When one thinks of the fast-food toys of their youth, their minds typically drift to the McDonald’s Happy Meal figures and Burger King hunks of plastic. So precious are some of the vintage toys, they sell like hotcakes for prices usually reserved for autographs and that fancy broach from Titanic. But one shouldn’t be so quick to discount other fast food toys – though not as successful or well-known, they definitely put forth their best competition. They can be worth a bundle too, or perhaps they’re worth hanging on to purely for sentimental value. Either way, here are the Top 10 Best Taco Bell Toys.
10. Star Wars
It’s not hard to turn a profit name-dropping Star Wars, but the Taco Bell toys promoting the re-release of the trilogy in theatres pulled out all the stops. Not just were the toys themselves particularly clever, with action figures cased in R2-D2-style intergalactic Matryoshka dolls, even the packaging worked as a toy. Taco Bell kid’s meal boxes were adorned with cardboard that could be cut and shaped like origami Star Destroyers and AT-ATs. It was a virtual playset in addition to a meal. 1997 was a very important year for Star Wars nerds. It marked the very moment fans of George Lucas’ three-film space western, then 20 years old but digitally remastered, would be released in theatres again. Finally, all those adults who recall being teenagers in 1977 could now drag their disaffected offspring to the film that changed the course of their lives forever. Perhaps it got them interested in special effects or space and they pursued careers in those fields, whatever the case, Star Wars left an impression. And what’s more, not only was George Lucas himself giving them the Lucasfilm digital treatment to remaster the effects, he was adding in more! He even fixed that scene in which Han Solo, our favorite hero, cold-bloodedly murders a bounty hunter at the Mos Eisley Cantina. 1997, in 1996’s mind, was going to be epic. Then it happened. And while younger audiences were just sort of “meh” on the new releases, old fans got worked up in a frenzy over the changes. But nothing, not any cinematic event in recent history, had the level of hype the films did up until that point. And, as Mel Brooks suggested in Spaceballs, so came the merchandising: where the real money from the movie is made. And they’re still paying off: old, wrapped Star Wars rerelease toys from Taco Bell sell for around $20-$40 a pop.
9. The Adventures of Batman and Robin
Before we get into the importance of Batman in the 90s, let’s get down to brass tacks: The Adventures of Batman and Robin toy sets that Taco Bell released to accompany the hit show are incredible. It’s a shame there were only five of them, as they represent an ambition in the fast-food industry rarely achieved. Though they don’t reach the same detail as, say a micro machine set, it’s not far off from what they were aiming for. Beyond the playsets, even more imaginative and handy for a child was the plastic Batman-shaped popsicle-maker. Any kid would delight in having the shape of Batman with cowl and cape forever emblazoned on anything they owned, and Taco Bell toys wanted a part of it. There’s a reason there’s no shortage of fondly remembered 90s merchandise. Not only was there a plethora of it, it usually represented some of the best pop culture geared toward youths in recent memory. Not only was the decade launched with the Batman craze in full swing thanks to Tim Burton’s 1989 film, but the franchise was also so successful that it had survived what some assumed would be a deadly tonal shift when the recently departed Joel Schumacher the reigns. But the Dark Knight had already sunk his Batarang into other pop culture outlets. Batman: The Animated Series (sometimes known as TABR) is still held in high regard by fans, with its voice cast of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hammill and Night Court’s Richard Moll nailing the complex roles. The animated film release, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, is largely considered superior to Schumacher’s Batman Forever. We were getting the royal Bat-treatment: If we preferred our hooded vigilante complex and dark, we had the cartoon, but we still had access to the Adam West-style camp that Schumacher provided. Taco Bell saw their opportunity and leaped. The Batman toys don’t appear to be moving much online right now, but give Chris Nolan’s Bat trilogy time to wear off. America’s consensus nostalgia will swing back in their favor.
The brilliance of Taco Bell’s innovative N64 line of toys was entirely in its concept: how can we best replicate the experience of playing the Nintendo 64-bit console using only analogue equipment? The answer was simple: rather than recreate facsimiles of characters from the beloved games, they’d instead mold plastic, miniature controllers that worked like the old mini-silver ball games at dollar stores and nickel arcades – long before the days of Frogger. It’s certainly more effective than the CD-Rom releases fast-food companies were guilty of attempting to pawn off as toys at the time, which were usually poorly assembled mini games. Taco Bell toys would later be guilty of that, as well, but not with the N64. It was all plastic. As such, these little gems were handcrafted to recreate the treacherous maps of Mario Kart 64. By the mid-90s, it was fairly clear who won the console wars. Though Sega had put up one contentious fight with its Genesis and Saturn, by the time the 64-bit era hit, there was little question where fans’ loyalties lied. Not only did the Nintendo 64 offer superior graphics and smoother gameplay, they also had a line of some really excellent games in their main franchises: Mario, Donkey Kong, and even Zelda would successfully make the transition. But N64 had something else up its sleeve: a little, unproven film license called Goldeneye that would revolutionize the multiplayer experience. That, unfortunately, could never make the toy line. However, if you’re lucky enough to have resisted the urge to open your toys, a complete set sells for around $170.
Goosebumps is a movie starring Jack Black. For those fortunate enough to live through one of the best eras of child-centric programming, Goosebumps began as a series of children’s novels by R.L. Stine. And like any good corporate entity, Taco Bell saw dollar signs. There was an advertising tie-in but the commercial doesn’t really scream Goosebumps, which was less about scaring kids than getting them to fall in love with the idea of being scared. Stine’s books were tame, using standard horror tropes and cliches to tell spooky campfire tales. It wasn’t long before FOX’s programming saw the potential of a weekly series, and soon kids all over the country were tuning in just slightly past their bedtime to catch faithful retellings of their favorites. The toys themselves were somewhat generic, save for Slappy, the evil ventriloquist doll who worked as a Pez dispenser. The others are some fairly nifty designs on standard scary characters: a Wrappin’ Mummy, a Skull Mobile and the cutest evil hamster this side of rabies.
