Little Cindy's birthday is coming up soon; Alice and Bob want it to be super-special for her, so they search high and low for a super-special ultra-rare highly-expensive toy as her present. As the birthday approaches, the two of them bubble over with excitement as they imagine how vivacious she'll be when she finally receives it.
So the party is held, cake gets eaten, and Cindy goes through her gifts. At the end, she opens Alice and Bob's present, yelps with glee... then carelessly tosses it aside while she trills at the most awesome cardboard box it came in! Just imagine the possibilities!
Note that this trope is not about kids playing with boxes in general — it's about kids (or anyone else) coveting boxes while ignoring the (presumably valuable) contents inside.
A common gag in comedies with small children, and a case of Truth in Television for a lot of parents.
Also see Mundane Object Amazement, My New Gift Is Lame, Unwanted Gift Plot and Worthless Yellow Rocks. Compare Blanket Fort.
An old issue showed the gang as cave people, given presents by Santa: Modern clothes in the sorts of boxes high end stores once used. They find the modern clothes useless, but thank the strange red guy for the wonderful gifts - the immensely useful boxes.
Betty makes paintings, and one is finally bought by a man raving about how it was just what he needed. He then tosses the painting away as he leaves, continuing to rave about the frame.
Nearly an hour and about an acre of shredded wrapping paper later, the children were ignoring all their new toys and playing in the large cardboard box one of them had come in.
“Never fails,” Remus said. “We should stop getting them presents and just get them boxes.”
“Don’t think I haven’t considered it,” Danger said ruefully.
WALL•E did that with a diamond ring; he chose the ringbox. No infant would fault his logic. It opens and shuts and makes a clicky noise!
The Nightmare Before Christmas plays with this trope, as Jack is obsessed with the concept of a "present" (particularly in Kingdom Hearts II), but doesn't understand that the present is what's inside the pretty wrapped box with the bow. He clearly has some idea (or realizes later) that the box needs to have an item inside it, because the citizens of Halloween Town fill the boxes with scary toys rather than leaving them empty.
In Winnie the Pooh, Pooh intends to give Eeyore a jar of honey... and then absent-mindedly eats the honey. Eeyore doesn't actually like honey, but he's very happy to be given the empty jar.
Live Action TV
In an episode of Modern Family, Claire and Phil mention that their son Luke is like this. One year, they decided to just give him a box for his birthday. Unfortunately they put it in a nice bag and he spent all day playing with the bag.
On Daves World, after Dave has gone through hell and high water to get the year's hot toy for his son, the boy opens the box, says the toy's name in an awed voice, and proceeds to play with the wrapping paper.
Referenced in Power Rangers Zeo - Sprocket begs his parents for a new toy, and Machina points out "But when we got you that lovely nuclear reactor, you only played with the box."
In an episode of Full House, Michelle got a cute little outfit from her family but she didn't care, all she wanted was the box.
Roseanne hangs a lampshade on this trope in the season 9 Christmas episode: "You kids have a big day tomorrow of ignoring all your toys and playing with the boxes they came in!"
Top Gear: Richard Hammond confessed during one news segment he still hasn't given this trope up; even as a grown-up, he still can't bring himself to throw away boxes because of the possibilities for fun. His co-presenters were baffled.
Clarkson: Richard, are you all right? Seriously, because this is a man with... there's no other way of putting this... a helicopter license.
Hammond: The CIA said I was all right...
Clarkson: I know, the CIA, if they're watching this they're going to think, "He's a madman!"
May: Well, it's not a real helicopter. It's just the box his fridge came in.
Played with on Sesame Street: The shifty salesman Lefty tries to sell Ernie an empty box, telling him that at least it doesn't have worms in it, and that he could put jellybeans or a pet mouse in it. But Ernie doesn't have any money on him, prompting Lefty to walk away in disgust. Immediately afterward, Bert comes by with a box full of donuts - and Ernie promptly dumps out the donuts and takes the box, saying that now he'll be ready when jellybeans start raining from the sky.
Myths And Legends
There's a Buddhist parable in Chinese Mythology about a shopkeeper that tried to sell a valuable pearl by putting it inside a pretty box. Unfortunately the person that bought it was only interested in buying the box and left the pearl. The Aesop to the story is not to ignore the deeper meanings of Buddhism in favor of the superficial.
A story arc had Calvin sending away for a motorized propeller beanie. When it finally arrives, he's disappointed that it doesn't let him fly around town as he had imagined, and kicks it away in frustration. Fortunately, it came in a cool cardboard box, and he and Hobbes begin to make plans for the fun they'll have with it.
Calvin regularly utilized a large cardboard box turned different ways as a transmogrifier (opening on the bottom), time machine (opening on the top) and duplicator (opening on the side.)
Hobbes: It's amazing what they're doing with corrugated cardboard these days.
