Every year, The A.V. Club thoughtfully takes its readers' budgets into account and scours toy stores for the most affordable, least thoughtful presents on the market. After all, we figure, if we can point you toward some cut-rate lump of plastic with a famous face on it, you might save a few bucks you would otherwise spend on your kids and kin, and that leaves you with more money to spend on the licensed Onion merchandise that is the true reason for the season. But this year, with the tanking economy, plummeting stock market, rising unemployment, disappearing industries, and taxpayer-gouging bailouts, we realize you don't have money for us. In all likelihood, you don't even have money for yourself. So this year, we present the Cheap Toy Roundup solely as an altruistic gesture. You can pay us back with cash under the table.
Hulkey Pokey Hulk ($23.99, from $32.99)
Some fans dug Ang Lee's artsy deconstruction of The Incredible Hulk; others preferred Louis Leterrier's more conventional, action-heavy take on the material. But critics and audiences united in their desire to see the Incredible Hulk do more singing and dancing in the lurching animatronic style popularized by recent Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee Chuck E. Cheese. Thankfully, Hasbro's Hulkey Pokey Hulk Doll corrects that grievous oversight by giving the young people a soft, cuddly Hulk who speaks in a high-pitched squeak which suggests either that he's an ebullient 5-year-old, or he was recently castrated. Simply press Hulk's big toes, and he wriggles about and sings either "The Hulkey Pokey" or "I'm A Friendly Hulk Hero." ("I'm a friendly Hulk hero / Super-gamma charged / When I flex my muscles, I can lift up cars!") The big green guy has never been more adorable.
DC Super Friends Be Brave Buddies Flash Plush Figure ($9.99, from $16.99)
And speaking of adorable superheroes, someone out there is clearly trying to neuter all those superhero-related adolescent fantasies of power and violence by turning some of DC's signature figures into chubby, double-chinned little waddlers with really bad camel-toe. Seriously, that odd little labial fold isn't just a wrinkle, it's been carefully sewn into Flash's crotch. Maybe the sex-change hormone regimen explains his drastic weight gain, though it seems like all that running around at supersonic speeds should help him stay in better shape.
Johnny Lightning Calendar Cars: Vanessa ($1.99, from $3.33)
"I've been a big fan of Camaro's [sic.] ever since my high school boyfriend taught me how to really drive it. I saved every penny to buy my dream car-this '69 Camaro," gushes Calendar Car Girl "Vanessa" on the package of her installment of "Johnny Lightning Calendar Cars." Vanessa's strangely hypnotic, gravity-defying, silicone-enhanced cleavage, bleached-blonde hair, and sex-robot expression all invite steamy speculation as to how exactly her boyfriend taught her to "really" drive a Camaro. Calendar Cars are approved for children 8 and up, so come Christmas morning, dad and son can try and fail not to leer at Vanessa's formidable boobage while mom shoots them disapproving glares under the tree. Good times, good times!
Fuzzy Rings ($.33)
Now, this is just lazy. Back in our day, lemme tell ya, we hunted down our own troll dolls, we killed 'em ourselves, and we made our own grisly trophies out of their scalps. We didn't rely on some cheap-ass Taiwanese manufacturer to do it for us. How do kids these days even manage their coming-of-age ritual-ceremony dances when they haven't been bloodied in the troll hunts?
"Ain't Gonna Happen" Hot Button ($3.99, from $5.99)
What could be more annoying than a giant novelty button that repeats the same inane catchphrase every time you press it? Absolutely nothing! That's the thinking behind Hot Buttons, a sinister line of wacky toys that combine the convenience of buttons with the surreal annoyance of mindless buzzwords. Simply push the big red Hot Button, and a queeny voice minces, "Ain't gonna HAP-pen!" as if auditioning for the role of the sassy gay neighbor on an '80s sitcom. But that isn't all: Other "Hot Buttons" spout such timeless phrases as "LOL!", "Sweet!", "You want it when?", "Like I really care," "I don't think so!", and "Get a grip!" Note: Hot Button manufacturer 4Kidz is not responsible for murders provoked by longtime use of its products.
