You can call me Professor Snape, but Harry Potterfenalia is leaving me pretty cold. I loved the four books as much as anyone—my son, Sam, now 10, has grown up with those stories, and they are, in fact, the only reason he bothers to read at all. Unless you live in a cave—and now we all know someone who does—you already know that J.K. Rowling’s books chronicle the story of an exceptionally good English boy orphaned at the hands of an evil wizard. When the boy, Harry, leaves his nasty, dimwitted relatives to attend an exceptionally eccentric—even by English standards—boarding school, he embarks on a series of adventures that force him to accept both his magical powers and his destiny. The books possess the magic of all great children’s literature: Before you know it, you’ve imagined yourself into a perfectly rendered, child-sized alternate reality.
And that’s the problem with the tie-ins. If you’ve spent any time in toy stores lately, you know that the chains in particular resemble ravenous subsidiaries of Disney, AOL Time Warner, or 20th Century Fox. On a recent visit to my city’s chichi FAO Schwartz, for instance, the displays for products touting Harry Potter, Monsters, Inc., and the upcoming Lord of the Rings films made the stand-alone stuffed animals look like endangered species. (A smattering of old-fashioned toy tanks and helicopters provided some relief. They seemed, suddenly, fresh.) The case against most tie-in toys, from a grouchy parent’s perspective, is that they don’t inspire kids to dream up much beyond the plots of movies or TV shows they’ve already seen. Toy makers, of course, think less about parents and kids and more about George Lucas, who managed to convince zillions of children and some stunningly impressionable grown-ups that acquiring plastic replicas (aka “collectibles”) of every single Star Wars character is a noble pursuit.
Harry Potter was going to be different. Much was made in the press of the care that licensees (all 85 of them) would be taking to remain true to the spirit of Rowling’s books and the delicate sensibilities of children around the globe. There was even a small element of risk that no one was talking about: Earlier Harry Potter products—those just tied to the books—were not blockbusters in the toy world. Last year was a Harry Potter Christmas at our house, for instance, but the haul was pretty low-tech: a gold-leafed edition of Book 1, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, along with stationery, posters, bookmarks, mugs, colored “magic” rocks, and jelly beans purported to taste like, if memory serves, vomit. The products were relatively inexpensive and, as an added plus for parents, didn’t demand any moral, ethical, or political trade-offs.
But that was pre-movie. Today’s big-ticket Potter toys show just how hard it can be to convert the ephemeral magic of the book into something concrete. Parents this year should steel themselves, for instance, against kid-launched lobbying campaigns for that $100-plus, motorized Hogwarts Express (a pretty standard train set) or—the product that seems to be getting the biggest media push—the Harry Potter Powercaster Electronic Spell Casting Playset, which, according to the box, features “Magical lights, sounds and animation.” (In other words, two investment-grade collectible figures face off on a battery-powered stage in a game eerily reminiscent of Pokémon.) There’s also an electronic Quidditch game with “collector quality figures included.” (In case you miss the point, a warning on this box states there are “Limited quantities available of Dumbledore, Malfoy and Professor Quirrell.”) The Hogwarts School Deluxe Electronic Playset promises “Rooms with magical features and sounds. … Food magically appears! Harry circles the Great Hall! Feather floats!” And yes, there’s a replica of Harry’s souped-up flying broomstick, the Nimbus 2000, made of indestructible plastic and containing inexplicably on its shaft a working facsimile of an ‘80s era video game. (I’m not kidding. The screen is black and white.) Parents don’t have to be psychic to predict the life span of these toys: inversely proportional to their technical wizardry. I guess we’re long past the point where a real broom, tricked up with (real) bells and whistles could pass muster with anyone but the most naive 3-year-old. Even so, in the toy world, as in the movie world, more high-tech doesn’t necessarily mean more magic. “Trying too hard” was the phrase that kept passing through my mind on my shopping expedition.
In fact, the mid-tech Harry Potter toys have something their pricey, pyrotechnically gifted cousins lack: a sense of humor. The Talking Portrait Room Alarm (“Hang your talking portrait on the wall … and activate the sensor”) is a framed picture of a cartoonlike dowager with eyes that flash (yes, electronically) at the sign of any intruder. In a voice that sounds like a cross between Queen Elizabeth, Truman Capote, and a buzz saw, she tells intruders, “You shouldn’t be here” or “You can’t get in without the password” and asks, “Where are you going?” (The talking portrait can be a little hard to understand. The saleswoman at FAO Schwarz, who may have experienced English as a second language, had some trouble translating all of her lines for me. “She has a lot of phrases,” she explained, ending the conversation.) It isn’t hard to imagine the appeal of such a device to older kids with prying parents and investigative siblings. From a marketing standpoint, the product is pretty shrewd, too: The owner of my neighborhood toy store pointed out that the Harry Potter books are geared for children who read at about a sixth-grade level, while most toys sell to much younger kids. To rack up big sales, retailers have to get preteens into the Potter tent, hence the emphasis on action, adventure, and irony, a quality that isn’t exactly larded into the Potter books. (Sam displayed a desultory interest in most of the Harry Potter toys, and then went berserk for a $2.95 box of Edward Gorey-like stationery on display with the Lemony Snicket series. This was a clear indication to me that his childhood is pretty much over.)
OK, so I liked the low-tech stuff best. We’re long past the Lego stage at our house, but the $125 Lego Hogwarts Castle looked like a winner to me—you could probably cook a meal, clean a bedroom, and maybe even squeeze in a phone conversation or two with that around to keep a 5-year-old busy. Countless smaller Lego versions are available, though Hagrid’s Hut looked suspiciously like a fast food drive thru, which didn’t strike me as an accident. The miniature plush toys were very inexpensive—around $7 for a curly coated, crooked-tailed Crookshanks that was far more winning than any of the so-called action collectibles. (The soiled shade of pink selected for the cat’s fur was truly inspired.) But