Entertainment

Why Hollywood Is Still Obsessed With the Furby

First 'Uncut Gems,' now 'The Mitchells vs. the Machines.' Where will the '90s fad toy pop up next?

furby, the mitchells vs. the machines
Furbys in 'The Mitchells vs. the Machines' | Netflix
Furbys in 'The Mitchells vs. the Machines' | Netflix

As a kid in the late 1990s, I really wanted a Furby. Of course I did. One girl brought hers to our group singing lesson, and the rest was history. My parents begrudgingly acquiesced to my request, and for a couple of months I was in pure heaven with my new talking friend. But I soon grew out of the Furby, and it went into a closet to be buried by junk. Years later, while searching for something else, I heard some eerie chattering: lo, despite ages of sleep, the Furby had awoken.

This is to say, when the protagonists of the new Netflix animated movie The Mitchells vs. the Machines encounter an army of evil Furbys in a mall when trying to put an end to the robot apocalypse, let's just say: I got it. In the past couple of years, Furbys have had something of a pop cultural renaissance. Between the blinged out Furby in Uncut Gems and the villainous Furby crew in The Mitchells vs. the Machines, we're in a golden age of Furby content.

Why do Furbys have such a potent legacy? How have they sustained the test of time? "I think it comes from a very genuine, earnest intention," Mitchells co-director Michael Rianda told me. "I think things that are genuine really blossom on the internet. Unlike that some toys were just sort of made in a boardroom, [the Furby] seemed like it was one beautiful weirdo's dream. It was just so singular."

The man to dream up the Furby was Dave Hampton, a lifelong inventor, who, at the height of the Furby craze in 1998, lived with his family in a home with no electricity in the Tahoe National Forest, according to a New York Times profile. Hampton shares credit for the Furby with Caleb Chung and Richard C. Levy, but Rianda is right in that "one beautiful weirdo" had the idea to enhance the Tamagotchi, another fad pet toy from the late '90s, by making it pettable.

gems furby
The 'Uncut Gems' Furby | A24

But Furbys were also always terrifying, which is how Rianda got the idea to put them in his movie. He was "a little too old" for the Furby, but had one anyway. "It was weirding my mom out, so I put it in the closet," he says. "Then I turned it off and it was in the closet and it was just speaking bizarre gibberish in my closet, at night, when I was sleeping. This movie is basically a therapy session." The Furby battle sequence was one of Rianda and fellow director Jeff Rowe's first concepts for their movie, long before the Furby made a major cameo appearance in the Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems. (Rianda's not mad: "If people are referencing our movie and a Safdie brothers movie in the same sentence, I'm like, we're golden.")

In that stress inducing drama, Adam Sandler's gambling addict jewelry dealer Howard Ratner pulls out a diamond-encrusted Furby with the idea of impressing basketball star Kevin Garnett. The blinged-out Furby immediately became a phenomenon in the indie film world. Studio A24 sold replicas for $250, which were immediately resold at way higher rates. The Safdies told Thrillist back in 2019 that they needed a nostalgia piece for the scene, and the Furby's internal deadness felt right. "I just looked into the eyes," Josh said. "And first of all, Furby is so stupid. Look at it. But there's something really sad. They look like they are trapped in the consumerist world. The thought of decking one out with diamonds and gold just felt so apt to the world of this thing, trapped frightening so inside the materialist world of jewelry."

Though Mitchells and Gems have different audiences in mind—you would not take a child to see Howie's adventures—they utilize the power of the Furby in very similar ways. While Mitchells is largely about a family coming together in crisis, it's also a savvy satire of a tech-obsessed culture wherein a Mark Zuckerberg type builds an AI that commandeers all of the appliances hooked up to his system, including the Furbys. To children in the late 1990s, Furbys were as much of a craze as the latest Apple product. No matter how honest Hampton's intentions might have been, his creations were consumerism incarnate hidden in a disarmingly adorable shell.

Rianda and Rowe, with permission from Hasbro, were careful to note on screen that their Furbys are enabled by "Pal," the company that creates the machines that go rogue in the context of their film. But while the new models of Furbys can connect to devices via Bluetooth, the classic Furby is decidedly low-tech, despite what many may have thought at the time.  People believed that Furbys could launch a space shuttle, or interfere with airplane equipment, or ferret secrets out of secure locations. Furbys always seemed like more than just dumb toys, which is why they are ripe for reinterpretation.

Furbys have endured because of artists like Rianda and the Safdies using them to their own advantage. On a smaller scale, they have been canvasses for fans on Tumblr who modify them into nightmare creatures like the famous long Furbys and/or pose them in various scenarios. Back in 2016, there was a Furby movie in the works from The Weinstein Company and its offshoot Dimension, but so far the toys haven't gotten their own starring vehicle outside of a 2005 TV movie called Furby Island. That's probably for the best. Furbys without social commentary are just creepy avatars of capitalism. Now, a maniacal horde of Furbys? That's entertainment.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.
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