Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Island of Lead-Based Toys

In 1964, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuted on television, and the special is still shown each year around the holidays. Burl Ives is the snowman narrator and sings some songs, and there’s an elf named Hermey who would rather be a dentist than make toys, and, of course, there’s Rudolph, whose dad covers up his bright red nose so the other reindeer won’t laugh and call him names. 

It’s a buddy movie, with Hermey and Rudolph hooking up when their perceived shortcomings are exposed, and they end up running away, whereupon they accidentally find the Island of Misfit Toys. As you can guess, unwanted toys live on the island — a cowboy that rides an ostrich, a misnamed Charlie-in-the-Box, a polka-dotted elephant, a squirt gun that shoots grape jelly, and various other toys with minor blemishes and oddities. 

Eventually, Rudolph and Hermey leave the island, but Rudolph comes back with Santa to save the misfits and deliver them to waiting children. That ending was a rewrite in response to a surprising number of viewers who really liked the characters. (Who can’t identify with minor blemishes and oddities?) You can even buy the Misfit Toys on the internet now, along with a DVD of the show, and you can give them to your kids during the holidays. 

Except you can’t. Why? Turns out there’s a hidden blemish, and it’s major: The Misfits are full of lead. Rudolph, Hermey, Santa, the Elves, Rudolph’s girlfriend Clarice, Burl Ives’ fat little snowman crooner, and seemingly every other toy sold by the major toy companies and their foreign manufacturing subcontractors have lead in them. Rudolph especially because the paints that have the most lead in them are the yellows and reds. The lead makes for a brighter red nose. 

Someone needs to contact Rankin-Bass. After all these years, this beloved TV special needs another rewrite. The toys must again be re-banished, never to come in contact with children again. Santa can’t fly them back because he doesn't have the proper lead-abatement gear, so they’ll probably just get boxed up, and UPS will air-drop them (I’m talking about literally pushing them out of the plane at 10,000 feet) to a remote location in Antarctica. 

We’ll call this new exile the Island of Lead-based Toys. It’s an abrupt new ending, sure, but it’s true to real life. Hollywood happy endings were so 1964. If you don’t like it, let’s not even start talking about when the toys discover the island is really an ice-flow, and global warming starts closing in… 

Real life has been equally ridiculous. Almost weekly, Mattel or some other toy company does damage control by sending another press release detailing another group of toys that contain lead. This has been going on since May. Things are so bad that I expect the next press release to read: “All products for children found to contain lead — Mattel cancels the holiday shopping season.” 

It probably won’t happen, but I never thought my kids would need hazmat suits to play with Dora or Elmo, either. For the last 60 years or so, toy manufacturers have been in the business of managing kids’ expectations about gift giving. “More is better” has been the dominant marketing message, and the merchandise has moved so successfully that the holiday shopping season is now a major economic indicator in this country. 

What’s scary is that Wall Street wants Johnny to get that Playstation 3 even more than Johnny does. That’s a lot of pressure on us parents. Even though many of us believe in pro-environmental and anti-materialistic messages like “conserve resources” and “want less,” they get flattened this time of year like a Hummer running down a Tickle-Me Elmo. 

Still, I think lots of parents would like to try to scale back the gifts. I know I would. It’s a horrendous situation, but maybe for those who think “less is more,” this lead scare is a window of opportunity. We can buy less and blame the toy companies. 

The problem is the precedent that’s been set. Disappointment will be huge. Switching to unpainted wooden toys is not exciting, nor is the prospect of constantly tweezing slivers. We could start college savings accounts for our kids, but that’s about as exhilarating as Santa leaving carbon credits in their stockings. 

I could try to convince my kids that their Christmas presents are the newly repaved Lake Street, or the new cool-looking pedestrian bridge over Highway 55 or — depending on how things go with the Minneapolis School Board — maybe even a new charter school! 

Or maybe I’ll just tell my kids that Hermey the Elf left them toothbrushes and floss under the tree and was kind enough to schedule dental appointments for them. Getting them to accept that will be like pulling their teeth myself.