J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth chronicles include The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King and the highly successful predecessor to the series, The Hobbit. These stories have been immensely popular since their publication over 40 years ago. There has been a resurgence of interest in the Tolkien works after a brief lull in the 1980's. And with Saul Zaentz (producer of The English Patient) and Miramax pushing ahead with the planned Lord of the Rings motion picture, the timing could not be more opportune for this new line.
The Lord of the Rings was used as the basis for a 1979 toy line from Knickerbocker based on the animated movie of that time (also produced by Saul Zaentz). Middle Earth Toys updates the license by employing modern sculpting techniques and a more realistic (as opposed to animated) style, basically blowing the old figures off the map.
Middle Earth Toys believes they know what the toy collecting fan base wants and is trying its hardest to deliver the goods right off the bat. The parent company, Toy Vault, was founded in 1997 by Jon Huston. The decision to pursue specific licenses was not haphazard. Tremendous thought and research went into selecting the properties that the new company will pursue. Their debut effort is set to come to fruition in July of this year and if the preliminary offerings are any indication of the company's potential, there would seem to be a bright future ahead for the new start up venture.
"Our goal is to produce toys that are realistic, conform to the licenses, and are fun." says Huston.
While many companies seem to be moving toward making figures that are never intended to be removed from the packaging, Middle Earth Toys is designing figures that are intended to have play value.
"We designed these figures for people that open their toys." commented Huston about the effort and detail that has gone into the features and accessories.
The first two characters to be produced by Middle Earth Toys are Balrog and Gandalf. Each figure has two versions and will be available first through Diamond Distributors and later through other direct toy retailers. Tentatively scheduled for release in September are Elrond (Elvin King) and Ugluk (Saruman White Hand Orc).
Gandalf the Grey is the specialty-market exclusive and features a grey robe and cloak (with metal chain and silver scarf attached to the cloak), a removable hat, belt, scabbard, sword, tobacco pouch, food pouch,and a pipe. Most of the accessories affix to the belt and there is even a hole in Gandalf's mouth to accomodate the pipe. Add to this a hexagonal base and a staff that lights up on the end when it is placed in Gandalf's hand in a specific position.
The direct market release is Gandalf the White with a completely resculpted head and of course, a white robe and cloak. The version is not a light-up figure and comes with fewer accessories to keep costs down, but it is beautifully crafted and a sight to behold all the same. Both of the general release figures will retail for slightly less than the more expensive light-up variants.
The Balrog of Khazad-dum is the specialty-market exclusive of this beast and features a light up mane and eyes, removable wings and some pretty cool accessories. You get a cat'o nine-tails type whip and an amazingly detailed sword. The sword has the runes for "Death" on the blade and near the hilt, you'll see Death's head with its eyes open on one side and eyes closed on the other. There are (tentatively) 12 points of articulation and a hexagonal base to round out this massive beast who stands nearly 10 inches high with the wings fully extended. The Earth Balrog is the general release of the figure and he comes with different accessories and a completely different paint job. It also won't have the hexagonal stand or a light up function..
A follow-up assortment is already in the works for November. That line-up may include: Frodo, Boromir, Barrow Wight, and the Lord of the Nazgul. We've seen a rejected sculpt for this last piece and if this is the quality of the sculpts they are not using, we can't wait to see what they actually go with. Given the range of characters they have to choose from, the potential for expanding this license is enormous.
"One of the strengths of a license like Lord of the Rings is the creative flexibility and freedom you have. If a company says they are going to do a Wonder Woman figure, sure it's going to be that company's interpretation of Wonder Woman, but everybody already knows pretty much what to expect. With literary property such as [Lord of the Rings], we are guided by the literary descriptions, but we can create something no one has ever seen and still be true to the source." said Huston.
Huston also noted that there are plans to produce Hobbit figures, but not for the next several years. As it stands now, it appears that there will be plenty to keep Middle Earth Toys fans satisfied until then.
The team working on the new Lord of the Rings figures has quite a pedigree. The artist and sculptor of the figures is Daniel Horne. Horne worked for gaming pioneer TSR in the seventies and he has done artwork for well over 200 book covers. Lord of the Rings is Horne's first action figure sculpting job. The pencil drawings shown on this page are original concept art for the first two figures done by Horne. To see more of Horne's concept art, check out this gallery.
"He has put some amazing details into the figures and accessories" said Huston "For example, the swords have knicks where they have been used over time."
It is details like this that may make this new line stand out among the fierce competition for your action figure dollar. Middle Earth Toys has given thought to all the details including the package art. Renowned Tolkien artist John Howe has done some incredible original artwork for the cards and cardbacks. To see more of Howe's original paintings for the Lord of the Rings packaging, check out this gallery.
In a trendsetting move, all artists associated with the Lord of the Rings line will be explicitly credited on the cardbacks. Many believe that this is a standard that is long overdue in the industry.
So what's next for Toy Vault?
"We've just acquired another exciting license we will be unveiling later this year. We don't like to announce our licenses until we have something tangible to show people. But I think people will be thrilled with our next project as well." said Huston.
Huston believes that they'll be able to announce their next venture around May. Our lips are sealed, but we're equally excited about this upcoming project as we are about the new Lord of the Rings figures.
Look for the Lord of the Rings figures in July. Ask your local comic retailer to keep an eye on Previews for the product announcement. Then these figures should be in your favorite toy stores by Fall.