Kristen Baldwin
March 15, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

If it were a film, it would be called Toy Mission: Impossible. Every winter, retailers try to anticipate which summer movies will drive kids to the movieplexes and parents to the toy stores. It’s a risky business, but the potential payoff is huge: In 1995, entertainment tie-ins did $16.2 billion in sales. But for every Pocahontas (which made nearly $1 billion in retail sales worldwide last year), there is a Congo, whose gorilla action figures languished on store shelves despite the movie’s impressive $81 million run in theaters. ”We had to mark that [Congo] stuff down well before Christmas,” says Joe Ordile, an inventory-control manager for Toys ‘R’ Us.

Confusing matters more are those ”How Were We to Know?” films. At first Babe received limited retail support. ”When we spoke to people [last February] about our talking-pig movie,” says Linda Berkeley, senior VP and chairman of the MCA Merchandising Group, ”they looked at us like we were crazy.” Of course, with seven Oscar nominations, the talking Babe doll should receive quite a different reception when it hits stores this month.

Here’s a peek at some of this summer’s top contenders:

In this uncertain business, the closest to a sure thing is a Disney animated musical. ”As far as licensing blockbusters this year,” says Karen Raugust, executive editor of The Licensing Letter, ”the only one with a chance is Hunchback.”

Okay, so the original Quasimodo was hideously deformed, and advocates for the disabled have already questioned the appropriateness of disfigured dolls. That hasn’t stopped Disney from launching, in the words of one spokesman, ”the largest merchandising program to date.” More than 100 licensees will be unleashing products that range from Hallmark’s Hunchback greeting cards to Payless Shoesource’s Esmeralda shoes. Mattel is readying a major toy line, and Burger King again joins forces with the studio: The Hunchback kids’ meal promotion will begin mid-June and feature plastic figures of the entire cast. Wisecracking gargoyle with those fries?

Universal hopes to launch a preemptive strike on Disney by releasing its dolphin flick on May 10, six weeks before Hunchback. This strategy worked for last summer’s Casper, which was released prior to Pocahontas and became Universal’s most lucrative licensed property in 1995, with more than $400 million in sales worldwide. Look for Flipper plush toys, swim gear, and a frozen fruit bar called the Flipper-sicle. (No tuna were harmed in making this product.)

What will Meg Ryan think? Anyone can own Dennis Quaid now that his Bowen the knight character is part of Kenner’s Dragonheart toy line. In the Universal film, due May 31, Bowen teams with Draco, the world’s last dragon (voiced by Sean Connery). ”My 3-year-old saw the trailer and immediately wanted a dragon,” Quaid says, apparently unfazed that his son didn’t clamor for dad’s doll.

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