In Which We Tear Open 16-Year-Old ‘Phantom Menace’ Fast-Food Toys

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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Star Wars fans have been anxiously looking forward to December 2015 for a long time now. Though it might feel like we’re deluged with merchandise, TV spots, and a marketing blitz now, it wasn’t until Force Friday on September 4 that that fervor took off in a big way. We’ve been clawing at the tiniest scraps of information and wrestling with the vaguest of rumors for months, and we’re now only TWO WEEKS out from the worldwide release of The Force Awakens.

What’s interesting is that Force Friday–the unofficial launch of the Star Wars Hype Machine for merchandisers and retailers–took place a mere 105 days before the premiere.

There’s been a lot of talk about the BB-8 toys, all of the new books, and those sweet LEGO sets, but anyone who gets hyperbolic about the excitement that’s developed in advance of The Force Awakens clearly doesn’t remember 1999 and the months leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace. That hype was profound; it was unreal. People were beside themselves with anticipation.

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Back then, there wasn’t the level of secrecy we’ve grown accustomed to from J.J. Abrams, and, from all accounts, The Phantom Menace was going to be the greatest cinematic achievement of the decade. I mean, come on, there hadn’t been a new Star Wars movie in 16 years! How could it be anything but phenomenal?

Episode I merchandise was everywhere. I mean everywhere. Every aisle in every store had something branded to Star Wars. Not only was there was no escape from little Anakin and Jar Jar, but someone must’ve told the marketers about fans’ tendency to obsessive completist behavior. The variations were endless. (Remember the plethora of Pepsi and Mountain Dew cans and the mad hunt for the elusive gold Yoda can?)

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If you were a Star Wars fan in 1999, though, perhaps the most memorable tie-in was the unprecedented crossover promotion at Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut. Tricon Global Restaurants (now known as Yum! Brands)–the parent company of all three chains–scored a major coup by securing the Star Wars license. And boy did they take advantage of it.

Think about your average fast food kids’ meal promotion. Depending on the license, there are usually between 4-6 random toys available with the meal, right? Well, the Episode I promotion kicked things up a notch.

There were 26 toys spread across three different restaurants. Taco Bell became Tatooine, KFC was Naboo, and Pizza Hut morphed into Coruscant. The toys available at each were ostensibly related to those locations. Therefore, if you wanted Anakin’s podracer, it’d come with a few burritos. Want the Gungan sub squirter? Hope you like fried chicken. And if you just had to have Lott Dodd’s walking throne, greasy pizza’s on the menu.

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Obsessive fans who wanted them all? Spring of 1999 found us on a never-ending fast food scavenger hunt… and a particularly unfortunate diet. As an added incentive to lure in collectors, the back of each box was one piece of a much larger puzzle. Yes, not only did these toys come in boxes (fancy!), but if you got all of them, they’d assemble into an awesome montage image from the movie.

Which, you know, meant you couldn’t tear them open. You had to keep them nice and sealed. And that’s exactly what I did. Because I’m a total nerd.

(And lest you think the kids’ meals toys were the end of that license, think again. Also available were plastic cups with oversized character toppers [12 in all] and “flying bucket toppers” [2], and each restaurant participated in the Defeat the Dark Side and Win game/promotion. This bears repeating: the scale of the Phantom Menace event was crazy big.)

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Fast forward 16 years. We’re staring down another new Star Wars movie (this time, we’re a paltry 10 years since the last one), and I have two Star Wars-obsessed kids of my own. Raised on the original trilogy, The Clone Wars, and Rebels, they’re only tangentially aware of the prequels.

Yet I was curious. How would that mountain of Episode I toys hold up today? I mean, of course I still have them. Unopened.

Well, I had them unopened. As an experiment, I dusted off the collection, put the pile of boxes in front of my kids, and let them go to town. Here’s what 16-year-old kids’ meal toys do for today’s kids. Keep an eye out for Captain Pancake and Anakin Skywalker’s Balloon Fighter!

They tore through all 26 boxes in short order. Some toys were played with, some were tossed aside immediately, and all of them have since disappeared into the black hole of my house.

If you couldn’t tell from the video, a vast majority of those toys are worthless pieces of plastic that do very little. Some do absolutely nothing. And some (like Jar Jar there at the end) are literally quite stinky.

Even though we were, generally speaking, fairly disappointed with the toys, it turned out to be a fun afternoon experiment with my kids. And that was really the whole point. I didn’t think it possible, but we’re all even more excited for The Force Awakens in a couple weeks.

Though it might seem your local Target is stocked to overflowing with Kylo Ren lightsabers and BB-8 toys, the Hype Machine could be so much worse. Think about the landfills so readily supplied by the prequels the next time you decide to complain about the abundance of merch available for Episode VII. So, in a weird way, I guess we should thank The Phantom Menace for keeping everyone’s expectations in check.

(I just can’t believe all those toys followed me through three moves.)

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