"No way, Wendell. Your kids got the box last time, this one's mine."
One Sherman's Lagoon Sunday strip has Sherman give his son Herman an expensive robot toy, and goes on about how 'Santa' waited hours in line to get one. When he sees Herman playing with the box, he's understandably upset.
A Cathy strip describes all the beautiful, expensive, educational toys that Andrea has bought for baby Zenith. The last panel shows that Zenith's favorite toy is an empty toilet paper tube.
Garfield gets presented one of these by Jon...and was not impressed. Jon says that cats like playing in empty boxes, which Garfield responds to with "Get an empty cat!"
This Christmas promo for WWEshop.com and the Elimination Chamber playset. DX was shamelessly promoting WWE and/or DXmerch as usual. After talking about all the toy's features, Shawn Michaels has a nervous breakdown talking about it, how much stress it is to put that toy together while his kids forget all the other crap they got for Christmas, and after it's finished, "AND THEN THEY ONLY WANT TO PLAY WITH THE BOX! AAAAAAHHHH!".
Triple H: (stares at Shawn incredulously before looking back at the camera and picking up the box) It is a nice box.
One of the game's Mascot Mook enemies are an entire Planet of Hats species of goblins called Sneevils, who make a point of stealing boxes and discarding any of their contents.
It was heavily implied during Nythera's flashback that Sneevils used to be human children before being shifted into their goblin-like appearance to collect boxes for her boxfort.note It failed since they collected the boxes for themselves instead. Most of the children were reverted back to normal but the few who escaped became ancestors of the modern Sneevils seen today.
In an extra, if you look closely, you can see Sunny in Metal Gear Solid 4 playing with a cardboard box. No surprise, since she is raised by her Uncle Snake.
Short-lived, but Isaac of Mother 3 initially finds more use for the Happy Box's box than the Happy Box itself (the "Happy Box" is basically a television, not itself an example of this trope.)
There's an episode of Garfield and Friends where Garfield wants an expensive cat bed, then sleeps in the box it came in. Jon, not willing to let all the money he spent on the bed go to waste, crawls into the cat bed himself.
Bart and Lisa build an amazing castle out of cardboard boxes in their garden.
The Rugrats episode "The Box" revolves around this idea, as does "Kid TV."
In the first one, Stu orders a ridiculously obtuse toy and spends the entire episode trying to simply build the damn thing. The toy is never assembled. Angelica, of course, doesn't get why the babies are having so much fun with it and tries to ruin their fun. When she rips the box to pieces, the babies pause for a few moments, and then just pick up the various bits of cardboard and play with those, leading to Angelica, completely fed up, shouting the quote at the top of the page. Eventually, Stu decides (as a toy inventor) to give up on the toy and market a line of cardboard boxes, after seeing how much fun the babies are having with it.
In the second, Stu is struggling to invent a flying toy and is up-shown by a lavish commercial. In a rage, he throws his half-finished invention at the TV, destroying it. He then tries to look for the TV's box to return it under warranty, but the only box he can find is just barely too small. While he searches for another box, the babies cut a hole in the bottom and pretend it's a television, hosting their own shows as the others watch.
On Peppa Pig's Christmas Episode, George got a fancy electronic toy racing car as his gift, but ended up playing with the box instead after his parents took too long to get it set up.
Played for Drama in the Daria episode, "Boxing Daria." After seeing an old refrigerator box at the beginning of the episode, childhood memories beginning to re-emerge as Daria begins to remember some rather traumatic events concerning her unique personality as a child, accumulating to her remembering how her parents would fight amongst themselves due to her behavior in school. To escape it all, she would hide in a refrigerator box in her room.
Referenced in Littlest Pet Shop (2012): Pepper gets a new prop in the mail. The second after she takes it out, the other pets enthusiastically start playing with the box.
Bubble wrap. *pop* *pop* *pop* *pop*
Tragically, someone had to go and invent a newer type of bubble wrap made of interconnected air pockets that is becoming more commonplace. Trying to pop one air pocket will deflate all of the pockets on a row.
Shipping containers have been used to build houses.
Cats love boxes. They love hiding in them. It's the best way to catch a cat. Set out a box and leave. Come back in five minutes. The cat will be in the box. No muss, no fuss.
Pet rodents usually adore cardboard boxes, both as hiding places and something to chew on. A box full of shredded-paper packing material is even better, for added burrowing and nest-building potential.
The well-established rule that kids like cookie dough better than cookies is similar.
There is an urban legend that Japan used to buy a lot of Soviet mineral water in the 70s and throw the bottles out. They only needed the hardwood boxes to make furniture.
A Saturday Evening post cover featured a parent observing a child playing with a wooden toy train, which lead to a purchase of a big electric train set, only for the child to continue to play with the original wooden toy.