Legoland Lost

The Lego Movie’s emphasis on creative and spontaneous play clashes with what the toys have become.

It’s likely impossible to make it through childhood without coming across Legos. Time magazine named them one of the greatest toys of all time, noting that “just six blocks could be combined in 102,981,500 different ways.”

But Lego the company is more than just toys these days. The brand’s cultural footprint is spread across animated shorts, theme parks, video games, and now a feature length film, imaginatively titled The Lego Movie.

The animated film features Chris Pratt as the quintessential everyman, Emmett. Drawn into a quest to overthrow the wicked President Business (Will Ferrell), Emmett is joined by the wizardly Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), the Carrie-Anne Moss à la The Matrix-esque Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and Batman (Will Arnett) as they hopscotch through recognizable Lego locales. Just think of every hero’s journey mashed together like so many blocks but with a relentless pace and a sense of humor.

This is an utterly enjoyable film. If the prospect of Batman joining up with the crew of the Millennium Falcon excites you, as it does me, then this movie, through its mass of cameos and cultural references, should be seen immediately.

Yet the film contains a deep problem that mirrors a larger problem with Lego. The ethos of Lego has always been creativity and imagination. With just a few plastic blocks, a child can create, quite literally, almost anything — remember how many ways those mere six blocks could be assembled. So it’s not at all surprising that The Lego Movie would run with this theme. It’s at the very heart of the film, the message constantly beamed to the audience: creativity and imagination are good, mindlessly following instructions is bad.

But the growth of Lego as a company has radically altered Lego as a product. With increasing market share and reach, Lego has increased in complexity. The original simple blocks, designed for maximum customization and versatility, gave way to mini-figures, specially designed pieces, and prepackaged sets with an intended construction goal in mind. Legos now closely resemble model kits, complete with detailed and multistep directions, and are so full of intention and specificity that it is a bit surprising super glue isn’t included.

The explosion in Lego variety, from highly specialized pieces to an abundance of licensed properties, would seem to indicate a greater profusion of creative potentialities. If a kid can combine six blocks into 102,981,500 different combinations, than imagine what might happen if she was given Star Wars Legos, and Batman Legos, and pirate Legos, and medieval Legos, and so on.

However, Legos are packaged and marketed with a specific goal in mind. Certain pieces only work together in a certain way. Consider the gears at the heart of complex Lego models capable of movement. How else can I use a gear besides as a gear? Highly specialized pieces entail highly specific types of play and design.

Store shelves are lined with preplanned kits, and although there is nothing stopping a kid from doing whatever he or she wants with it, there is an expectation in the marketing that you are not buying Legos to build whatever you see fit — you are buying Legos to construct a preplanned design. The completed design is what’s advertised on the box, not the disparate pieces that may take whatever shape you desire. No kid buys a Lego set of the Batcave to build and rebuild whatever they can conceive — they build it for the Batcave.

Oddly, The Lego Movie features ramshackle designs intended to invoke the free spirit of individual play and imagination. Compared to the sameness and banality of President Business’s cookie cutter minions, a monotone swath of silver and black clad robots riffing on The Terminator, the distinction is hard to miss. That’s what imagination looks like — it’s freewheeling and spontaneous.

But a whole product line tying in with the film recently hit the shelves. Of course, it makes sense for the villain’s vehicles to be sold as predesigned sets for sale. But the bulk of the tie-in sets feature these supposedly spontaneous and unplanned designs. What was shown as individual and unique is now mass produced for your consumption.

It is this contradiction that makes the messaging behind The Lego Movie a bit hazy. Is The Lego Movie a critique of current company practices by a wry production team? Is it comprised of banal platitudes to creativity encased by a compelling popcorn flick? Or is it just a way for Lego to sell new predesigned sets with highly specialized parts to consumers?

Although a highly watchable film, The Lego Movie leaves me a bit uneasy, and I think it’s because of the numbers. When a kid can craft 102,981,500 variations with just six bricks, that means a box of several hundred Legos is the ultimate toy, from which you can craft almost any other toy. You don’t need to buy any others, because why would you? You can make anything you want after one purchase. While perhaps good for encouraging children’s creativity, it’s not good business.

I remember how my original set of Legos was augmented over the years by newer, bigger, more complex sets. Eventually, my room was filled not with toys, but with decorations, models for me to look at and pat myself on the back for how well I followed the instructions. The dust grew thick as I rarely touched what I had built for fear of breaking it and not knowing how to put it back together. That’s not the style of play, filled with curiosity and exploration, unafraid to break bricks and find better ways they fit together, that Emmett was fighting for.