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March 05, 2001


Matt Groening's Futurama inspires a nostalgia for the inventive toys of future past
Bender Wind-Up Toy
By Rocket USA
MSRP: $24.95 each
By Sean Huxter
Bender Unit 22 is a robot who was built to spend his life bending steel girders in factories. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, botched by Fry, a delivery boy newly arrived in the year 3000 from the 20th century, he now works for the intergalactic delivery firm Planet Express, owned by Professor Farnsworth, Fry’s distant grandnephew.

Bender is the backbone of the TV show Futurama, produced by Matt Groening of Simpsons fame. He is a sarcastic, cynical tough guy, prone to boozing and pocket-picking, whose major role seems to be to antagonize the main characters and place them in situations of danger or discomfort so they can squirm their way out, causing hilarity for all. Bender’s strongest character trait as a robot is that he has more human flaws than most humans.

Tin lithograph toys were quite common once upon a time. Before the popularization of cheaper plastic materials, thin printed metal bent into forms made for a large selection of toys, from dolls to cars to carousels to wind-up robots. They were built with tab-and-slot fasteners, and were durable and fun. Rocket USA has crafted a toy in that noble tradition.

Standing 8 inches tall, Bender is appropriately made mostly from bent metal. Turn the knob on his chest and his panel opens to reveal a good old reliable wind-up mechanism. Stick an oversized key in his side, wind him up and watch him go. Just like old times.

Not all of Bender’s parts are metal, however. His eyes are plastic and can be moved up and down manually. His plastic antenna can be used to rotate a cylinder which emulates his mouth when he talks. A hole in his mouth can accommodate a plastic cigar, and a beer bottle fits into his soft plastic hands.

Yesterday's best is reborn
This toy is an excellent example of passion for toymaking. Rocket USA specializes in toys that convey a visceral enjoyment with their hands-on ruggedness, which brings out the child in everyone. Wind Bender up and his legs walk him forward on rubber wheels, with a sound that is immediately recognizable to anyone who was ever a child. His arms swing during the walk cycle.

Bender is assembled using old tab-and-slot construction methods. Upon close examination, the tabs seem to have been bent with metal tools, which sometimes causes the slots to be chipped and bent. Touch-up paint has been added to hide the imperfections, which, if anything, adds charm to this toy, rather than detracts from it.

Beware when trying to open Bender’s chest panel. Pulling is not the answer. It isn’t entirely obvious, but the round knob must be turned to release the catch that keeps the panel shut. It opens to reveal the wind-up mechanism, but cannot be used to store his accessories, which is a bit of a pity.

Bender comes with a bottle of Olde Fortran Malt Liquor and a cigar, making this perhaps not the best example of a toy for a young child. However, they are entirely befitting his character and the show’s target audience. He comes with an oversized winding key just as one would expect from a wind-up tin toy of old.

One of the most attractive things this toy offers is its packaging. If the toy itself hearkens back to the old days, the packaging looks as if it could have been inked in 1952. Printed in blue and orange, it looks as if it were silk-screened by hand, with images depicting Bender and the city of the future as if they were imagined by post-World War II pulp science-fiction artists. The illusion is achieved to perfection.

This toy displays beautifully and makes for a compelling conversation piece. And unlike toys that are made only for display, this one is fun to play with, too! -- Sean