Play’s the thing for pic biz

'Wars,' 'Narnia,' 'Four' ready to square off in Toy Land

A slew of superhero pics facing off at the box office is setting the scene for an equally vicious battle in the aisles of toy stores in 2005.

Lightsabers, Thing hands, a revamped Batmobile and King Kong action figures will vie for buzz as the American Intl. Toy Fair unspools in Gotham Feb. 20-24 — ahead of “Star Wars: Episode III,” “Batman Begins,” and “The Fantastic Four,” all out between May and July, and “King Kong” in December.

Those pics make 2005 a truly competitive year in “male action” as all five high-profile — and highly “toyetic” — films are targeted at young boys.

Toyworthy fall-holiday releases also include Warner Bros.’ latest “Harry Potter” pic and Disney’s anticipated “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” — with which the Mouse hopes to launch a blockbuster franchise a la “The Lord of the Rings.”

Toy consultant Chris Byrne describes such pics as “the Julia Roberts of the toy world.” But a surfeit of riches can also be problematic, as retailers consolidate and shelf space shrinks — a trend that’s been going on for years.

These days, studios have to worry not just about their tentpoles’ theatrical prospects but about the merchandising implications. When a big-ticket retail campaign crashes, retailers get skittish and everyone pays the price.

Still, that cuts both ways, insist consumer products execs. A string of successful films “will bring a lot of customers to the toy aisle,” says Mattel rep Sara Rosales.

And toy sales aren’t always tied to boffo box office: “Hulk” was a commercial disappointment, but Hulk Hands was the “it” toy in 2003.

Thus, Marvel’s Thing Hands and Thing Feet in support of “The Fantastic Four” and the studio’s Roboots — clanking shoes like ones worn by the hero of Fox’s animated “Robots” — seem likely to catch kids’ eyes regardless of the pics’ performance.

Rounding out the hand and foot fetish, Universal’s “King Kong” line will also include foam Kong fists and arms.

Toy aisles this year will be filled with both conventional and high-tech toys.

Warner Bros.’ “Batman” and Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” are hawking new plug-and-play DVD games, in which kids swing a lightsaber or wield a Batglove in response to action onscreen. The Batman line also includes a three-foot Batmobile — part Lamborghini, part Hummer.

Getting punchy, Star Wars will present Darth Tater — a Mr. PotatoHead with Darth Vader accessories.

Nickelodeon is introducing a 3-foot-tall talking Dora the Explorer who gives kids cooking tips for an Easy-Bake oven.

Nick’s rolling out a SpongeBob line based on viewers’ favorite episodes, including a SpongeBob, Ripped Pants action figure.

Given that major retailers secure stock a year in advance, studio reps find that the venerable Toy Fair has morphed into more of a PR event than a working trade show.

Confab remains “great for publicity, smaller retailers and promotional partners” but it’s “not the show to sell in,” says Mattel’s Rosales.

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