New Babes in Toyland, New York Times

New York Times

New Babes in Toyland: Trollz

By DAVID SHEFF

BURBANK, Calif. – In a nondescript office building near the Ventura Freeway here, and in far-flung studios in Luxembourg and China, as many as a thousand animators, editors, sound engineers and the like are hard at work on what they intend to be the next obsession of 4-to-8-year-old girls.

Their handiwork involves an unlikely makeover: They are reinventing Trolls, the big-haired dolls once compared by the comedian Jimmy Fallon to Don King on Viagra, as Trollz, saucy little creatures who borrow a dollop of Phoebe from “Friends” and a dash of Summer from “The O.C.,” as well as pinches of Eeyore from “Winnie the Pooh” and Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City.”

Trollz come prepackaged with an ethic, summed up as “B.F.F.L.”: Best Friends for Life. And they certainly have a look. “Instead of doing the post-Janet Jackson, Britney Spears thing, we went for Avril Lavigne, Hillary Duff, Jessica Simpson,” said Estevan Ramos, a stylist who worked with Ms. Spears and Christina Aguilera before he was hired to help create Trollz for DIC Entertainment.

In the coming months, said Andy Heyward, DIC’s president and chief executive officer, the company plans to unleash its progeny in a “carpet bombing” of media that begins with their debut on the Web, at Trollz.com in March. At the site, children will be able to explore Trollzopolis, play games, chat with and cast spells on their friends. Books and toys follow in July, with cartoon collections on video and DVD coming in September from Warner Home Video. In October, a cartoon series will begin broadcasting, and by next Christmas, if Mr. Heyward is lucky, a pop phenomenon will have taken the world’s children by storm.

In a more innocent era, the rages for Cabbage Patch Kids and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still had something accidental about them. But today’s fad-makers leave little to chance when stitching style, attitude and narrative into glittering commercial packages that can hardly fail to capture the eye, if not necessarily the imagination, of the young, at least for a little while.

At times, the competition for the attention of preadolescent girls looks like something of a downward spiral on the moral values – not to mention taste – front. After MGA Entertainment swept the field with its naughty-almost-nasty Bratz in 2001, Mattel responded last year with a trampy line of its own famous dolls, called My Scene Barbie. Now, Mr. Heyward and company are entering the fray with a multimedia product that is not exactly wholesome but that steps back from the sexual precipice.

“We will have Trollz explore the kinds of things that intrigue young girls,” Mr. Heyward said during an interview in a conference room at DIC Entertainment headquarters, where he was surrounded by computer-generated storyboards for the Trollz Web site and cartoons.

Unlike Bratz, the provocatively dressed, multiethnic dolls that were one of this season’s best-selling Christmas toys, Trollz would never be caught, said Mike Verrecchia, DIC’s senior vice president for marketing, seven or eight at a time, in a Jacuzzi together. (This happened in a Bratz television commercial.) “We don’t want children asking their parents, ‘What are they doing in the Jacuzzi?’ ” Mr. Verrecchia said.

But there is a bit of the vamp in the round anime eyes of Trollz and in their anorexic waistlines. And there is something unnerving about the miniature gemstone that begins to glow in the belly of each girl Trollz when, in the videos and cartoons, she comes of age and acquires “special powers,” which boy Trollz never will have.

Parents may find it difficult to connect the frizzy little monsters of their childhoods with the Topaz, the ditsy blond Trollz, or Onyx, the world-weary Goth “antifashionista,” with purple lipstick and multiple piercings. But the creatures share a kinship.

Trolls originated with the Thomas Dam – an impoverished fisherman, bricklayer, baker and woodcarver – on the desolate island of Gjol in Denmark, where he carved his first elfin troll, inspired by local lore about creatures that dwelled in the Nordic forest, as a birthday present for his daughter. “He modeled its ugly face after a local butcher,” said his son, Neils Dam. “My father owed this man money, and this was his revenge.”

