Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Search for a Wild Canuck

As a young child, I was a huge fan of McDonald's Happy Meal Toys.  I enjoyed playing with the miniature versions of my favorite characters and even more so, I enjoyed collecting the many trinkets.  One of my first Happy Meal Toys was Baby Kermit riding on a soapbox racer.


Due to my age, I had missed most of the original run of Muppet Babies and I never managed to catch it on television.  This Kermit toy was my only window into the series.  I do not remember receiving the toy, but I remember playing with it often.  I also knew that there must have been more toys in the series, for a girl up the street owned the Baby Piggy premium.  I made it my goal to complete the set.

In the days before the Internet, one had to be clever in researching Happy Meals.  There was no eBay or Amazon to allow us to look up old items in an instant.  I had to rely on outdated collectibles books with poor photographs and also the official Happy Meal Archive as documented by the McDonald's corporation (my parents arranged it so that I received an updated copy in the mail every couple of months).  This amounted to a large printout of every promotion the fast-food chain had ever done.  It was through these sources that I learned that there were four to the set: Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, and Gonzo.

The Fab Four

My only source for finding these old toys were through various flea markets, antique stores, and yard sales.  I would just have to get lucky to find my prizes.  Piggy and her bike came easily, and I eventually found Fozzie and his wagon (although the handle is missing).  And when I received Gonzo, it seems as if my search was complete!

Except, something was a little off.  During my search, I kept coming across strange alternate versions of the toys pictured above.  A Kermit in a standing position.  A Fozzie with a tiny head.  A smaller Piggy with squinty eyes.  And when I compared my Gonzo to the one pictured, he too was completely different!

My Gonzo had his eyes half closed whereas the picture shows his eyes fully open.  I did not mind it so much because I preferred that look for the character, but it was nagging me that these other versions existed.  Turning back to my books and archives, I learned the truth.  There had been two sets released, one in 1987 and one in 1990.  The earlier set was a bit off model and the vehicles were made of a cheaper plastic, but if I wanted to make things right, I would have to finish both sets.

And so I did.  I had my two Kermits, two Piggies, two Fozzies and two Gonzos.  But there was still something wrong.  Although I did not have a picture of it to prove it's existence, one of my archive printouts mentioned a fifth item in the 1987 set: Baby Animal.

A truly complete set.

How could this be?  In the multitude of flea markets in which I had scoured for these tokens, I had not once come across a Baby Animal toy.  And then I rechecked my notes.  Animal was a "Canada-only" premium.

For you see, in different markets, McDonald's tries different promotions.  Usually the whole country is on the same page, but every once in a while, regions get "test premiums" to see if the toys sell well.  Things are even more random for international markets, where McDonald's has to choose what would be familiar to a non-American audience.  Often times, the same promotions run internationally.  Sometimes completely new sets are created just for other countries.  And other times, sets will be similar, with one or two of the toys replaced.  But this was the only time in which a near identical set was made with an additional toy that was not in the American release.  And in Canada, no less, which usually receives the same items as America all the time!

For some reason, Canada lucked out and received this bonus toy.  After I had resigned to the fact that I was not going to find Baby Animal in the U.S., I decided that it wouldn't even be worth it.  The 1987 set created such odd deformities in the characters that they probably butchered Animal as well.

But thanks to the Internet, my misconceptions are eradicated.  I now see that Animal actually looks great compared to the rest.  He could easily fit in with the 1990 set.

He looks better than he does in the show!

I have long since stopped collecting Happy Meal Toys.  That part of my childhood is stored away.  My eight Muppet Babies, however, are kept separate from the rest.  They reside in a old-fashioned Muppet Babies lunchbox awaiting the return of their comrade, lost in the far north.

One day, he'll come home.  One day.

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