Lego Story: Not Child's Play Any More

'The Lego Movie,’ a self-mocking allegory of the family-owned business, caps its successful rebranding from has-been into world giant.

Elihay Vidal
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Elihay Vidal

“The Lego Movie” represents the changes experienced by the popular brand from a small family business in Denmark to a worldwide business, from an innocent and childish toy to a well-oiled marketing machine that dictates fashions to the masses. Does the film subvert the American narrative of personal empowerment, or does it actually reinforce it?

“The Lego Movie” saved Emmet Brickowski from being buried in a dusty box deep inside the closet of the children’s room. Fortunately for him, someone decided to turn his outdated image − with his faded clothes, unfashionable haircut and clumsy arms − into a heroic figure. After years of addiction to toy sets starring superheroes, the more human figure has returned to toy store shelves. And the decision to base an entire film around the figure of the classical Lego man was no less important for the balance sheets of Lego and Warner Brothers studios: The film, which was released in the United States earlier this month, earned $70 million the first week − and the enthusiastic criticism is only increasing the demand for tickets in the coming weeks.

Emmet Brickowoski’s life story is in effect an allegory of the life story of the Danish toy company that was established in 1932, became the most familiar toy brand in the world, but towards the end of the last century began to decline and be forgotten, to the point where it was in danger of closing.

At the beginning of the last decade, to a great extent thanks to the brilliant decision of the new managers to acquire rights for popular cinematic brands and superheroes, the family once again soared to great heights. In the past year Lego acquired its new status as the largest toy company in the world, with annual sales of over $1 billion and a value of about $15 billion.

The explanation is not to be found only in the physical product that emerges from the Lego plants, but in the values it represents. Although Lego sells colored bricks, there is a dream hiding inside the package. Inside the colorful cardboard box is a fantasy waiting to be realized. Lego enables everyone, big and small, to imagine a world and at the same time build it from the foundations.

The admiration and trust that Lego enjoys all over the world are a reflection of the company’s ability to adapt itself, for decades, to a broad and varied audience.

At the start of the millennium Lego lost some of its attraction due to consumers’ increasing addiction to television, computers and technology in general. The company found itself in a profound crisis, with a drastic decline in demand for traditional toys and increasing demand for electronic toys. Meanwhile, the structure of the toy industry changed as giants such as Toys “R” Us swallowed up small stores and forced toy manufacturers to lower their prices. Above everything hovered Lego’s biggest problem: Its patents expired and cheap imitations began to flood the market.

But as with the toy sets, in reality as well the company’s directors were able to dismantle Lego and build something new with the very same bricks. No longer naïve content that suited the popular culture of the 1970s and 1980s centered on houses, gas stations and friendly dinosaurs. These became less relevant to consumers with the advent of the technological revolution. Beginning in 2004 the company began to focus on new content worlds, the main ones surrounding the plots of films that were box-office hits for the whole family: “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Pirates of the Caribbean.” In the past 10 years almost no hit has emerged from the Disney studios without a matching Lego set.

It’s not only content that creates the cultural world of 21st century children, but also the platforms through which they experience the world. Lego does not make do with selling toy sets of bricks and dolls, it distributes computer games through every possible platform, games in which the heroes are animated Lego figures living in a world constructed entirely of bricks and other Lego components.

The connection between the film shown in the movie theater and the actual brick set and matching computer game creates loyalty and affection among children and other consumers for both brands − the film studio, which serves as a powerful marketing tool, and Lego, which enables users to become physically involved.

The target audience is not only children, but older users too. In Britain, for example, the film’s distributors purchased advertising time on television, where they showed new versions of old and familiar commercials using Lego figures instead of human beings. At the end of every such commercial the viewers were, of course, invited to the movie theaters.

Subverting the American narrative

The next stage in connecting with users is to invent content worlds unique to Lego, such as the animated television series “Ninjago,” and of course now the full-length film in which the beloved classic Lego figures star as heroes of Lego’s self-parody. With brilliant humor the story criticizes all the cliches of Hollywood action films in which the ordinary man is expected to carry everyone to victory over the forces of evil.

The creators of the film, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller − who were successful with their previous project “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” − were able to address the older audience, and not only the children. After all, it’s well known that Lego sets are the equivalent of the old-time electric train, and that fathers buy the toy for themselves as much as for their children. This idea received official confirmation this month after it was learned that most viewers of the film during the first week were aged 18 and above and not necessarily children, as one might have thought.

The tension between organized and creative people even led one culture critic on New York Magazine’s Vulture website to declare “The Lego Movie” a communist film that subverts the American narrative of personal empowerment as a way of overcoming all obstacles.

For a long time, those addicted to the company’s products have not only been children aged 4-14 − and it’s actually the adult users who find new uses for the bricks and dolls. On the Internet it’s very fashionable to stage home-made animated films (with stop-motion technology), with Lego components serving as the scenery and characters.

From a childish, basic and somewhat primitive childhood toy, Lego has become a giant corporation that sends its tentacles out to every possible leisure time and entertainment platform. It took the company 70 years to develop the brand, but no more than 10 years to dominate the cultural world of Western citizens.

One could say that “The Lego Movie” represents the changes in society − from a small family firm in Denmark to a worldwide business; from an innocent and childish box toy to a well-oiled marketing machine that dictates fashions and trends to hundreds of millions of people. But in the end, through the back door, the company also gives any of those millions who so desire the tools to express their independence and creative freedom.

Characters Emmet, left, and Batman in a scene from 'The Lego Movie.'Credit: AP
Actor Chris Pratt holding Emmet, the toy character he voices, in the "The Lego Movie," at a screening of the film in New York.Credit: AP
'Star Wars' Lego set.Credit: Courtesy
A builder makes final adjustments to a Lego display of Albert Einstein, a big tree if ever there was one.Credit: Bloomberg
Toy figures sit on display inside a Lego toy store in Copenhagen, Denmark.Credit: Bloomberg

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