Wowee creative director Benny Dongarra, right, and mechanical engineer Anthony Lemire hold Fingerlings Thursday, December 7, 2017 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Wowee creative director Benny Dongarra, right, and mechanical engineer Anthony Lemire hold Fingerlings Thursday, December 7, 2017 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Fingerlings propel Montreal-based company to Christmas retail success

MONTREAL — Just like for a Christmas cookie, there’s a recipe that goes into the making of a best-selling toy.

Each year, toymakers hope they’ve found the perfect balance of technology, whimsy and price to appeal to children and their parents alike, sending their products racing to the top of the coveted “Hot Toy” lists.

This year, Montreal-based WowWee Canada Inc. appears to have found the magic formula with Fingerlings, a line of animatronic baby monkeys who respond to touch and sound by blinking, chirping, and blowing kisses.

They were released earlier this year and quickly sold out in stores, prompting frantic online searches by parents looking to secure one of the colourful 12-centimetre-long plastic toys in time for Christmas.

As of this past Friday, various colours of Fingerlings made up three of the top five toys on, and they’ve been described as one of the hottest toys of the year by, ToysRUS and Target.

The product’s runaway success is not entirely surprising to WowWee’s creative director, Benny Dongarra, who was part of the Montreal team that designed the toy.

He said he always believed it would be a huge hit — but, then again, he believes that of every toy he makes.

“It’s hard to say, because we’ve seen that coming with a lot of items, but it actually came to fruition with Fingerlings,” he said in an interview at the company’s Montreal headquarters.

While the toys are manufactured in China, they were conceived and designed at the historic red-brick building just south of Montreal’s Lachine Canal that serves as office and toy lab.

Fingerlings began with a simple idea from brand manager Sydney Wiseman, who’d been watching videos of a South American breed of monkeys called pygmy marmosets, who are small enough to wrap their arms and legs around a human finger.

“She said, ‘can we make this into a toy?”’ Dongarra recalled. “I said, ‘yeah, I think we can do that.”’

There in the office, surrounded by the toy robots and remote-controlled dinosaurs of Christmases past, they began sketching, 3-D modelling and creating the early prototypes of what would become the Fingerling.

Dongarra said the team knew almost from the outset it wanted the toy to be the same size as the marmoset, to cling to the finger of the person holding it and to respond to them through emotion, sound and touch.

“We were sure pretty early on that we had a winner on our hands — well, on our fingers,” he said.

The task of animating the toys fell to people like Anthony Lemire, a mechanical engineer who helped to design the toy’s 40 or so sounds and movements.

While WowWee has a long history of designing robotic toys, he says the challenge in this case was to include as many features as possible without surpassing the approximately $20 price tag.

“We want to put as much technology as possible, but not overkill the product,” he said.

Once the prototypes were complete, the process shifted from Montreal to the company’s Hong Kong office, which oversees the production and assembly.

He said the total process took about nine months — a quick turnaround Dongarra credits to the company’s relatively small size.

He believes the toy’s popularity is due to its interactive personality and the fact parents like it, too.

“It’s cute, it’s lovable, it’s at the right price point, and your daughter or son is begging for it,” he said.

The toy’s popularity has prompted WowWee to expand the Fingerlings line, which now includes a unicorn and a sloth.

They’ve also bumped up production in order to get more of the products on the shelves before Christmas.

But their success has also meant having to crack down on counterfeiters after a number of shoppers reported having been fooled into purchasing fakes online.

The company sued 165 counterfeiters earlier this fall, and CEO Richard Yanofsky has said the firm has notified customs officials around the world to try to stop fakes coming from China, where the authentic ones are also made.

Industy expert Michelle Liem says Fingerlings embody many of the current toy trends: they’re interactive, extremely cute and affordable enough to become collectibles.

“Now that kids are so used to technology, when you can embed technology into a traditional toy it seems to add another layer,” said Liem, NPD Group’s toys director.

She said most of the “must-have” toys in recent years have had an interactive element, but stresses it’s impossible to predict with total certainty which ones will capture kids’ imagination.