7 Glowing Maggots ($.75)
What, you don't think seven glowing maggots (why is the packaging so specific about that? Even the cartoony drawing depicts exactly seven maggots.) is appropriately Christmas-y? You will once you realize how well "Seven glowing maggots!" scans as a line in "12 Days Of Christmas." Now try to get that out of your head.
Amazing Animals Panda ($9.89, from $14.99)
Okay, the fixed facial rictus, lopsided eyes, bad application of rouge, and sprawled limbs all say "Drunken barfly trying to get laid on a Friday night" more than they say "adorable panda." More to the point, this creature's distended, deformed feet are likely to give kids one of two things: confused ideas about animal anatomy, or nightmares. The toy manufacturers are pretty confused themselves: The back of the packaging boasts about this panda's "soft, textured paws," which are actually made of rigid plastic. Looks like a marketing exec somewhere got raised by the wire mommy, and doesn't know what softness feels like.
Mystical UFO Disk ($4.99)
No, none of us at The A.V. Club speak Chinese, but that doesn't stop us from mocking the awesome Engrish to be found on the cheapest of cheap toys. Take, for example, this "mystical UFO disk," whose packaging instructs: "The hand seizes the UFO top head. UFO will be able automatic revolving." And when you're done seizing? "Completion." Unlike most cheap-ass Chinese toys, though, this one is a blast: It's a super-fast spinning top, complete with lights and noise guaranteed to annoy parents everywhere. And getting it to stop is a fun game-you have to snatch it and physically subdue it! (We tried to find the official price online, and only found out that it's marketed to wholesalers with the compelling sell-line "It takes the music and can circumvolve on the ground.")
Pro-Bots: Tony Romo ($7.99, from $12.99)
The blockbuster success of Transformers casts a long shadow over this year's Cheap Toy Roundup. For example, The Incredible Hulk is now available in half-vehicle, half-superhero form, as is his pal Iron Man. But that's nothing compared to Pro-Bots, a NFL-licensed toy that finally answers the unasked question "What if Brett Favre were a terrifying android instead of a hundred-year-old man held together by duct tape?" But be sure to keep robot Jessica Simpson away from Pro-Bot Tony Romo; his wiring apparently goes haywire whenever it comes within a hundred feet of the busty robo-songstress. The Pro-Bots send children the inspiring message that professional athletes are just like them, only superhuman and part robot.
Hot Wheels Mystery Car ($1.99, from $2.99)
"You never know what you'll find when you open a Hot Wheels Mystery™ car. Mystery™ cars may be as collectable as they are mysterious," teases the package of the Hot Wheels® Mystery™ Car ®. So, there you have it, folks: The Hot Wheels® Mystery™ Car ® may be collectable. It may be a car. It may even be collectable in direct proportion to its mysteriosity. Or it may be the signature auto of the douche who calls himself Mystery on VH1's The Pick-Up Artist. We'll never know, on account of the car being so damned Mysterious™.
Monkey Man action figure from Raiders Of The Lost Ark ($5.99, from $8.99)
Some critics have accused the Indiana Jones franchise of being racist, imperialistic, and condescending in its depiction of other cultures. The Monkey Man action figure from Raiders Of The Lost Ark should single-handedly disprove that contention with its empowering, culturally sensitive depiction of an Arab character known only as Monkey Man. The description on the back delineates a few of Monkey Man's many virtues: He's a knife-wielding, one-eyed mercenary in league with the Nazis who tries to poison Indiana Jones, but succeeds "only in murdering his own pet monkey." So while it'd probably be a stretch to call him a hero, we can all at least agree that he isn't worse than Hitler. That's a start, right?
