Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Looks Like You Picked the Wrong Week to Quit Sniffing Glue: MPC's Star Wars Model Kits (1980-1982)

Ron writes:

 The first installment of this series of posts focused on MPC's line of Star Wars model kits ended on something of a cliffhanger.

Okay, maybe it wasn't quite a Sylvester-Stallone-clutching-that-chick-from-Northern-Exposure-while-John-Lithgow-tries-to-kill-them cliffhanger, but there was some suspense to it, right?

A smidge?

I know it's hard for you to get worked up about something that doesn't involve a COO variation, but you might consider allowing yourself to be excited by a greater range of experiences. Not only will your outlook on life become rosier, your imaginary relationship with Felicity Jones will grow deeper and more satisfying.

We closed the post dealing with kits released under the Star Wars banner with the above shot of the Millennium Falcon. As you can see, it bears a small sticker advertising The Empire Strikes Back.

In fact, this is the official Empire version of the toy. Upon the release of the second film in the Star Wars franchise, MPC opted to update their packaging with stickers rather than shoulder the burden of completely redesigning it.

The stickers were applied either directly to the box or to the exterior shrinkwrap, suggesting that some were applied at the time of assembly and others were slapped onto existing stock by distributors or even retailers.

The sticker has even been found on Kenner items, such as the Creature Cantina Action Playset. Perhaps some retailers got a little overzealous with the rolls of ESB stickers provided to them by MPC?

Of the early MPC releases, I believe the Falcon, X-Wing, Darth Vader TIE Fighter, R2-D2, C-3PO, and Darth Vader were released with the ESB sticker.

The creepy model depicting the bust of Darth Vader (it breathes heavily when you pull his cord, just like grandpa) did not survive the '70s; I suspect it was never issued in updating packaging.

I've also never seen an example of the figural Darth Vader kit that bears the ESB sticker. But since it's featured in the above photo from MPC's 1981 Toy Fair catalog, I assume it exists -- thereby making an ass out of you, me, and potentially the Dark Lord of the Sith himself.

What new kits were released in conjunction with The Empire Strikes Back? Well, 1980 saw two of them: the Star Destroyer and Luke Skywalker's Snowspeeder. 

The former was a 15-inch-long jobber that MPC described as "one of the huge and awesome flagships of the Imperial forces."

Unfortunately, when assembled the actual model was neither huge nor awesome. Truth be told, it was a little lackluster; it just didn't possess the kind of detail required to make a kit like this feel satisfying.

But since we're collectors, and we'd do something crazy like watch the Ewoks cartoon before we'd even considered doing something normal like opening and assembling our toys, the quality of the model itself hardly matters. It's the box that's important! And the art that MPC developed for their Star Destroyer box was pretty striking. 

I believe the ship you see on the box in the above photo is actually a tweaked publicity photograph of one of ILM's effects models. But the background, with its slapdash brush effects, gives the design the feel of painted artwork, and the careening Falcon and TIE Fighters convey a sense of dynamism and excitement.

Here at least were hugeness and awesomeness worthy of an Imperial flagship.

On the other hand, the box in which the Snowspeeder model came packaged was entirely a product of painting. The blue-gray-white color scheme is appropriately chilly, and the vehicle is portrayed in a hard-edged and technical style reminiscent of Ralph McQuarrie. I think it's one of the sharpest looking items in the line. 

The model itself was eight inches long and featured several moving parts; its cockpit even included figures of Luke and his destined-to-be-stomped-on gunner.

Here's a tip for you nerdlingers: If you ever find yourself in a Star Wars movie, and you suddenly feel as though you're capable of taking on the whole Empire by yourself, for goodness' sake don't say it out loud! The movie gods have rules, and you don't need to be the one to test them. 

Also: If you ever find yourself in a war movie, don't under any circumstances show someone a photo of your gal back home. Even if she's real and not just something you made out of Lego.

The All-Terrain Armored Transport, or AT-AT, was probably the most model-friendly implement featured in The Empire Strikes Back. Even so, MPC didn't release their version until 1981.

The box art justified the wait: it's one of the most evocative depictions of the snow battle to appear on a vintage product.

I've always loved the words "molded in grey" that appear in the upper right corner of the box. They're printed in red, so you won't miss them. As though the gray color was a big selling point. 

"Can I get this, mom? It's molded in gray!"

