I haven’t only played with LEGO in my life. Back in Christmas 1974 we received our first Playmobil Knights sets. We were frustrated by the legs being locked together, and I managed to give one of our figures independently moving legs. It took quite a bit of force!
I hadn’t ever really considered Playmobil to be a competitor with LEGO as I grew up. One was for building with, one was for role play/ setting up dioramas. That was easy in 1975, before mini figures with silly faces and moving limbs existed. And that seems to be how it has been culturally in Australia. LEGO is available in most toy shops and department stores, and large retailers (Thinking target, Kmart, Big W) While Playmobil has almost exclusively been in the domain of the smaller, independent toy shop. We have continued to pick up the occasional playmobil set, especially for Grandma and Grandpa’s holiday house, where our children would often play with them. With the exception of a nurse in 1978, be have basically stuck with variations of the medieval theme.
I knew Playmobil had continued to be a thing, but I hadn’t really worried about it. Then coming home through Belgium in 2016, I saw an orange Porsche 911 on the shelves at the Duty Free Shop in the airport.
This struck me as a little too coincidental.
At Christmas, it turned out that my parents had found a playbill Santa Clause to put amongst the Christmas lights. I couldn’t let him stay there on his own.
The worries of the world…
Then, on my way to the fan Media Days, I met a father of a young child on the plane. He was going to Billund on ‘completely unrelated to LEGO’ business. His child was not with him, but he was anxious. He lived in Belgium and worked as an academic. His biggest worry for his child’s future was not terrorism. It was not the disintegration of the European union in a post Brexit World. It was not Trump and NATO, North Korea. It was not education and a secure future or drug abuse. Some body had just given her some Playmobil, and he was afraid that she would not grow up to love LEGO. Given that at this stage she was less than one year old, I would be more concerned about the fact that she may come to choke on Playmobil pieces at such an early age.
His response had been to go out and buy her first Duplo Set. The concern was real. I couldn’t quite understand what he was worried about. I went to the LEGO Fan Media Days, did some stuff and then went to Geneva for a conference. While passing time afterwards, waiting for my evening flight, I visited a large toyshop. In Australia we don’t have many toyshops that occupy three levels. Maybe one or two. They probably sell Playmobil, if they exist, but I am not sure that they would have it back to back with the LEGO. There was a large window display advertising Ghostbusters Playmobil. That’s so 2015 I thought. (It was classic GB, not the 2016 reboot). Venkmann, Stanz, Egon, Ghosts Ecto-1 and a Fire House. (also the Staypuft Marshmallow man, at considerably less than grand finale scale)
The effect was a little disturbing, and disorienting:
I was astounded by the similarity. I also breathed a sigh of relief, as it meant with the license moving on that the odds of a LEGO Ghostbusters 2 UCS Dancing Gel Pop-up Toaster was unlikely to ever be produced.
But the similarity to existing LEGO Sets was in no way limited to Ghostbusters: also to a number of other sets that had been produced over recent years, with common thematic material,
including the Claas tractor and the Logging truck.
Laying out tyre puncturing also appears to be a feature of both brands this year. although the LEGO version sees some versatility demonstrated by the use novel use of a track in this role. The Playmobil elements appear to be a little less versatile in this respect.
And then I discovered that Playmobil also had a line of collectable mini figures: this year they will be up to series 12. What I noticed was that there was a pink and a blue series available – with male or female figures in. I suppose this means we have an even gender mix, although the color of the bags is a little stereotypical. I had a look at one of each of these Fi?ure (sic) packs – one pink and one blue.
While the figures require construction, once assembled, it is apparent that they are different to normal Playmobil figures: they are more readily pulled apart that the ‘preassembled’ figures. I found a (blue pack) Test pilot and a (pink pack) female archer. Assembly was fiddly, the Pilot’s GPS accessory required a sticker to be attached but they both had a reasonable look to them. They are unable to be pulled apart and rearranged as easily as LEGO Minifigures are. Every time I tried to pull them apart, I worry that I am applying cruel and unusual force.
I don’t feel compelled to pick up any more of these: maybe some regular figures as time goes by, but I think I can leave the blind bags behind.
Venkman: a comparison.
I compared the Venkman Playmobil figure with the minifigure that came with the LEGO Dimensions Ghostbusters Story level.
Both figures have nicely printed costumes, The minifigure only has the initials PV on his chest. The Playmobil figure has the complete surname, and has also been recently slimed.
The Playmobil Venkman has scruffy hair as well as the standard Playmobil smile, where as the LEGO minifigure has a reversible head, with an alternative expression, and better mirrors Bill Murray’s ‘widow’s peak’ hair pattern. The Playmobil legs are fixed together, preventing anything except both legs flexing in unison at the hips.
Playmobil arms are straight whereas Lego minifigure arms are partially flexed. The ‘gun’ for the proton beam is a lightsaber handle for the minifigure, so it is limited in the direction it points, at 90º to the arm. The Playmobil gun has a handle allowing it to be pointed in the direction the arm is pointing.
They both have proton charged back packs and come with a ghost trap. On the Playmobil set, this requires some stickers to be applied.
The Playmobil figures, like LEGO Minifigures have stood the test of time. While LEGO figures have evolved to have more expressive faces over the years, and show more dynamic posturing with their flexed arms and independent legos, Playmobil reaches for a younger sensibility, where every face smiles, and avery arm is straight. Occasionally a wrist may rotate, but that is not the norm.
I can understand why some people may feel passionately for or against Playmobil. For me, it has a soft spot in my heart, but none of the versatility of the brick. Although as a child it did prompt some LEGO constructions: I remember a Playmobil (Jedi) Knight standing in for Obi Wan Kenobi in a LEGO Landspeeder next to my Kenner Luke Skywalker action figure. Let us remember that the role of toys in a young person’s imagination is quite different to the way that we may choose to use them as adults. There are common themes for what children like to play with – and role playing with toys is often either with things we are familiar with, or the subjects of our imagination and dreams.
Surely there must be space for both in our world? Just not in my LEGO Room!