with old favourites Donkey Kong and Pac Man. Later this year, Postman Pat will be the next to return from playroom purgatory, after a decade out of the spotlight. Like the Weebles, Pat will be given a modern twist to bring him up to date - not in the sense of delivering the Greendale post at lunchtime or taking industrial action, but by being presented as "a modern-day hero", who goes skiing and snowboarding.

Dr John Richer, a clinical child psychologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, who specialises in toys and play patterns, says the simple, older toys have just as much, if not more, chance of success as their newer rivals.

"Play patterns are timeless, especially among younger children," says Dr Richer. "We see the same things in preschoolers year after year"

"The secret of a good toy is not what it does, but what a child can do with it. It's the versatility that is most important: a child needs to be able to do different things with a toy, which they can't necessarily do with, say, a complicated electronic game. Imagination is key, and a toy needs to be able to support and stimulate that."

If initial signs are anything to go by, the simple formula of Weebles, combined with the proven marketing success of newstalgia, should make them a success.

One British mum, 39-year-old Caroline Jones from Surbiton, Surrey, says that she is looking forward to introducing her two preschool daughters to her old childhood favourites. "I used to like the way that Weebles always popped back up when you pushed them over," she laughs. "I always say that if you want your children to grow up with imagination, you have to give them toys that are just toys - not all this complicated electronic stuff."

On the other side of the Atlantic, similar sentiments were expressed at the recently opened Toys R Us superstore on New York's Times Square. Zelie Pforzheimer, mother of three children, said: "I guess there is a sense of reliving your own childhood through your children. I hope we'll see a cycle back to the older toys more and more - but for me, obviously, it's whatever keeps the child entertained the longest."

With a small armada of Weebles currently wobbling their way across the ocean in time for their official release date here next week, success or failure will be determined in the crucial run-up to Christmas. If today's children really are the same as yesterday's little boys and girls, then Alan Hassenfeld will be spending that time watching the Weebucks roll in. As he himself points out, "It's hard to keep a good toy down - especially when it's a Weeble."

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