Matchbox's Hitch 'N Haul Dragon Castle playset ($2.50, from $3.99)
Matchbox's Hitch 'N Haul Dragon Castle playset occupies some sort of strange time-warp-addled alternate dimension where dragons and catapults somehow comfortably co-exist with off-road utility vehicles. Accordingly, the playset includes a Land Rover Defender 90, an Angry Dragon, a Knight, a medieval Cart, a Working Catapult, and an Archer. Can an off-road vehicle toting a working catapult survive an encounter with an angry dragon? There's only one way to find out. Buy it now before Uwe Boll turns it into a sequel to In The Name Of The King: A Dragon Tale Movie.
VDub$: Orange Bang ($1.99, from $2.99)
VDub$'s '62 Volkswagen metallic toy takes children back to a simpler, less-complicated era when Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters blew squares' minds and an entire generation tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. "Orange Bang!" yells the side of the bus, which, not so coincidentally, happens to be the name of the LSD manufactured by the hippie freaks inside it.
Rocky Balboa: Larry Merchant ($4.99, from $14.99)
The Rocky series introduced audiences to a slew of iconic characters: big-hearted palooka Rocky Balboa, true-blue wife Adrian, flashy champion Apollo Creed, crusty old trainer Mickey, fearsome Russian killing machine Drago, grappler Thunderlips, and Mr. T's Clubber Lang, just for starters. And of course, who can possibly forget Larry Merchant? What's that? You've never even heard of Larry Merchant? That hasn't kept Jakks Pacific from making an action figure of him. It's apparently for kids who are really into boxing history.
Spin Combat Bonus 2 Pack ($1.88, from $3.99)
"Try me Light Up," says this magical "bonus" two-pack, which isn't much of a bonus, since if you only had one top, you wouldn't have much "spin combat" going on at all. The photo shows amazing lightning bolts emanating from two top-like plastic doohickeys, as if there was a huge electrical battle going on. In reality, the tiny lights inside the two tops don't work, and after a few minutes of setting tops against other in glorious combat, it gets mighty boring. Pit them against the comparatively gigantic Mystical UFO Disk, though, and things could get crazy.
Kitchenware: Let's Be Chefs ($1)
This small set of plastic toys covers pretty much every kitchen-related need: It has a spatula/spoon thing, a big-ass cleaver, and a pan with a fried egg and two enormous conjoined sausages in it. But the greatest thing about "Let's be chefs" is the tagline on the package: "New style Flashing enter." What exactly about these old-school chunks o' plastic is new-style, flashing, or capable of being entered in any way?
My First Phone ($1) and CutiePals soft-toy phone ($1)
To be fair, the CutiePals item doesn't actually claim to be a cell phone-it just looks like one, and features four "buttons" numbered 1 through 4. (Infants don't know that many numbers anyway.) It is the right size, though, to get baby used to clutching a BlackBerry and being part of the corporate machine from the crib onward. The tiny My First Phone book has a full complement of numbers on it, and is sort of vaguely shaped like an actual cell phone. Inside, a creepy-looking little girl never goes outside to play with her toddler friends-they just talk on the phone. Next in the series: My First Agoraphobic Attack, followed by My First Obesity Diagnosis And Gastric Bypass Surgery.
David Smells! ($4.99, from $6.99) and Get Lost, Becka! ($1.78, from $2.48)
And while we're on the way to making our kids neurotic anyway, we can speed the process along with these handy, unpleasantly aggressive books. David Smells! is a simple board-book whose few pages are meant to describe an infant's five senses in a few simple early-reader words, but each sense is accompanied by a garishly distorted picture and the infant Diaper David doing something wrong. "Leave him alone, David!" commands the page on touch, which has David reaching for the dog. Taste is "Don't eat that!" and hearing is "David! That's too loud!" Clearly Diaper David is going to grow up to be a cringing, broken man, desperate for any sign of approval. And check out the other titles available: No, David!, Oops!, David In Trouble, Oh, David!, and presumably soon David Gets A Severe Thrashing. Meanwhile, over in girlville, Get Lost, Becka! features a girl named Becka whose bitchy older sister won't play with her, because she's too little. So she fantasizes in detail about someday being bigger and older than her sister, and driving her to tears by saying "Get lost, Jenny!" Got news for you, Becka-Jenny will always be older. Your only shot at growing up faster is by taking up sex and drugs as soon as possible.
