John Boyega: The new face of Star Wars


By Ian Sherr

John Boyega hadn‘t been born when “Star Wars,“ with its cast of relative unknowns, electrified pop culture. The trilogy forever transformed sci-fi filmmaking and made Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher household names.

Nearly 40 years later, the relatively unknown Boyega is poised to repeat history. The 23-year-old actor was tapped by “Star Wars“ director J.J. Abrams to help kick-start the next installment of the franchise, “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.“

“Sci-fi over the years has had a way of commenting on social issues, but without being preachy,“ says Boyega, who plays a character named Finn in the movie, set to be released in December. “ ‘Star Wars‘ was built on mythical stories, spirituality and also the classic good-versus-evil. But also, for me, is the understanding of human beings…I just love the human commentary.“

You‘d be forgiven if you‘re not familiar with Boyega. He‘s best-known for his role as Moses in the British comedy “Attack the Block,“ about teens who defend their London neighborhood against alien invaders. The low-budget (estimated at $13 million) movie is worlds apart from the marketing windup and excitement surrounding the new “Star Wars“ film.

The son of Nigerian immigrants who relocated to the United Kingdom before he was born, Boyega isn‘t yet comfortable talking about himself, saying he‘s unsure about allowing the world to peer into his life. What he will say is that he likes to work out, play video games and collect action figures, which he features in posts on his Instagram photo-sharing account. He also cherishes an orange-and-black-striped cat he got after “Star Wars“ finished filming last year. The cat‘s name: Oluwalogan, which includes the word for God in Nigeria‘s Yoruba language.

Boyega is even more secretive about his role in “Star Wars VII.“ He was the first character fans saw in Walt Disney‘s initial movie trailer, released last November.

In the clip, he‘s wearing Stormtrooper armor, sans helmet, and is on the run. Later, Disney released the film‘s promotional poster featuring him holding a lightsaber, the saga‘s iconic weapon.

What he will say about the movie is that Finn is on a journey, much like the origin stories of gods and superheroes from other mythologies. “All the characters we love — Batman, Spider-Man — never ever start off as those guys,“ Boyega says in his rich British accent.

His casting has sparked controversy. Last year, some Twitter users questioned Disney‘s decision to show a black man in the iconic white military garb. Boyega‘s response: “Get used to it.”

Now, some are threatening to boycott a movie with a black man in a lead role.

Boyega says he thinks about the impact of his role, but it doesn‘t consume him. When “you‘re a working actor, and they tell you you‘ve got an audition for a movie, diversity isn‘t the first thing you think about.”

For Disney’s Infinity, it really is a small world after all


By Ian Sherr

Darth Maul is ready to strike.

The villainous Sith Lord — who predates Darth Vader in the “Star Wars“ chronology —twists like a coiled spring, his black tunic whipping from the motion. He holds a double-bladed lightsaber behind him, ready to slash the deadly weapon at whoever comes near. Maul is a fearsome sight: Red and yellow eyes glare from a red face embellished with black tattoos. Eight small horns sprout from his head.

Fortunately, he‘s only 4 inches tall and made of 3 ounces of molded plastic.

The figurine alone is enough to grab fans‘ attention. But under Darth Maul‘s sand-colored base is a computer chip. Place him on a pad in front of a video game console and — presto— lights flash, sparks fly and the plastic action figure is transformed into a digital character in a video game, ready to set off on an adventure inside the screen.

As kids, most of us imagined a world where the toys we played with on our living room floor came to life. The Walt Disney Co. is edging closer to that fantasy — animating toys to make it seem like they‘re playing with us.

It‘s all part of Disney‘s ambitious effort to capitalize on its pantheon of characters, which includes Mickey Mouse, Iron Man and Princess Leia; grab kids‘ attention (along with their parents‘ wallets); and, in the process, reshape the $18 billion US toy industry. That goal hinges on a game called “Disney Infinity.“ Part collectible figurines, part video game, Infinity gives kids the freedom to dream up their own storylines, create new worlds and fill them with the Disney characters they want.

If Infinity‘s developers have their way, every toy Disney sells could step inside a game-generated world that we build with our imaginations.

“Toys in the future will not be like the ones you and I grew up with,” says John Vignocchi, who heads production for Disney Interactive. “This is the future of toys.”

It’s alive!

Toys have been around for as long as humans have been able to pick up sticks.

Archaeologists found toys in Egyptian pyramids, among ancient Greek artifacts and even buried alongside 5,000-year-old ruins in the Indus Valley, near the borders of modern day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Today‘s mass-market toys chart their history to Hasbro, which started producing plastic toys during World War II and soon offered doctor and nurse kits for kids. In 1952, Hasbro launched its first hit: Mr. Potato Head. The first toy advertised on television, Mr. Potato Head came with interchangeable ears, eyes, shoes, noses and mouths. Mattel introduced Barbie seven years later; Ken showed up as her love interest in 1961.

The millennial generation had Teddy Ruxpin, an animatronic bear whose mouth and eyes moved while “reading“ stories from a cassette tape stored in its back.

Nowadays, toy makers are looking beyond those simple technologies.

Activision created the “toys to life“ game genre in 2011 when it launched Skylanders. As with “Disney Infinity,“ Skylanders‘ toys appear on the screen when placed on a special pad connected to a video game console or tablet. Nintendo and Lego sell their own toys-to-life games, too.

In March, Mattel unveiled the $75 Hello Barbie doll, which uses Siri-like voice recognition technology to listen to and interact with its owner.

Meanwhile, Hasbro and Disney together created Playmation, a $120 setup where kids strap on a glove that, using motion sensors, infrared technology and Bluetooth wireless communications, can “shoot“ at toy action figures. The glove vibrates when the toys shoot back.

The reason for all this technical wizardry? Today‘s kids expect it, thanks to their constant exposure to smartphones and tablets. “Now that they‘re used to that high level of interactivity, they will want to get it from their toys,“ says Lior Akavia, CEO of Seebo, which helps toy makers build smarts into their toys.