The ‘Dune’ Popcorn Bucket and the Golden Age of Movie Merch

When I first encountered an image of the popcorn bucket that AMC Theaters is selling to promote Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two,” I stared at it for a beat trying to process what I was looking at. The item is supposed to represent a giant sandworm, the beasts that slither under the desert planet Arrakis. On top of the normal container sits a lid that depicts the cylindrical body of the creature emerging from the ground. The opening where you are ostensibly supposed to reach in to snatch some kernels is fashioned like the worm’s maw with its many tendril-like teeth, here rendered in plastic. The bucket is intricately designed, but appears, well, especially anatomical — to put it politely — and somewhat difficult to use to actually get treats into your mouth.

The “Dune” popcorn bucket has become a genuine mini phenomenon. The film’s cast and crew have been asked to comment on it, and Villeneuve even told The Times, charmingly, “When I saw it, I went, ‘Hoooooly smokes.’” There was a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that rhymed “bucket” with a phrase that is unprintable here. Yet, the more I followed talk of the bucket, the more I wanted to possess it. (And no, not for the reasons you’re thinking. Get your mind out of the gutter, please.) As a fan of movies and their ephemera, I began to feel as though I needed to have this piece of hilariously suggestive memorabilia in my home.

The bucket, both in its sheer strangeness and in the way it has become a cultural moment, reminded me of an earlier era of collectibles — of tie-ins like those McDonald’s “Batman Forever” mugs with badly drawn versions of Jim Carrey’s Riddler that seemed to be a mainstay in 1990s cupboards. But it also is reminiscent of the too-weird-to-be-true marketing misadventures of yore, things that are so unintentionally off-putting that they are also sort of amazing. See the Jar Jar Binks lollipop in which the Gungan alien’s mouth opens to reveal a candy tongue that you are supposed to suck. Ew, to say the least.

In some ways the “Dune” bucket is “ingenious,” said Griffin Newman, an actor and merchandise obsessive, because it inspires people to go to movie theaters to buy it. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

There’s even a history of this with “Dune” itself. When David Lynch’s 1984 version of the Frank Herbert epic was released, you could buy a sandworm action figure that, once again, looked unnervingly phallic. (There’s one on eBay if you’re willing to shell out.)

Not all of my nostalgia is for the unsavory. The recent frenzy reminded me of the things I used to covet when I was a wee fan starting to fixate on film. My main obsession was Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, so when Burger King released a line of light-up goblets with the visages of characters like Aragorn and Arwen etched on their sides, I knew I needed them. (I had other “LOTR”-themed glassware as well, including mugs that revealed the inscription on the Ring of Power when you filled them with hot liquid. Pretty sure those are still in my parents’ house.)

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