In addition to grayness, the AT-AT boasted a moving head and legs. It was eight inches in height, meaning it was as tall as the Snowspeeder model was long.

The fact that the Snowspeeder and AT-AT models were produced in different scales meant that kids weren't able to use them to recreate what is probably the Trilogy's most memorable battle sequence. 

It may have been to rectify this that MPC released their kit entitled "Battle on Ice Planet Hoth."

As the box makes clear, the kit was a diorama consisting of a flat base and various Hoth-appropriate elements.

It was a snap-together product. In other words, it was for kids who were too stupid and maladroit to figure out glue.

As this photo reveals, the kit came with a Scout Walker and an X-Wing in addition to the expected AT-ATs and Snowspeeders. Despite a lot of shrinking and collapsing of space, the model is still out of scale: the human figures look to be taller than the feet of the AT-ATs.

Is it a bit disappointing that the kit excludes the Ion Cannon? I think so.

You may have noticed that "Battle on Ice Planet Hoth" was the first of MPC's kits whose box featured a red rather than a white ESB logo. That trend continued throughout the remainder of the line's existence. The box for the "Encounter with Yoda on Dagobah" kit, seen above, also features the red logo. 

As this catalog image makes clear, the kit included figures of Yoda, Luke, and R2-D2. 

The former pair were intended to occupy the interior of Yoda's gross little hermit hovel. Cleverly, the folks at MPC equipped this structure with an exterior shell that was partially removable. 

And it's lucky they did. Otherwise there'd be no way to partake of the excitement of Luke staring placidly at the wall while Yoda makes an expression that suggests he's nursing a particularly exuberant post-dinner fart.

Clearly, this was a product for which MPC pulled out all the stops. It was even molded in gray.

I love that MPC's catalog blurb referred to Yoda as "Everybody's Man of the Year." 

Was he? I would have guessed Tom Selleck or maybe the Kraken.

The McQuarrie influence is again reflected in the art used on the box produced for the second of MPC's diorama kits, entitled simply "Rebel Base."

Presumably, once this kit was assembled you could connect it to the Battle on Ice Planet Hoth to yield one giant Hothapalooza. 

The inclusion of the Rebel Transport guaranteed hours of ennui and disillusionment.

ESB sticker variants aside, the Rebel Base is about the scarcest of the MPC kits. Although it's easily found in reissue packaging, the original 1982 release surfaces only infrequently. 

1982 also saw the release of the final vehicle kit in the ESB line: Boba Fett's Slave I.

In the movie Slave I was visible for about 90 seconds, and in 15 of those seconds it was indistinguishable from space garbage. But blah blah blah Boba Fett, so it was awesome.

As is evident from the ad copy visible on the above-pictured catalog page, the model featured movable parts as well as figures of Fett and Han Solo.

Don't be confused by textual reference to 1981. That's a typo. This image derives from the 1982 Toy Fair catalog.

The box art used to represent this, MPC's lone Bespin-themed model kit, was predominantly orange in color. This caused the product to stand out from the rest of the line, which featured largely blue-toned graphics. Nevertheless, it was molded in gray!

It's a terrific-looking piece of art. But, sadly, it was the last of the great MPC box designs. The company's Return of the Jedi line, released the following year, substituted photography for artwork.

But we'll leave that until the next installment of this series, in which we'll discuss all the grayness molded by MPC in 1983 and 1984.

Special thanks to Mark Enright for his help in assembling the information in this article.

1 comment:

  1. Again, thanks for the trip down memory lane. I actually used to own the Hoth battle "play set" model, as well as the encounter with Yoda. Both sets needed to be painted as the Hoth set was manufactured only in a light grey generic color, while the Yoda set was more of a dark beige/light Brown color (if memory serves right). Maybe the beige/brown color of the Yoda set was a variant for the canadian market?

    While both were supposed to be snap-on easy, I do recall how some pi├Ęces did not, notably the wrecked AT-AT which couldn't stay in it's "supposed" crashed position ("Dujour means crash positions!"), as well as having some parts actually molded on the textured surface.

    As for the Yoday scene, I do recall the "niftyest" elements were removeable dome to reveal the Inside of the hut as well as loose snakes and stuff. The more dissapointing aspect was the non-moveable R2 "feet" which meant that he could not stand upright by himself. Maybe these sets did not require the use of glue, but surely it would have improved on them in terms of "dioramas" rather than somewhat static "playsets".