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Amy McGrath Toy Story
Photographer/Stylist Jeff O'Brien/Alphonse Neri

Tara McGrath Puts the “Action” in Action Figures

by Vanessa Machir

The Toy Story movies feature playthings that only spring into action when humans aren’t around. But it’s the job of Tara McGrath, Toy Design ’91, as director of product design and development for Mattel (heading up Pixar brands), to bring them to life specifically for humans of the kid variety.

It’s not just about creating 3D versions of animated stars; McGrath must constantly evolve their features to keep kids interested. And the ever-popular Buzz Lightyear presented a particular challenge. In past iterations, the figurine could deploy his wings and shoot lasers, but the debut of Toy Story 4 required something more. So now, thanks to McGrath’s team, he also walks on his own. “We’ve never done a walking figure on this scale before,” she says.

Tara McGrath.

McGrath received her AAS in Advertising Design and considered applying to Packaging Design for her bachelor’s. But Toy Design Chair Judy Ellis got a look at her playful portfolio and convinced her to join the program’s inaugural class. “I felt like I was at the right place at the right time,” McGrath says. After graduating, she worked for toy inventors Pace Development Group, and then moved to Mattel.Her experience runs the toy gamut (large dolls, Barbie electronics, and Disney princesses, cars and planes), so she knows what the kids of tomorrow will want, like sustainable toys and packaging. “Even kids who’re 8 and 10 now really care about the environment,” McGrath says. But one thing remains fascinating generation after generation: pee and poop. Citing Mattel’s “potty pup,” a doggy that makes a mess (plastic) that its responsible owner (Barbie, of course) can clean up with a tiny scoop (included), she says, “There’s something about kids and bathroom humor, that tactile gross stuff—it’s always a top seller.”