Indiana Jones: Mutt Williams figure ($4.19, from $5.48)
Wait a few more seconds, and all the crappy toys from the crappy, crappy Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull will be even cheaper. This one features Shia LaBeouf's character Mutt looking dazed and clutching a switchblade. There's also a plastic snake and a special "hidden relic," which turns out to be one of those stupid Egyptian eyes that goth girls like to get tattooed on their arms. Still, playing with this toy is better than watching Crystal Skull again.
The Price Is Right Electronic Game ($12.48, from $24.99)
Nothing says "Kids will love this game!" more than a focus on shopping and Drew Carey. Not that this silly thing is aimed at kids, of course. The beloved game show has been rocketed into the '80s with this electronic setup, which includes a tiny screen, some wacky sounds, and a "big wheel" that isn't connected to anything. (You're on the honor system with your spins, basically.) But if you're looking for a simulation that allows you to be almost as lazy as you would be just watching a game show, this is the place to start. The back even has a Plinko setup, so you can drop tiny pieces of plastic into mazes until your heart stops.
DC Universe: The Joker Vs. Batgirl Fighting Figures ($6.99, from $8.95)
Somebody in the DC licensing department must have a vicious sense of humor, judging by the pairing of this particular hero and villain as part of the "Vs." series. Yes, Batgirl looks like she can hold her own, with her up-thrusting knee and "Power Punch," even against the Joker's "Battle Blaster," with its enormous lip-shaped barrel and projectile tongue. But anyone who's read Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke knows how this story is going to end: with the Joker severing Batgirl's spine and taking humiliating pornographic photos of her, in order to torture her father, Commissioner James Gordon. Try not to dwell on how the Joker might use that Battle Blaster.
Buzzerks Eyeware Hornet ($5.99, from $18.30)
The same company that gave us the appalling Beetle Barn Lifecycle Kit for last year's Cheap Toy Roundup is back with these tinted glasses, which let you "Look like a Bug! See like a Bug!" Because you really want to understand the viewpoint of those pets you sent away for, raised in your Beetle Barn, then killed in the freezer when you got bored of them, just like the instructions suggested. The packaging notes that Buzzerks Eyeware glasses "will not protect your eyes while looking directly into the sun." They also won't protect your fragile heart, or contain your many tears, when you see life through bug eyes and come to closely empathize with your poor dead Beetle Barn buddies. Well, if you can get these things to work. Unsurprisingly, they're kinda cheap and face-pinchy, and the little faceted lenses that let you "See like a Bug!" have a tendency to flop around and hit you in the eyes if you look up.
Instant Railroad ($.99, from $2)
For the past two years, the Cheap Toy Roundup has aimed to keep readers informed of the latest advancements in the "drop a capsule in the water, wait 30 seconds for a tiny, entertainingly shaped sponge" field of toy tech. This year, our old bear-fucking friend Capsule Man invites us to ride on the Instant Railroad, for hours of "educational fun." (Note: The "educational" part consists of a few historical facts about trains on the back of the package.) The Capsule Railroad consists of the usual set of train cars: an engine, a caboose, a tanker, and cars for lions, elephants, and giraffes. The giraffes' necks stick way out from their car, but don't worry about tunnels or low bridges; if the sponge-giraffes hit their heads, the worst you can expect is a little water loss.
Milli Zilla ($1.99, from $4.99)
Club Earth is responsible for this rainbow-colored rubbery millipede, which they're attempting to sell as a "soft & stretchy mutant." It's true that this creature is of unusual size and coloration for an arthropod (with the possible exception of the archispirostreptus gigas, which can grow up to almost a foot in length, and has stripey red legs). As a toy, though, this Milli Zilla just ain't that freaky. It's almost as if Club Earth had a spare millipede mold at their factory, and the marketing team convinced themselves that kids were more likely to buy a replica creepy-crawly if it were pitched as some kind of alien grotesquerie. Granted, the science-fiction spin does make the environmental movement more exciting. Wouldn't some stupid old-growth forest be cooler if those trees were recast as rampaging monsters?
