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Wednesday, March 22

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The holidays are upon us, which inevitably means the shopping season is, too. While the standards are always safe -- socks for dad, perfume for mom, a CD for brother or sister -- sometimes we just want to find a gift that means a little more. It's especially difficult to find things for people whose only hobby is media consumption; they already have the DVD, what more can you do? Well, the Gapers Block Critics have scoured the aisles and share with you a couple items for the movie and TV hound in your life.

The Princess Bride � the Complete Playsets

The Cliffs of Insanity. The Shrieking Eels. The Fire Swamp. The Pit of Despair. Sound familiar?

Hasdro is surprising the toy market this holiday season -- and putting itself on the line -- by selling four complete, intricately detailed and highly innovative playsets tied to the Princess Bride. Many in the industry are concerned that these are toys that prey on the nostalgia of Gen-X parents whose children are not likely to have an appreciation for the 1987 cult classic. The manufacturer is also breaking barriers by offering these impressively interactive playsets -- complete with fully posable figurines -- for fairly steep prices when compared to other toys on the market. The size of these playsets is intimidating -- most are 3 feet tall or wide -- but Hasdro technicians have managed to design them with compact storage in mind. These aren't flimsy Barbie playsets, though; they're meaty and considerable, and they provide a stimulating environment for play. The sets cost between $150 and $325 -- a lot to pay if you can't persuade your kids to fall for the adventures in the movie, but it's a steal when you consider what these playsets offer when compared to other pricey toys on the market.

We at the Gapers Block Consumer Testing Facility have had a chance to review the products and now we're weighing in: these are wonderful toys, truly some of the best we've seen. Your kids may look upon them skeptically at first, and we recommend sharing the movie with them beforehand to provide context. After that, they're sure to be impressed.

Hasdro offers four playsets: The Cliffs of Insanity, The Pit of Despair, Miracle Max's Hut and Humperdink's Castle. Each is remarkable and ambitious in its own way. The two more popular sets for boys and girls will ultimately be the Cliffs of Insanity ($250) and Humperdink's Castle ($325). Both have a high action figure count and more opportunities for intrigue, dialog and action.

The Cliffs of Insanity boasts a three-foot-tall rock face with castle ruins crowning its peak. It's ideally scaled for the six-inch Dread Pirate Roberts to climb up after the scoundrels who absconded with Buttercup. And the ruined castle is perfectly suited for swordsman Inigo Montoya's duel with the legendary Roberts. The playset comes complete with Roberts, Montoya, Fezzik the Giant, Vizzini the mastermind, and Buttercup. This remarkable playset isn't an inert object that serves as a stage for the figures: it is "smart" enough to know which figures are where at all times. Is Vizzini hovering close to the cliff's edge while the Dread Pirate Roberts is scaling below? The playset registers the specific positioning of the figures and flawlessly emits "Inconceivable!" in Vizzini's voice. This particular playset is loaded with more than 20 lines of dialog from the movie, and each is voiced depending on the positioning of the figures within the set itself.

Humperdink's Castle really is the best bargain for your money, though. It features five areas (the Chapel, Humperdink's Study, Buttercup's Bedroom, the Dining Hall and the Gate) and has an bounty of figures -- everyone from Fezzik in his Holocast Cloak (he actually moans "I am the Dwead Piwate Woberts!" when placed on the wheelbarrow prop) to the Chaplain ("Mawwiage!"). The playset also has the largest number of dialog points: 28 lines, the majority devoted to the duel between Inigo Montoya and Count Rugen, the Six-Fingered Man -- which is just as well because these are some of the more memorable in the film.

The Miracle Max set will probably fail to impress your kids -- it's small, cramped and loaded with dialog from the film that many kids probably won't enjoy. And the Pit of Despair is probably not suited for the little ones in your family: the delivery of Westley's screams as the life is drained from him are unsettling to say the least. Both playsets are likely to become instant collectors items, though.

It's notable that a playset for the Fire Swamp was left out. While exteriors are difficult to render in playsets, the discovery of the Dread Pirate Roberts's true identity is a crucial plot point that is left out of these otherwise remarkable toys.
-BH

CSI Beanie Friends

At the peak of Beanie Baby mania, everything ended up beanie-ized. My mom even got me a set of Star Wars "Beanie Buddies" for Christmas one year, despite my vocal distaste for the phenomenon (of beanie dolls, not Star Wars). Thankfully, as the millennium wears on the luster has worn off the bean-stuffed plush market, taking the college funds of thousands of kids along with it.

That doesn't mean that new beanies aren't coming out. In fact, they're pumped out at least at the rate they were five years ago, if not more. One of the latest to hit store shelves is another entertainment tie-in, this time capitalizing on the popularity of the "CSI" constellation of television series. Yes, those sexy crime scene investigators from Las Vegas, Miami and New York have been rendered in velveteen for your child's pleasure.

Well, maybe not your kid's. Each set also comes with a victim beanie, one of three pulled from episodes of each "CSI" flavor. From the original, we get the dead transsexual from the episode "Ch-Ch-Changes," "CSI Miami" contributes the shot-and-shark-bitten woman from "Bait" and the new New York series offers up the dead DJ from its premiere episode, "Grand Master." Thankfully the makers, Delmonico Designs, didn't pick any of the dismembered victims. Still, the rather gruesome bullet wounds, throat slashes and shark bites on the dolls are a bit much for a pre-teen.

The character toys themselves aren't bad. The representations of team leaders Grissom, Caine and Taylor are pretty dead-on. Turns out David Caruso makes a really cute beanie, if a bit leprechaun-ish. Fan favorite Warrick Brown sports a rather stylish leatherette jacket. On the other hand, the female characters look a bit stocky -- Emily Procter's Calleigh Duquesne has never looked so chubby.

I guess the idea here is that kids will act out scenes from the show -- assuming their parents allow them to watch such grisly fare. To that end, each beanie comes with a profile card (reminiscent of the ones that came with GI Joe figures) and the sets come with synopsis of the episode that starred the featured victim. Also included are bits of generic "evidence," such as guns and crime scene photos, printed on cardboard.

Personally, I can't imagine any child wanting to play with any of these "Beanie Friends." They're not at all friendly -- in fact, not a single one of the toys is even smiling. (Apparently, Delmonico Designs started its TV series-based beanies with a set of "Friends" dolls, and decided to name the line after them. There's also a set of "NYPD Blue" dolls) They're obviously aimed more at the adult fanbase, which makes the kid-oriented packaging a bit disingenuous on the manufacturer's part. Unless you're a huge fan, I'd keep your money in your wallet and leave these beanbags to the prospectors on eBay.
-AH

 

About the Author(s)

The Critic is a regular feature of "real reviews of fake things." Sorry, you can't buy these items, they don't exist.
Brandon Heckman is a writer currently living in Madison, WI, but moving to Chicago real soon. Andrew Huff is editor of Gapers Block.

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