Chewbacca has enjoyed a long and diverse action figure evolutionary history, so for this Toy Tribute, we'll analyze Chewie's 3.75" phylogeny. There have been dozens of Chewie figures over the years, but this list shows the 10 figures that are most significant in Chewie's history, each one adding a rung to his evolutionary ladder. Of course, we'll start with the archetypical Chewie:
Vintage Chewbacca (1978)
Adaptation: Last Universal Common Ancestor.
Chewie first emerged with this figure from Kenner's very first wave of Star Wars figures. This Chewie was reused for ESB and ROTJ waves and was the only 3.75" figure of the character for 17 years. The figure aged pretty well: Kenner's sculpt features fur detailing as well as a roaring countenance that are clearly indicative of the character. But this Chewie is undeniably primitive: his sculpt and paint apps are simplistic, his articulation is limited to 4 swivel joints at the shoulders and hips, and his weapon is less a bowcaster and more a blaster rifle. But he was a king in his time, ruling the Chewie world by default until...
POTF2 Chewbacca (1995)
Adaptations: Improved fur sculpt and paint apps, waist articulation, accessories.
When Star Wars burst again on the action figure scene in 1995, Chewie once again found himself in the first wave. Kenner improved upon the paint apps with dark brown sprays to give Chewie's hair more color variation. The fur sculpting was also improved, but the sculpt featured Sasquatch-esque proportions were uncharacteristic of the lanky wookiee. Chewie also evolved waist articulation and he finally received his first true bowcaster. But he still had a long way to go.
Shadows of the Empire Chewbacca Snoova (1996)
Adaptation: Thinking outside the box.
If there's any character in the Star Wars OT that's trapped in a box, it's Chewie. The costume is very much the same throughout the Trilogy so there just isn't much you can do with the character in terms of action figure differentiation. But in 1996, Kenner ripped out of that box, releasing this figure of Chewie in Snoova uniform from the Shadows of the Empire storyline. The armor, spiked hair, and coloration arguably make him the most distinctive figure in the entire Chewbacca phylogeny. Unfortunately, Chewie Snoova represents an evolutionary dead-end, as later descendants reverted back to the OT box. (At least, for the next 11 years... but let's not get ahead of ourselves.) Regardless, Chewie Snoova was a weird, if fun, footnote in Chewie's history... even if he still had the Sasquatchian proportions of POTF2 Chewie, proportions that Kenner stubbornly stuck to for another 2 years.
Mynock Hunt Chewbacca (1998)
Adaptation: Accurate body proportions, arms sculpted to hold bowcaster.
In 1998, Hasbro (which had absorbed Kenner) finally realized that maybe kids and collectors want SW figures with less gargantuan proportions. This Chewie (from the Mynock Hunt Cinema Scene) reflects that evolutionary adaptation, with body proportions that are much more reasonably scaled. Chewie also gained the ability to hold his bowcaster with both hands. The hairdo is still not quite right for an ESB Chewie, and he's still way too short, but there's much to love about this Chewie.
Chewbacca Hoth (1998)
Adaptations: Fur detailing.
Continuing the body proportion renaissance of 1998 is this Hoth Chewie. He's as scene-specific as a figure can possibly get, but his wind-blown ruffled fur with snow clumps make him an interesting rung in Chewie's monophyletic ladder. As with Mynock Hunt Chewie, the height is still lacking, a flaw that wouldn't be addressed for another 2 years with...
Chewbacca Mechanic (2000)
Adaptation: Accurate height, refined sculpt, additional arm articulation.
During the first few decades of the SW action figure line, Chewie, a character who is defined by excessive height, was diminished to roughly the same height as his SW figure contemporaries (presumably to make him compatible with vehicles). But whatever reasoning for his diminutive height was thrown out of the window in 2000 with the appropriately tall Chewbacca Mechanic. Chewie's sculpt also gets a bit more refinement, with more accurate fur textures than previous releases. The articulation is expanded a bit with the addition of a swivel elbow, but don't we deserve more movement in our Chewies?
Cloud City Capture Chewbacca (2002)
Adaptations: Increased movement, extensive accessories.
Head articulation has always been a problem with Chewie figures. How do you design a figure that allows the head to move when that head is surrounded by shaggy hair? Cloud City Capture Chewbacca presents an interesting solution, with a neck that tilts forward and backward, mimicking Chewie's upturned posture when he roars. The figure also features ball-hinge shoulders and swivel elbows, opening up a new range of interesting movements. Cloud City Chewie could hold his blaster with two arms like 1998's Mynock Hunt Chewie, but the added articulation didn't fix the figure in that pose for all eternity. This Chewie also came with some awesome accessories: a blaster, a net, and a disassembled Threepio (with glowing eyes and panels). Chewie was becoming very close to the summit of his evolutionary history, which would be reached with...
VOTC Chewbacca (2004)
Adaptations: Hyper-articulation, movie-accurate sculpt.
We see the apex of Chewie's evolution with the VOTC figure from 2004. Finally, Chewie experiences what it's like to hyper-articulate with 12 POAs, most of them ball joints! Not to mention that this Chewie looks nigh-perfect: the proportions are appropriately tall and lanky, the likeness is dead-on, the fur and bandolier detailing is great, and the paint apps are awesome. Other Chewies followed this one, but they're usually either slight variations of this figure or de-evolutions.
We've reached the highest form of the Chewbacca clade with VOTC Chewie. Although there haven't been any significant improvements on this figure's morphology, our trip through Chewie's evolutionary history wouldn't be complete without the inclusion of two interesting side branches:
McQuarrie Concept Chewbacca (2007)
Adaptation: Concept art.
Not since the Snoova days has Chewie been as unconventional as this McQuarrie Concept Chewbacca. This could be considered a living fossil, since it's the oldest form of Chewie; in fact, the design is so ancient that it barely resembles Chewie at all. But given its historical importance, it's still a significant part of Chewie's evolutionary tree.
Sandstorm Chewbacca (2008)
Adaptation: Cut scene.
There weren't that many cut scenes in the Star Wars movies, and fewer still that included Chewie. But in 2008 Hasbro decided to explore the Tatooine Sandstorm cut scene in which the heroes trudge through a sandstorm to the Millenium Falcon after the battle at the Sarlaac. Chewie features one of his more radical "costume changes" in this scene, sporting a bandage on his leg. The figure is based on the VOTC sculpt, but Hasbro also resculpted his upper arms and head, giving him wind-blown fur. While this Chewie is nothing more than a less-evolved variation on the VOTC figure, the fact that he depicts a cut scene (and is likely to be the only Chewbacca figure to do so) makes him an important footnote in the Chewie tree of descent.
Addendum: Clone Wars Chewbacca (2011)
One other side-branching bears mentioning here. Chewbacca got his first animated treatment in 2011 with this figure from the Clone Wars line. The articulation was nice and he came with all sorts of great accessories. The ANH style and great quality of the figure make it my favorite Chewie so far. Check out this review for more about this awesome figure.
Thus ends our look into the action figure phylogeny of one of the most beloved characters in the Star Wars trilogy. But it might not be the end for Chewie... he may yet adapt past the VOTC figure into a Chewie that's even more perfectly evolved.