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The rise of the Lego movies

The rise of the Lego movies

One of Hollywood’s biggest franchises began with a plastic brick.
Nicholas Barber’s traces Lego’s path to the silver screen

One of Hollywood’s biggest franchises began with a plastic brick.
Nicholas Barber’s traces Lego’s path to the silver screen

Nicholas Barber | February/March 2019

In recent years Hollywood studios have been trying to do far more than merely make movies. Their great ambition is to create a cinematic universe that is shared by characters from an ever-increasing number of interlinked films, which encourages audiences to revisit the last movie and look forward to the next.

The first studio to realise this dream was Marvel, which specialises in superhero movies and is owned by Disney. Since the release of “Iron Man” in 2008, all of Marvel’s blockbusters have been set in the same world, where Captain America guest stars in Spider-Man’s adventures, Thor has a beer with Doctor Strange, and the whole crowd gets together for “Avengers: Infinity War”. It’s a universe which has so far grossed $17.5bn.

When other studios have tried to imitate Marvel, the results have been less of a Big Bang than a whimper. The fictional reality in “Justice League” and “Suicide Squad”, populated by super­heroes from comics company DC, is glum and unwelcoming, and the series revolving around Robin Hood, King Arthur and Universal’s roster of classic movie monsters have collapsed. But one franchise has, in some ways, done even better than Marvel’s: the one built out of Lego.

“The Lego Movie”, a cartoon directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, came out in 2014. Set in a world made entirely of Lego, and starring a blithely stupid construction worker who is told he is the only person who can save the world from the tyrannical Lord Business, “The Lego Movie” was an anti-consumerist satire and an ingenious parody of portentous Hollywood blockbusters, with their ancient prophecies and exalted “chosen ones”. It was also a hit, grossing $469m at the global box office and scoring 96% on “Rotten Tomatoes”, a reviews aggregate site.

Since then there have been two spin-offs, “The Lego Batman Movie” and “The Lego Ninjago Movie”, both released in 2017, and a direct sequel, “The Lego Movie 2”, which is out in February. That’s not a bad cinematic universe, by anyone’s standards. But what is unusual about “The Lego Movie” is that it doesn’t just include its own copyrighted characters. It also features Lego versions of Batman and Superman, Dumbledore from “Harry Potter”, Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings”, Milhouse from “The Simpsons”, and Michelangelo from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, not to mention various “Star Wars” regulars who swoop by in a Lego Millennium Falcon. In other words, the Lego universe has several other universes inside it. It’s a cinematic multiverse.

There has never been anything quite like it before. Depending on your age, you may remember how astounding it was to watch Donald Duck and Daffy Duck playing adjacent pianos in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or to glimpse E.T., The Extra Terrestrial in the Galactic Senate chamber in “Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace”. But nobody had ever seen characters from so many different movies in one place, like the participants in a Comic-Con fancy-dress parade. The Lego movies are a nerd’s dream come true.

They are also a dream come true for Hollywood, advertising countless other films and franchises from companies who are in competition with each other – but who all want to play with Lego.

To understand how Lego managed to cram numerous universes into one film, it helps to glance back at the company’s history. It was founded in 1932 in the Danish town of Billund by a carpenter, Ole Kirk Kristiansen, who named his business after the Danish for “play well” – leg godt. For over a decade he and his son, Godtfred, specialised in wooden tractors and pull-along animals. Then, in 1947, they heard that a British toymaker, Hilary Fisher Page, was manufacturing self-locking building bricks out of injection-moulded plastic. Kristiansen imported an injection-moulding machine and refined Page’s brittle hollow blocks to create their own durable stud-and-tube bricks, launched in 1958. The Lego brick wasn’t just a thing but part of a system: the idea was that every new product would be compatible with every previous one. You could just keep adding more and more to your collection, which meant that – as with Marvel’s films – each box of plastic bricks became part of an interconnected world.

The company’s next breakthrough came in 1978, with the introduction of minifigures. At first they all looked the same, with the cylindrical heads, curved hands and dots for eyes – an appearance which is sent up in “The Lego Movie” when one character tells another ,“We’re trying to catch the fugitive, but his face is so generic it matches every other face in our database.” But as time went on they evolved. In 1989 they developed distinctive facial features. A pirate captain now had a beard and an eyepatch, his crew moustaches and stubble. Then they began to populate Lego sets with pre-made parts – a knight’s castle, say, with ramparts, turrets and little Lego figures in the form of ghosts, skeletons and footsoldiers in helmets and chainmail.

Drawn by their popularity – by the late 1990s there were almost 200bn Lego pieces in circulation – film studios twigged that if they wanted to sell their characters to children, then Lego was the ideal means. The first film tie-in was a “Star Wars” set in 1999, followed by “Jurassic World III” and “Harry Potter” in 2001, and Spider-Man in 2002.

This required a “fine balance”, says Jill Wilfert, Lego’s vice-president of licensing and entertainment and the executive producer of “The Lego Movie”. “Some companies wanted exact replicas of what you see onscreen, so when we first showed them minifigures, they weren’t sure. We had to explain that if they looked just like characters in the movies, they’d lose the charm and humour.” Lego’s insistence on that point was a masterstroke. “When you’ve got Voldemort or Darth Vader in Lego form,” says Wilfert, “they can be doing something mean and threatening, and it’s just funny.” Sure enough, Lego’s fans noticed how endearingly daft it was to have epic battles being fought by stiff, thumb-sized plastic people.

The first stop-motion animation to use Lego bricks for both its cast and scenery was, as far as we know, “En rejse til manen” or “Journey to the Moon”, a six-minute, silent Super 8 film made in 1973 by two Danes. When minifigures came along, brickfilms took off. One inspiration for “The Lego Movie” was “The Magic Portal”, a science-fiction short directed by an Australian animator, Lindsay Fleay, in 1989. Shortly afterwards, David Etheridge made a Lego music video for Ether Real’s rave single, “Zap”, in which the band-members turn into minifigures and go on a surreal river journey: “Yellow Submarine” meets “Apocalypse Now”.

Initially, the company frowned on such films being made without its permission, but it came to see them as a whole new reason for people to buy their products. A “Lego Studios” set with a how-to guide came out in 2000, and a website, Brickfilms.com, was founded in the same year. Soon, the internet was bursting with recreations of classic film scenes with mini­figures in the lead roles, alongside loving parodies of “Star Wars” and “Avengers”. Amateur efforts included a sword-fighting contest between Bilbo and Frodo Baggins; Lego’s own included Darth Vader conducting an orchestra using his lightsaber as a baton. Thanks to these light-hearted brickfilms, Lego became a toy company with its very own style of irreverent, post-modern comedy. All this led to “The Lego Movie”.

Other films have attempted comparable mash-ups since “The Lego Movie” came out. Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is set largely in a virtual-reality game that incorporates everyone from Hello Kitty to Freddy Krueger. But these mash-ups are less contrived and more fun when they’re made with plastic bricks and minifigures. For marketers the Lego films are a cross-promotional bonanza; for adults they are a sharp satire on our overloaded pop culture. But for children, the Lego movies are simpler: a reflection of how they actually play. “Kids don’t care if Han Solo is Disney and Batman is DC,” Wilfert says. “They play with all of them.”