PARIS — The Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo... Chewbacca. Home to some of the greatest works of Western art, Paris is now playing host to an exhibit light-years away from the French capital's traditional fare -- hundreds of toys from the last 35 years of the Star Wars saga.
Until March 17, Les Arts Decoratifs museum in a wing of the Louvre is hosting epic Jedi battles, stormtroopers on the hunt for droids and grooving aliens at the planet Tatooine's Mos Eisley Cantina.
It may seem an usual subject for a museum that also displays Art Nouveau furniture and Lalique glassware, but Dorothee Charles, the curator of its toy department, said there is a place for Star Wars toys in the annals of art.
"Star Wars was a revolution in the toy industry.... This is the story of the graphic evolution of how a universe is presented," she told AFP as gangs of excited children -- and quite a few nostalgic adults -- buzzed around the opening of the exhibit this week.
The key figure behind the exhibit is Arnaud Grunberg, a toy vendor and collector whose personal collection of thousands of Star Wars toys provided the more than 450 items on display.
An avid Star Wars fan since seeing the first film in 1977 at age 11, Grunberg said he was thrilled to see his collection on display and a new generation of youngsters enjoying his toys.
"We wanted to present a panorama of the Star Wars saga," he said, noting that the collection ranges from some of the first action figures put out in 1978 to toys only just released.
"Star Wars really is a youth phenomenon, it's an expression of childhood, but the exhibit is for everyone," Grunberg said.
A set of two trilogies -- three films between 1977 and 1983 and three prequels between 1999 and 2005 -- the series piloted by US filmmaker George Lucas has captivated audiences with its pulp storytelling, complex mythology and innovative special effects.
The films spawned a merchandising empire, with millions of action figures sold and the first toys now worth thousands of dollars to collectors.
The movies were an enormous success in France, where the first film was released as "La Guerre des Etoiles" and the early toys were sold by French toy firm Meccano under licence from US manufacturer Kenner.
The three-room exhibit traces the history of the toys, starting with the earliest prototypes, plastic moulds and design sketches and ending with examples of the finely sculpted action figures that are sold today.
Life-sized Yoda masks, plastic lightsabers and replica blasters are also on display, along with original film and advertising posters and examples of quirkier merchandise like Chewbacca coffee mugs and a C-3PO tape dispenser.
Monitors run US television ads for the early toys and showcase the history of Star Wars video games, from early 1980s offerings on the Atari to the latest PC and console games.
But -- based on the throngs of children surrounding them -- the most exciting displays are glassed-in recreations of scenes from the films put together using action figures and toy vehicles.
The attack on the Death Star, Han Solo pointing a blaster at a bounty hunter, dozens of Jedi in an arena lightsaber battle and many more scenes are replicated in detail.
Looking out over one re-creation with two friends, 10-year-old George Sykes summed up the feeling of many youngsters at the show: "It's awesome! It's the best exhibit ever!"
George's mother Amanda Crider Sykes said she hoped the exhibit would act as a gateway for children into the culture of museums.
"It's the kind of subject matter that appeals to him," said Sykes, an American designer living in Paris. "It's a great way to get my son interested in the museum."
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