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Barbie beware: Bratz dolls are back

The fashion doll aisle is about to see a major shake up: Barbie’s pouty-lipped rival, Bratz, are planning a big comeback this year.

MGA Entertainment, which owns the Bratz doll line and Little Tikes plastic toys, is putting the brand back on shelves after a two-year hiatus. The toy maker is hopeful it can generate interest in a line that peaked back in 2006 when sales hit $1 billion in the U.S, before litigation involving the intellectual property of the brand led MGA to withdraw the line a few years later.

Bringing back Bratz could cause more headaches for Barbie’s owner, Mattel (MAT). Barbie’s sales have dropped 16% over the first six months of 2015, a trend that implies the iconic doll will report a fourth consecutive annual drop in revenue. The roughly $2.3 billion doll category has mostly been disrupted by the popularity of Disney’s (DIS) Frozen line, which focuses on two princess characters that are the key figures in the popular 2013 film.

But Mattel isn’t alone in facing some pressure in the girls’ toy aisle. Sales of Hasbro’s (HAS) girls toys have also been declining this year. MGA executives say that weakness means there is room for Bratz to make an impression.

“Bratz still has a huge following on Facebook and has a lot of fans,” MGA President Anne Gates told Fortune. “We thought it was a good opportunity to bring it back.”

To help propel the franchise back into retail stores, MGA has scored deals with the three largest brick-and-mortar U.S. toy retailers. And all three of them – Walmart (WMT), Target (TGT) and Toys ‘R’ Us – have inked deals with MGA to sell exclusive items that can only be found at their stores.

“They’ve given us shelf space and we’ve really gotten the support we need from them,” Gates said.

The rivalry between Barbie and Bratz has often gone beyond the toy aisle: much of what has been written about the brands has focused on their courtroom battles. The legal tussle started in 2004 when Mattel alleged a Barbie designer came up with the idea for Bratz while employed in Mattel in the late 1990s. MGA and Mattel have traded allegations against each other for years related to the copyright claim, with MGA suing Mattel again as recently as 2014. As it stands today, Mattel was on the hook to pay MGA over $130 million in fees and costs tied to the copyright claim.

While MGA has long argued that the litigation is what led to Bratz’s drop in popularity, toy insiders blame weak content that failed to generate enough interest in the line.

“Outside of Barbie and Lego, there are very few properties that last forever,” said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of toy-focused website He points out that other properties, such as Transformers and Care Bears, experience peaks and dips in popularity based on the strength of video content. For example, it took three tries before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a force again on the toy aisle, after an initial round of popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What helped bring it back? A hit TV show on Nickelodeon.

“There is definitely potential for Bratz to be part of the fashion doll aisle again, but it depends on content,” Silver said. Great storylines that connect with children ultimately drive strong toy sales.

MGA misfired badly several years ago. A live-action film released in 2007 was poorly reviewed and didn’t do well at the box office. The doll’s popularity suffered as a result of that botched content drive.

This time around, MGA said it’ll focus on “empowerment,” though its unclear how that will be sold to girls. Bratz also intends to focus greatly on promoting the diversity of its toy line. That helped the doll line stand out when it first was released in 2001, but with Barbie also focusing on a more racially diverse product line this year, it is less of a game changer.

The look of Bratz dolls remains fairly consistent with what made the doll popular in 2001. But attitudes toward fashion have changed, and at times, some have criticized the dolls for being too provocative. MGA didn’t seem concerned about the changing landscape. Their argument? The dolls are fashion-forward and fun.

“We should be [at the top] of the fashion doll brands out there,” Gates said.