At Frank & Son’s, a veritable Mos Eisley for nerdy collectibles in Pomona, California, vendors hawk everything from Star Wars action figures, Pokémon cards, moth-ridden Beanie Babies, bootleg anime, paintball guns and more. A sampling of previous hauls of mine include original Jurassic Park trading cards, the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time soundtrack and in highschool I managed to acquire Andúril, Flame of the West itself! In this latest expedition however, upon discovering an action figure from the hit 1995 film, Congo (dir. Frank Marshall), I gained a whole new fascination with unique and undesirable toys.
No one is going to argue that Jurassic Park isn’t the best Michael Crichton adaptation, but Congo holds up better than expected. It has a charming talking gorilla made by Stan Winston’s practical effects team, the second best use of “California Dreamin’” in 90s cinema (Chungking Express being the first), Ernie Freakin’ Hudson, Tim Curry sporting the silliest Russian accent this side of Yakov Smirnoff, an incredible action setpiece on an airport runway guided by Joe Pantoliano, and a cameo from b-movie king, The Chin himself, Bruce Campbell. Mixing in a dash of hand-me-down whimsy from Jurassic Park (released just two years earlier) and an engaging performance from Laura Linney as the no-nonsense Dr. Karen Ross, you get the perfect under-appreciated classic. Oh did I mention there’s a hippo attack sequence? But this is where the film and my quest converge.
Trawling through dusty bins of plastic arms and loose sci-fi weapons, I look up at the racks and racks of action figures desperately trying not to go cross-eyed. That’s when I see it, a Dr. Karen Ross action figure still mint in the carded bubble packaging. The toy looks nothing like Laura Linney of course, as is the status quo of action figures even today. Included with the Dr. Ross figure is the giant laser gun and accompanying diamond she uses in the film, all of this for merely five dollars, but I didn’t buy it that day. Did I want this figure because I genuinely enjoy the film Congo, or did I want it for the kitsch factor that defines our “so bad it’s good” generation? I decided to be practical like Laura Linney’s character and do my research.
I cite the film Jurassic Park again specifically because when Kenner released the Congo toys in 1995, they reused the original molds for the characters. Throw on a different hairdo, some new paint, and Dr. Ellie Sattler becomes Dr. Karen Ross. A quick perusal through ebay showed me that JP toys sell for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. I bought the Dr. Ross toy for less than four dollars. Action figures after all, are mass produced items, but through this adventure, the toy gained an aura and an individuality. Now it hangs on my wall beckoning my friends to re-watch Congo when they see it. The figure is perhaps my favorite toy out of all the geeky knick knacks in my apartment, except of course my Matthew Broderick action figure from the 1998 Godzilla remake, but that is a story for another day.