“Mighty Dolls” Turn Children’s Toys Into Inspirational Action Figures

Store-bought dolls these days have a certain sameness to them. Despite variations in hairstyle or shade of lipstick, choosing between Barbies on the shelf can be a process that comes down to such insignificant considerations as which one's shoes are trendiest. Based on a personal belief that toys can have significant impact on a child’s self-image, artist Wendy Tsao made it her mission to take those off-the-shelf dolls—in this case, figures from the controversial Bratz brand—and turn them into positive symbols of female inspiration and empowerment, rather than just “Girls with a Passion for Fashion.” The end result is a series of “Mighty Dolls”—playthings with something to be proud of.

Tsao didn't originally set out to design a line of role models with movable limbs. Inspired by the work of Sonja Singh, who had earlier released a series of doll "make-unders," Tsao simply wanted to play with the process herself to see what she could do with the mass-produced figurines. An earlier post on her website features her first set of "refurbished" dolls, scrubbed of their heavy makeup to better resemble the young girls who might want to play with them. These earlier dolls come with everyday names like Abby, Carina, and Emma, and each has her own mini-biography penned by Tsao.

Abby, for example, gets in trouble for reading under the covers when she should be sleeping, and Bella wants to study dolphins when she grows up. Even in Tsao's first foray into repainted dolls, she demonstrated a latent desire to show them not only as relatable, but admirable.

It wasn't a far leap, then, from Tsao's real-world dolls to her "Mighty Dolls," modeled after real women made famous by their various accomplishments. A post on Tsao’s website features an international cast of respected women, from Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar to Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, each with her own distinctive outfit and accessories. The J. K. Rowling doll features a knit scarf in Gryffindor’s signature colors, and Jane Goodall is shown with a cuddly primate posed by her feet. There are certainly no complaints to be made about sacrificing style for substance here. By Tsao’s account, these are “real-life people who are heroes too, with inspiring stories of courage, intelligence, strength, and uniqueness,” well suited to raise the tone of playtime. Her repainted, re-costumed dolls mimic the features of these grown heroines, but Tsao strives to portray even the older women as young girls, to reflect the dolls’ target audience (the exception being Malala, a heroine nearly young enough to still have dolls of her own).

A mother herself, Tsao says she would be thrilled to have her child play with these dolls and “have conversations about them,” taking into consideration not just their appearances, but their accomplishments as well.

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Mohammed Baroon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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11 Collectible Facts About Funko
Mohammed Baroon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Mohammed Baroon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Since 1998, vinyl figure factory Funko has been making it extremely simple to gift the pop culture fan in your life with a small-scale representation of their favorite movie, TV show, or video game. Engineered for maximum cuteness, their Pop! toys adorn million of desks and have inspired a devout following. If you’ve ever wondered about the larger story behind those button eyes and block-shaped heads, check out some facts about Funko’s history, its massive Washington headquarters that's open to fans, and why Tom Cruise may have shot down a chance at plastic immortality.

1. IT STARTED WITH BOB’S BIG BOY.

A Bob's Big Boy bobblehead package
Amazon

Your familiarity with the Bob’s Big Boy burger franchise may depend on your age and geographical location. The chain’s mascot—a large, pompadour-sporting hamburger server—has become a nostalgic touchstone for many. One of Bob’s fans, Snohomish, Washington native and T-shirt designer Mike Becker, went in search of a collectible but found the vintage figurines on eBay too pricey. Becker realized he could simply buy the Bob’s license and produce his own bobblehead figures, which is exactly what he started doing in 1998. While Becker’s mom wasn’t enthused—she told her son no one was going to want the figure—the Big Boy helped launch Becker's toy venture, which he dubbed Funko.

2. AUSTIN POWERS PUT THEM ON THE MAP.

A Wacky Wobbler bobblehead of the Austin Powers character Fat Bastard
Amazon

Though Bob’s Big Boy did well, Funko wasn’t a success story out of the gate. Retailers leaving Becker with unpaid invoices cut into profits, and scores of unsold inventory were stacked in his garage. Looking to expand his bobblehead line, Becker put in a cold call to New Line Cinema to see if they had any properties available for license. They did: A sequel to 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was due in 1999, so Becker made a deal for $2500 to produce bobbleheads of Powers and some of the supporting cast. Funko shipped 100,000 of the toys, cementing them as a viable player in the collectibles category.

3. THEY TURNED DOWN A LOT OF BOBBLEHEADS.

A bobblehead of a Major League Baseball player
Amazon

As Funko continued to grow, licensors started seeking out Becker. Some were surprised he had the temerity to turn them down. Major League Baseball teams wanted to license bobbles to hand out during games, but Becker shied away from athletes and their penchant for troublemaking. He preferred to stick with fictional characters and food mascots. “I know Betty Boop isn’t going to get a DUI,” he said. Funko also vetoed offers from Disney—they were very strict in approving designs—as well as from adult film stars.