“To be right every time, to predict each one, it’s still very hard to know.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Innisfail RCMP are investigating a single-vehicle crash that happened west of Bowden on March 21, 2021. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Bashaw RCMP investigate fatal collision in central Alberta

Bashaw RCMP are investigating after a fatal collision Saturday afternoon. Police were… Continue reading

A damaged unicorn statue is shown in a field outside of Delia, Alta. in this undated handout photo. It's not often police can report that a unicorn has been found, but it was the truth Saturday when RCMP said a stolen, stainless-steel statue of the mythical beast had been located in a field not far from where he'd been taken. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Mounties get their unicorn; stolen statue of mythical beast found in Alberta field

DELIA, Alta. — It’s not often police can report that a unicorn… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels forward Ethan Rowland battles with Medicine Hat Tigers forward Brett Kemp during WHL action at the Centrium Saturday night. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
Tigers claw back, hand Rebels 11th straight loss

Tigers 5 Rebels 2 The same old issues continue to plague the… Continue reading

There were six additional deaths across Alberta reported over the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 1,926 since the beginning of the pandemic. (File photo)
AstraZeneca vaccine is ready to be used at a homeless shelter in Romford, east London, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Frank Augstein
AstraZeneca-linked blood clot confirmed in Alberta

A case of an AstraZeneca-linked blood clot has been confirmed in Alberta,… Continue reading

Red Deer Public Schools will not pilot the new draft curriculum at its elementary schools. (File photo contributed by Red Deer Public Schools)
UPDATED: Red Deer Public Schools says no to piloting new curriculum

Alberta Teachers’ Association support school boards

People cross a busy street in the shopping district of Flushing on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York. Access to the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States is growing by the day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kathy Willens
Despite COVID-19 vaccines, Americans in D.C. not feeling celebratory — or charitable

WASHINGTON — This might make Canadians jealous of their American cousins for… Continue reading

A man pays his respects at a roadside memorial in Portapique, N.S. on Thursday, April 23, 2021. RCMP say at least 22 people are dead after a man who at one point wore a police uniform and drove a mock-up cruiser, went on a murder rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Memorial service in Nova Scotia marks one year since mass shooting started

TRURO, N.S. — A memorial service is planned for today in central… Continue reading

In this April 23, 2016, photo, David Goethel sorts cod and haddock while fishing off the coast of New Hampshire. To Goethel, cod represents his identity, his ticket to middle class life, and his link to one the country's most historic industries, a fisherman who has caught New England's most recognized fish for more than 30 years. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
‘It’s more than just a fish:’ Scientists worry cod will never come back in N.L.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The latest assessment of Atlantic cod stocks, whose… Continue reading

FILE - In this Friday Aug. 21, 2020 file photo, Leonid Volkov, a top strategist for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, addresses the media in Berlin, Germany. Activists for imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are calling for massive protests in the heart of Moscow and St. Petersburg as Navalny's health reportedly is deteriorating severely while on hunger strike. Leonid Volkov, a top strategist for Navalny, said the demonstrations are called on short notice for Wednesday April 21, 2021, because "his life hangs in the balance. ... We don't know how long he can hold on." (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File)
Navalny’s team calls protests amid reports of failing health

MOSCOW — Associates of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called Sunday… Continue reading

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gestures during a news conference Sunday, April 4, 2021, at the Manatee County Emergency Management office in Palmetto, Fla. DeSantis has received a single-dose coronavirus vaccine. His office confirmed Wednesday, April 7, 2021 that the Republican governor got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only a single dose. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, file)
GOP White House hopefuls move forward as Trump considers run

WASHINGTON — Less than three months after former President Donald Trump left… Continue reading

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Ontario Premier Doug Ford points on a COVID-19 caseload projection model graph during a press conference at Queen's Park, in Toronto, Friday, April 16, 2021. Ontario was set to backtrack on controversial new police powers to enforce stay-at-home orders implemented in the battle against COVID-19.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Ford backtracks on new police COVID-19 powers amid intense backlash

TORONTO — Furious criticism of new anti-pandemic powers that allow police in… Continue reading

The official program for the National Commemorative Ceremony in honour of Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, sits on an empty pew prior to the ceremony at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa on Saturday, April 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prince Philip remembered as ‘a man of great service’ during Canada’s memorial service

Canada’s commemorative ceremony in honour of the late Prince Philip offered a… Continue reading

Most Read