Editorials, Film

Play Well: Why There is a Good Chance The Lego Movie Could Save Legos

Editor’s note: I’m trying to get in the habit of writing some slightly shorter editorial articles that are still interesting but not as much of a commitment as, say, my 2300 word review of Les Miserables, even though that is our most popular article and 2300 words actually isn’t that long. So hopefully I’ll be able to bring up some engaging ideas in this post without breaking the bank on words. But I probably won’t succeed at that. Oh well. – NS

By Nathan Smith

A few weeks ago, the trailer for The Lego Movie dropped. When this film was first announced a few years ago, I was incredibly scared. This was around the time when it seemed like every toy from Ouija board to slinkies to sandboxes were getting picked up for film adaptations, and based on Lego’s previous and not-so-illustrious career in the movie business, there wasn’t much reason to be particularly excited. But over the past couple of months, as details have slowly started to roll out about, including such pleasing bits as its excellent voice cast (Chris Pratt, Nick Offerman, Will Arnett, etc.), my anticipation started to build. That anticipation peaked when I finally saw the trailer for The Lego Movie.

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It has everything I could possibly want in a film version chronicling one of the sacred cows of my childhood. References to forgotten lines like the 2002 NBA All-Star series, jokes about the difference between “Michelangelo” and “Michaelangelo,” gags about “very dark gray”- it was beautiful. But a few weeks later, when I saw the trailer in a theater filled with snot-nosed kids, their reaction was decidedly different than my own. First, a wave of confusion, as most lil kids probably aren’t as up on the movie trades as myself. Second, there was a noticeable lack of laughter. Well, not throughout the whole trailer, which admittedly has a few gags that have been played out in animated children’s films before. But compared to trailers for movies like Planes, Freebirds, and Turbo, which had played immediately before it, the kids didn’t seem as interested. One kid next to me even said he wasn’t going to see it, even after his older brother reminded him that he loved Legos.

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But after a moment of introspective musing, I came to a realization- this movie wasn’t for the kids in this audience, it was for the kid in me. It was for the kid who still loved Legos and Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but also loved jokes about hues, tones, and shades. And that wasn’t accidental. I’m pretty sure The Lego Group is doing this on purpose.

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In his book Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, David Robertson outlines how over the past decade, The Lego Group daringly, and drastically, transformed its brand in order to save the company from a deep slump and impending bankruptcy. By the end of the 2000s, Lego had turned around its financial situation quite remarkably, but in large part to the detriment of part of its brand. While it has embraced many more difficult sets for older builder, it’s also changed radically, with a heavy focus on minifigures and specialty parts as opposed to traditional bricks, and an over-emphasis on movie and television tie-in lines. While there are tons more “cool parts” and an incredible amount of detail, many of these specialty parts are essentially useless outside of the sets they come with, as they are so specific to whatever type of set they may come from. It’s also been pointed out that Lego, which used to stay away from guns and war-like sets, has become incredibly focused on sets that lend themselves to more violent play.

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Because of these changes, Lego has lost many of its older fans, but it’s also in a way discouraged the type of creative and imaginative play its product is known- and celebrated- for. Many kids now may be more likely to act out scenes from a movie than to create something from their own kids, and they may feel compelled to simply stick to the story-lines acted out on the box. But The Lego Movie could change that.

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The Lego Movie represents Lego at its most child-like and brilliant. Instead of segregating characters and parts by line or set, they’re all dumped together, like the director was a kid spreading out all his many pieces on the floor. You’ve got Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Superman, wizards and spacemen, construction workers and basketball players, all together, just like they should be. It’s also catering to the intelligence that Lego products promotes. The trailer for this film hasn’t dumbed itself down or shied away from humor kids may not understand; rather, like the best children’s entertainment, it refuses to be patronizing, cynical, or knowingly stupid. The best kid’s entertainment works for both children and their parents, but in different ways. The Lego Movie does just that, bringing together all the cool parts and characters kids want, and the various references and jokes that adults or older kids are going to love as well. And unlike some of Lego’s direct-to-DVD movies or television shows, it’s not taking itself too seriously.

The Lego Movie may end up not having as tight and well-constructed a plot as a Pixar film, but if we wanted that from Lego, they’d build what was on the box. Instead, they’re taking the “Lego” route- dumping out all the pieces and seeing what happens. That’s the beauty of Lego, and I’m glad they remember that. I just hope they don’t go too crazy making The Lego Movie tie-in sets.

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