American Idol FM Wireless Mic ($5.99, from $24.89)
In the spirit of Mr. Microphone, this limited-range broadcasting device allows budding David Archuletas and Brooke Whites to "sing along with the radio" by hearing their voices come through speakers as a song plays. That way, when the Idol fans reach audition age, they can be all the more indignant when the judges don't vote for them. "But in my room, I sound just like Carrie Underwood!"
Hannah Montana Fact Or Fancy Game ($5.99, from $19.99)
If you know that Hannah Montana's favorite exclamation is "Sweet niblets!" or if you crack your knuckles like The Cracker, or if you have a babysitting experience every bit as bad as "Miley and her neighbor's bratty niece," then you're all set for this intensely HM-specific trivia/truth-or-dare game. Because when you're a pre-teen girl, it isn't enough to kind of enjoy an entertainer. You have to put in the time to become an extra-defensive, easily heartbroken expert, or else what's the point?
Pro Skaters Collectors Series 2: Alex Sherman ($6.99, from $12.99)
With this super-swivelly Alex Sherman action figure-from the company with "the most articulated extreme sports figures"-you too can pretend to be a professional skateboarder. Hustle for endorsement deals! Squeeze as much coin as you can from the five minutes of face time you get each year on ESPN! Ponder how an idle afternoon activity turned into a soul-crushing grind! Kicker ramp and bonus stickers included. Weed and pills sold separately.
Little Tikes DiscoverSounds PDA ($4.99, from $27.99)
Reaction of baby upon receiving toy PDA: "Hey, all right! Now I can keep up with my Gerber stock, take pictures of myself to send out to all the relatives in ridiculously large e-mail attachments, and schedule my tummy time. Wait, what's this? Why is the screen filled with liquid and floating shapes? Why can't I access my Twitter account? Waah! Waaaaah!"
Nose Flute ($.99)
"Easy to play! Great for parties!" True, it's convenient at parties when it's 1 a.m. and the guests won't leave. Just whip out this eye-ache-inducing piece of plastic and start blowing snot all over it while trying to produce a tune, and watch the freeloaders find the door.
Kidfun Keychain ($.33)
Kidfun produces a whole line of keychains that mimic fancy little Japanese dishes, complete with cunningly painted little eggs, pickled vegetables, and other garnishes on top. Something went wrong with this one. Presumed intended item: bowl of ramen. Actual item: bowl of barf. Still, the gross-out factor will probably make some latchkey boy in the second grade very happy.
Billonaire Cashier ($2)
People in communist countries sometimes have a skewed idea of what life in America is like, especially since they often get most of their ideas from state-sanctioned, anti-capitalist media and from black-market American entertainment. For decades, American TV shows and movies have been pushing the idea that the lowliest book editor in New York City can afford a gorgeously appointed four-bedroom apartment with a terrific view. And clearly the Chinese have bought this fantasy hook, line, and sinker: They believe that even the lowliest cashier in America is a billionaire. (Whoops. Actually "billonaire.") So here's this little cash set, all ready to train your kids for a lifetime of making change at McDonalds, Wal-Mart, or if they're really lucky, their local bank. (Assuming any banks survive the current crisis.) And while they're training for their low-status economic servitude and dreaming of being "billonaires," they can also enjoy "fun playing money cash drawer educational while having fun!"
Yes, we aren't the intended market for a bunch of plastic toy horses. Yes, we have dirty minds. Yes, we are bad people who should not be allowed near children. Nonetheless, doesn't this look like the world's biggest horse gang-bang? That's some enthusiastic daisy-chaining right there.