4. FANS HATED THE POPS! AT FIRST.

A Funko Pop! of Skeletor poses with his staff
House of Geekdom, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Having grown tired of the demanding work schedule of his modestly-staffed company, Becker stepped down from Funko in 2005; golfing partner Brian Mariotti took over. In 2009, Mariotti agreed to work with DC Comics on a line of “cute” plush dolls of popular superheroes like Batman and Superman. But designers within Funko decided their anime-style look was a better fit for vinyl. The resulting Pop! line debuted at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con to a very tepid response. Funko fans were used to the bobblehead approach and kept their distance from the four-inch figurines. Licenses like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead eventually brought in new fans, and the Pop! figures went from a company pariah to their most successful line.

5. SOME POPS! GO FOR FOUR FIGURES.

A Funko Pop! of Loki from 'The Avengers'
Funko

Like any collectible, supply and demand can force aftermarket prices on Funko Pops! to climb. A Loki figure from 2012’s The Avengers that was available only at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con routinely sells for over $1000. So does Headless Ned Stark, a gore-caked variant of the doomed Game of Thrones character. A glow-in-the-dark Green Lantern limited to just 240 figures was released in 2010; that one will set you back over $1500.

6. TOM CRUISE MAY HAVE SHOT DOWN A POP!

A Funko Pop! figure of Tom Cruise as Nick Morton from 'The Mummy'
Funko

When Universal was aiming to create a monstrous cinematic universe with 2017’s The Mummy, the studio struck a deal with Funko to create a line of Pops! based on the film. In addition to two versions of the title character, Funko also designed a Nick Morton, the character played by Tom Cruise in the film. The mummies escaped, but the Cruise figure—his first Pop!—never saw the light of day. No official reason was disclosed, but some speculated that the actor rarely allows his likeness to be used on merchandising and may have intervened.

7. THEY HANDLE BUSINESS FOR OTHER TOY COMPANIES.

A Funko Dorbz figure of He-Man
Funko

Funko’s streamlined approach to toymaking has impressed companies that might be considered rivals. With a design able to go from paper to shelves in as little as 70 days and sporting a distinctive face attractive to collectors, some brands like Hasbro and Mattel have licensed out their characters for the Pop! treatment. Transformers and Masters of the Universe are among the properties doing brisk business.

8. THERE’S A SCIENCE TO THE CUTENESS.

A Funko Pop! of Vault Boy
Tom Crouse, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Most Funko figures provoke an “Aww” reaction from people, and that’s purely by design. Funko art director Sean Wilkinson has said that putting the nose just below the line of the eyes results in a more endearing expression. Characters that appear generic can also be individualized by focusing on their hairline or using accessories. The otherwise nondescript Joey from Friends, for example, gets an identity boost by being packaged with his pet duck.

9. THEY MAKE CEREAL NOW.

A Funko Pop! figure of Beetlejuice
Funko

Eager to explore new corners of pop culture, Funko is getting into the breakfast cereal game. Boxes of edible puffed corn are due to hit comic specialty shops this June based on movies like Beetlejuice, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gremlins, and Stephen King’s It. True to their overly-sweetened influences, many of the cereals will turn the milk a distinctively gross color: Freddy Krueger’s is blood red. The boxes will also come with their own mini-Pop! figure.

10. THEIR WASHINGTON HEADQUARTERS IS A FAN’S PARADISE.

A look inside the Funko gift shop in Everett, Washington
Funko

Part business tower and part tourist destination, Funko’s home base in Everett, Washington is a collector’s paradise. The 17,000-square-foot ground-floor store has oversized Pop! figures, custom toys, and themed areas based on popular licenses like Star Wars and Harry Potter. Some of the nods are less stylized: There’s a full-scale Batmobile based on the 1960s TV series that’s screen-accurate and even sports a replica Adam West in the driver’s seat. (Yes, you can take a photo next to him.) Funko staffers also host free workshops on weekends for people in Everett who want to learn more about art, sculpting, and illustration.

11. THERE’S ONE FIGURE THAT HAS ELUDED THEM.

A blank Funko Pop! figure is pictured
Funko

Funko Pops! number in the thousands and span virtually every recognizable license in entertainment, but there’s still one figure the company hasn’t been able to realize. According to vice president of creative Ben Butcher, a Pop! of Bruce Willis as the title character in the 1991 action-comedy Hudson Hawk is still on top of his wish list. Apparently, the rest of the company needs convincing.

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Build Your Own Harry Potter Characters With LEGO's New BrickHeadz Set

Harry Potter is looking pretty square these days. In a testament to the enduring appeal of the boy—and the franchise—who lived, LEGO has launched a line of Harry Potter BrickHeadz.

The gang’s all here in this latest collection, which was recently revealed during the toymaker’s Fall 2018 preview in New York City. Other highlights of that show included LEGO renderings of characters from Star Wars, Incredibles 2, and several Disney films, according to Inside The Magic.

The Harry Potter BrickHeadz collection will be released in July and includes figurines of Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, and even Hedwig. Some will be sold individually, while others come as a set.

A Ron Weasley figurine
LEGO

A Hermione figurine
LEGO

A Dumbledore figurine
LEGO

Harry Potter fans can also look forward to a four-story, 878-piece LEGO model of the Hogwarts Great Hall, which will be available for purchase August 1. Sets depicting the Whomping Willow, Hogwarts Express, and a quidditch match will hit shelves that same day.

[h/t Inside The Magic]

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