When the Star Wars Special Editions hit theaters in 1997, the associated thrills went far beyond just seeing our favorite movies return to the big screen. Those films were a collective signal that Star Wars — as a brand — was back in a big way.
By then, even casual fans were aware that new Star Wars movies were on the way, but for us diehards, the excitement ran so much deeper. Actually, “excitement” isn’t even the right word. “Relief” might fit better.
After spending so many years surviving on scraps and memories, we now had a firm guarantee of several years’ worth of all-new Star Wars madness filled with movies and collectibles and magazine covers — even random appearances by Chewie at major awards shows.
For me, the biggest marker of this paradigm shift lied in… well, tacos.
Taco Bell’s long relationship with Star Wars began with the Special Edition trilogy. For the debut (or re-debut, technically) of each of the three movies, fans could go to Taco Bell restaurants for neat Star Wars toys in even neater boxes.
Star Wars fans are all about camaraderie, and there was just nothing cooler than walking into a Taco Bell and being surrounded by your own kind. With our predilection for funny T-shirts and ugly sneakers, we were all pretty easy to spot.
The fact that most Taco Bells were slathered in C-3PO posters was reason enough to eat there, but the real draw was a series of kids’ meals, which I assume were more often purchased by people who were decidedly not kids.
Packed with tacos and a toy, there was a different box for each movie. All three were works of art, with pop-off pieces that could be used to create cardboard action scenes. (Of course, many of us refused to “damage” our boxes, instead preferring to wait for a hike in collectible value that would ultimately never come.)
If you’re reading this site, and you were alive and eating tacos in 1997, you know that the this line produced maybe the best-ever pack-in toy with a fast food meal.
Paying a modest fee for the privilege, we also got toys. Fast food premiums aren’t always hot, but these Star Wars toys were made by Applause — a company that already had plenty of experience in making the most out of Jabba the Hutt.
There were eight toys in all, and not a dud in the set. My favorite had to be the one shown above: A hollow R2-D2 figure with a smaller Princess Leia figure inside. (It’s clearly a nod to the scene where Leia entrusts R2 with her holographic message, but I do rather enjoy the idea of Leia using a high-tech Alderaanian gadget to shrink herself down to Kenny Baker’s size. Won’t Ben be surprised when she spills out of a droid after he chases off those Tusken Raiders.)
The other toys, ranging from a puzzle cube to a gyro, were just as desirable. Frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered if half of them sucked. You know how Star Wars fans are, because you’re one of them. We have to have everything, and we never miss a cultural event when that cultural event has some tangential tie to Ree-Yees. I’d wager that there were more fans with the complete set of toys than fans with just one or two of them. By the time 1998 rolled around, we were all 20 pounds heavier.
There was also a bit of a hoarding frenzy surrounding these premiums. By 1997, the online collectibles trade had caught fire, and many fans predicted that the Taco Bell toys would appreciate in value over time. ‘Course, whenever too many people have the same idea, none of them are going to like the results. With patience, you can still find the whole set of toys — not to mention the unused boxes — for only a smidge more than you would’ve paid in 1997!