Do You Look Like Your Dog? ($12.99, from $16.99)
They had to make a whole board game to help people answer this basic question? They didn't trust people to just look in the mirror and figure it out for themselves? Maybe the gamemakers figured a lot of denial was involved-"I don't! I don't look like a dog!"-and this game is meant to be played as a form of intervention, much like the popular '80s board games Are You A Raging Alcoholic Who Has Alienated His Entire Family? and Do You Have An STD?
Mega Bloks Noah's Ark Sea Shore Friends ($5, from $7.99)
Or as we like to call it, Noah's Conjoined-Twin-Animals Freaks Of Nature Playset. The squished-together pelicans, with their grotesquely distorted joint bill, are particularly disturbing.
Bathtime Fun Book ($1)
Know what makes bathtime easy and fun? Learning about scary things that live in water and want to eat you alive. Couldn't this soft foam book (shaped like the world's fattest, clumsiest hand for some reason) have started out with goldfish and starfish, and worked its way up to predatory animals? Possibly this book guarantees "No more fuss in the tub" because junior is never getting into the tub again, after that first lesson about sharks.
The Dark Knight Scarecrow, With Crime Scene Evidence ($10.89)
Yup, the Scarecrow has some crime-scene evidence, all right. Specifically, he has what looks for all the world like a squashy foil fast-food packet of ketchup, with "Gotham PD Evidence" written on it in big letters. What was the crime, eating at Burger King so many times that he had to wear this shapeless muu-muu to cover his not-very-scary gut? Man-dress aside, this looks like a repurposed Leatherface doll packaged with a lump of fabric (is that Santa's toy bag or something?) and a ketchup packet. Did the filmmakers spend so much money on the movie that there was none left for merchandising?
Flip To Win Wooden Game Hangman ($9.99, from $12.99)
Much of the fun and much of the point of Hangman is that it can readily be played with a scrap of paper and a pencil, anytime or anywhere-in the car, in class while the professor's droning on about something boring, in jail while you're awaiting execution by hanging. It doesn't need any bulky, clunky special equipment. So hey, here's a piece of bulky, clunky special equipment to help you play it! If we ever do a Least Essential Toys list, this one's going right at the top. It's shockingly heavy, too, since it's made of thick, solid wood, and it bears a choking-hazard warning to boot. Sometimes even cheap toys are overpriced.
Barbie Luv Me 3 ($13.89, from $17.99)
Barbie just gets more whorish every year, which makes it feel fairly weird when Mattel puts her in settings that are supposed to be sort of maternal. Dig this puppy playset: She's wearing a boob-hugging halter, a midriff-baring top, garish purple lipstick, and enough eye makeup for three kids playing dress-up, plus one drag queen. And she's also holding a cute little pink baby bottle. It all adds up to "lactation-fetish hooker." Maybe this is meant to be the Shoot 'Em Up playset? (Clive Owen Ken doll with carrot sold separately.) Still, that's far from the most disturbing thing about this set, which includes a large, hard plastic dog covered in salmon-colored peach fuzz, and three puppies with distorted oversized heads, bobblehead action, and magnets in their noses so they can "snuggle" with mom. ("Try me Pull!" commands a cardboard tag attached to one puppy, so parents can preview the nose-rubbing action and determine whether the adorabililty reaches acceptable levels.) Still, the most disturbing thing about the Hydrocephalitic Puppy Lactation Fetish Vegas Whore Playset is the way it enthusiastically advertises "Puppy is thirsty then makes a puddle!" In other words, one of the puppies is hollow, and if you squirt water in one end with the baby bottle, it runs straight out out the other. Well hell, why not save a step and just dump a cup of water on the floor?
Pirates Action Figure ($2)
For a while, pirates were really hot, thanks to Pirates Of The Caribbean, so every knockoff toy company in the world was churning them out. Now vampires are really hot, thanks to Twilight, which means cheap plastic pirates like this one are sitting alone and unloved on the shelves. Maybe that's why this one is screaming in plasticky distorted rage. Either that, or he's had a little too much rum, sodomy, and the lash-not necessarily in that order. Then again, what could be more Christmas-y than that?