6. Earthworm Jim
It’s well documented that Taco Bell had a good working relationship with the Nintendo 64 console, but their efforts prior to that era are not too shabby either. Earthworm Jim was one of the few moderately successful attempts by a toy company to create a video game mascot. It being the mid-90s, said mascot needed only two things: be an anthropomorphized version of a real animal, but with tons of snarky attitude. Sonic, Crash Banidcoot, Spakster and Earthworm Jim were all cut from the same Gen-X cloth that gave The Simpsons a Poochie. It wasn’t long before toys and a TV series followed the games, and Taco Bell got in on the action. Releasing just four kid’s meal toys, a squeeze toy, a bowling game, a piggy bank and a wind-up car. The line was cheeky enough to be in keeping with the tone of the cartoon and the video game. They don’t appear to be selling for much right now, but they’re worth keeping around, right next to a box of slap bracelets and Bubba Jug.
5. Men In Black
Before it turned into a franchise, Men in Black was a fairly modest comic property turned into a fairly modest buddy comedy highlighting a comedic duo you wouldn’t expect to work: Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. But the young actor’s bravado and the stern elder’s prickliness worked like gangbusters, especially up against an especially campy Vincent D’Onofio as an alien bug. The toys related to the film were already pretty impressive, with the alien bug designs especially impressive, so Taco Bell had a lot to compete with. Fortunately, they didn’t shirk their responsibility. It’s actually somewhat difficult to track down images from the promotion, which is incredibly rare, but those who remember the campaign were treated to fairly detailed tiny versions of the characters. The evidence is out there…somewhere.
4. DC Superheroes
There’s something to be said for getting there first, and DC can make the claim of victory. Contrary to some popular belief, in the world of comics, Batman and Superman predated Marvel by just months to publication, and the actual Detective Comics had four years on its competition. They even secured Hollywood before Marvel, with short film adaptations of the Dark Knight and Superman long before any Marvel properties. That said, Marvel is certainly playing their cinematic hand smartly, with DC playing catch up. In 2010, however, the two were on fairly equal footing. Nolan’s Dark Knight films were on par with Marvel’s less gritty approach and the properties were the subject of much hotly debated casting decisions. That, combined with the 75th anniversary of DC, made it the perfect time for Taco Bell to release a line of commemorative 3D comics, posters and glasses. It didn’t hurt that 3D – once a gimmick exclusive to B-movies as a cheap trick to lure in customers – was getting a serious overhaul courtesy of filmmaker James Cameron and IMAX theatres. The posters are just as impressive as any a collector may seek, and the 3D is a nice throwback. Wrapped editions of the Batman comic are going for $80 bucks on eBay.
Society needs to study Godzilla, Roland Emmerich’s notorious 1998 Americanized flop of the atomic lizard, to avoid ever making that mistake again. First, let’s address the toys. Much of the money Godzilla earned back from its huge budget came from the merchandising – in what was possibly the most aggressive marketing campaign for a project that seemed destined to fail. Studios had no confidence in Godzilla, the creature’s design (which was kept under wraps during production) had leaked early, ruining the surprise. What resulted was a mixed bag of some fairly terrible action figures that looked nothing like the human characters. Where Godzilla succeeded most, was in its fast food toys – at once both still surprisingly utilitarian and lovingly detailed. Not only are the individual Godzilla figures released by Taco Bell finely painted, better than the average cheap trinket at the bottom of a kid’s meal, they also offered cup holders shaped like the lizard. These enormous figures curled around the cup to create a mug-like application, and there was something satisfying about Godzilla watching you drink. And after seeing the movie, some viewers needed a drink. It’s not every summer a film costs $150 million dollars and garners a reputation of 16 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. Fortunately, there were still some quality Taco Bell toys associated with the fiasco, and they’re turning a pretty penny on eBay right now if you have them in pristine condition.
2. Muppet Christmas Carol Ornaments
The reason a Christmas ornament, something seemingly lame for a kid, ranks so high on this list is in part due to its worth beyond childhood, but also due to what it represented at the time. Jim Henson’s Muppets first debuted starring in their own show in 1976. As the show gained in popularity, movies soon followed and the Muppets won over audiences worldwide with their appeal to both kids and adults alike. The release of A Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992, which features a wonderful performance from Michael Caine, not only stayed true to Dicken’s novel, it also marked the first film Muppet film NOT directed by Jim, but his son Brian, as Jim had just passed. As such, the collectible Muppet ornaments from Taco Bell represent a changing of the guard. Each ornament was a Muppet themed globe that could hang from the highest bough. They aren’t even selling on eBay yet, instead just existing on family trees, one would imagine.
And so we’ve reached present day, a place in which, after revisiting the 90s for so long, feels a little otherworldly. Those who grew up without the internet require a college-level course in how the technology has been used to entice children to learn. Parents may not know how their children’s tablets work, they just know the blox will tell them what to do. Schools have used the Roblox platform of reality gaming and roleplaying to work in conjunction with educators, allowing kids to earn points by solving problems. This has proven incredibly successful, and is a welcome addition to early education. Taco Bell wisely introduced their Skool-Blox, foldable paper character avatars with stickers and instructions kids could use in real life. And just to further get with the current times, the Skool-Blox toys were among the first released in the fast-food world not to use environmentally harmful plastic bags. This, it would appear is the modern approach to advertising and branding. Today, Taco Bell is offering a healthier alternatives to deep-frying and experimenting with bio-friendly materials which also encourages education. If that’s not a triple threat in today’s food-service industry, then there is no such thing.