One winter, to supplement his meager income from shoveling snow, the only available work, Dam peddled his carvings door to door. When they sold out, he made figurines for displays in department store windows and more troll dolls, which he named Good Luck Trolls. In 1959, he began mass producing the dolls, making them out of rubber instead of wood and gluing on carded wool hair that had been dyed white, black or carrot orange. He began exporting them in 1960. Tens of millions sold. They were selected by the Toy Industry Association of America as the Toy of the Year in 1961.

Unschooled in business, Dam had not adequately protected his copyright in the United States, and he was unable to stop dozens of companies when they flooded the marketplace with counterfeits. In 1965, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that Trolls were in the public domain. Mr. Dam continued to make and sell Good Luck Trolls, but the Dam Company earned only a small percentage of the estimated $4.5 billion made from Trolls throughout the world.

Dam died in 1989, the year the United States joined the Berne Convention, which paved the way for individuals and companies to gain copyright and patents abroad that they held in their home countries. That, and the Uruguay Round World Trade Organization agreement in 1994, allowed the Dam Company to take knockoff manufacturers to court. As a result of a series of successful lawsuits, the Dam Company once again owned the worldwide rights to Trolls.

But by then Trollmania had subsided, though many children still played with the dolls, particularly in families in which parents handed down their tangled-haired menageries. In addition, collectors were buying and selling Trolls on eBay, where a white-haired sailor Troll with the face of an ape, from the mid-1960’s, recently went for nearly $400.

The Dam Company was approached by Disney, Pixar and other entertainment groups that wanted to license the characters for the sort of expansive, all-media treatment that has become routine for fantasy figures in recent years. Mr. Heyward got in touch Dam in 2003.

A 55-year-old businessman with silver hair brushed straight back and rose-tinted tortoise shell glasses, Mr. Heyward began his career as a writer and story editor at Hanna-Barbera Productions, before moving to France, where he worked for DIC Audiovisual, a production company that specialized in children’s animated programming. In 1982, Mr. Heyward returned to Los Angeles, where he led a management buyout of DIC, which was acquired by ABC/CapCities in 1993, which in turn became a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company in 1995. In 2000, Mr. Heyward bought back DIC, which has one of the world’s largest animation libraries, from Disney.

While watching his daughter play with an eraserhead Troll doll, Mr. Heyward became fascinated. “She couldn’t stop touching the hair,” he said. He contacted the Dam Company and arranged to meet Neils Dam, and the company’s president, Calle Ostergaard, in London. “Every major entertainment company came to us, but DIC had the most comprehensive plan,” Mr. Ostergaard said.

Once he secured the license, Mr. Heyward began to orchestrate a Troll revival. To serve the nostalgia and collectibles markets, he made a deal with the Play Along toy company to sell original Trolls, though he put most of his efforts and DIC’s resources into Trollz. After creating the characters and an initial story, he approached toy, book, apparel and entertainment companies, and, he said, he was inundated with offers.

Hasbro won an auction for the rights to produce the dolls. Neither Mr. Heyward nor Lorrie Browning, Hasbro’s general manager of girls’ toys, would reveal the winning bid, but Mr. Heyward said that Hasbro offered not only the most money, but also a full commitment to showcasing the dolls in its showrooms and catalogs. “We loved the updated and funky look,” Ms. Browning said.

That look includes midriff-revealing shorts and tops. And the Trollz have an attitude to match, uttering platitudes like this one from the series pilot, which was overseen by the company’s head writer, Eric Lewald: “Friends are even more important than hair gel.”

It remains to be seen if young girls will be won over, or if the makeover will backfire by erasing the essential quality of the original Trolls. “Like Cabbage Patch dolls, Trolls were so ugly they were cute,” said Denise Van Patten, author of the “Official Price Guide to Dolls,” to be published in April. “You wanted to take care of them.” Might Trollz prove to be too stylish for their own good?

Trollz, though dressed up, retain the originals’ signature hair, though their coiffures can have, for example, puffball pigtails, a permanent wave or puce-colored sea-urchin spikes. And it is the hair that may be the key to preserving the appeal of their forebears. “Hair play is essential in these characters,” Mr. Heyward said. “You watch girls with these things and they can’t stop touching the hair. It’s a visceral, maybe even primordial reaction. We’re banking on the hair.”

 

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