It is hard to believe, but this year marks 20 years since George Lucas began the bold task of telling the backstory to Star Wars. Episode I: The Phantom Menace introduced audiences to Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul, Queen Amidala, and Jar Jar Binks. No matter how much fans may disagree about the film’s merits, it ushered in the new era of Star Wars that continues today.
While heralding that new era, The Phantom Menace had a merchandising launch like no other – and appropriately, Star Wars finally had a line of construction toys. Lucasfilm collaborated with the Danish toy giant on LEGO Star Wars, which marked a huge departure for the LEGO Group. Never before had the company worked with an external partner or released a product with the word “war” in the title.
Although producing the new theme caused divisions with the LEGO Group’s leadership, the decision ultimately paid off. Five launch sets, based on the classic trilogy, were released in March 1999 and proved wildly successful. For the first time, fans could build an authentic LEGO vehicle with sets like 7140 X-wing Fighter instead of cobbling together their own multi-coloured version. Special box art was commissioned to ensure that this new theme looked unique, with newly introduced Star Wars minifigures peeking out above the iconic logo.
To mark the new film release, eight sets based on The Phantom Menace followed shortly thereafter. All aspects of the film were covered, with 7101 Lightsaber Duel depicting the battle between light and dark, while 7161 Gungan Sub showcased Naboo’s underwater world. It was an opportunity for fans to be introduced to the new worlds and characters in a tangible way.
At the time that LEGO Star Wars launched, the LEGO Group was undergoing financial difficulties, but the success of the theme helped to paper over the cracks and allowed the company to put off dealing with the crisis for a few more years. While Hasbro, DK Books, and Thinkway Toys produced too many toys leading to retailers drowning in stock, LEGO Star Wars sold well.
While the LEGO Group may have had faith in Star Wars, it is hard to imagine that anyone realised it would still be going strong 20 years later. Children today associate interlocking bricks more closely with Star Wars than action figures. Only a few other LEGO product lines have been continually released over such an extended period, and no other movie-based theme has come close to the Star Wars line’s sales success.
To mark the 20th anniversary, the LEGO Star Wars team has sought inspiration from the early days and released five sets containing recreations of classic minifigures with their simple printing and yellow heads. Each 20th Anniversary Edition also comes in a box with a retro silver border, inspired by the packaging of the earliest Star Wars toys from the tail end of the 1970s.
Here’s to another 20 years of building the galaxy far, far away….
Graham Hancock is a toy collector and deputy editor of Blocks magazine.