There’s Something Depressing About The Lego Movie

CREDIT: Flickr user Sonny Abesamis

If you missed it last week, check out the first big trailer for The Lego Movie:

The Lego Movie looks like a major step up from previous toy-based movies like Battleship and G.I. Joe (though it clearly has nothing on Clue). The voice cast is a who’s who of talented comedians, from Chris Pratt to Will Ferrell to Alison Brie to Will Arnett. But watching the trailer also made me wonder: Is another merchandise-heavy, celebrity-voice laden animated movie really what we need right now?

The three-minute glimpse of The Lego Movie packs in appearances from Batman, Superman, Abraham Lincoln, and a Ninja Turtle — all characters that have appeared (or will soon appear) in their own major Hollywood blockbusters. For modern kids, is the Lego brand anything more than a vehicle for other, more famous characters?

I was curious to learn when the Lego Company shifted from knights and pirates to Jedi Knights and Pirates of the Caribbean, so I did a little research. As far as I can tell, the tipping point came in 1999, when Lego cut a deal to make sets based on the Star Wars franchise. The success of that initial foray has led to a long string of licensed properties: Harry Potter, Batman, Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings, The Lone Ranger, and a half-dozen more. And that’s just the toys: Over the past decade, the Lego Company has also extended its reach into video games, board games, and a surprisingly sprawling series of interconnected movies.

From a financial perspective, all this synergy must be paying off in spades for everyone involved — but I wonder what kids are losing in the trade. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a purist who thinks kids’ imaginations will be instantly be destroyed if they play with anything other than a yo-yo or a hoop-and-stick. I grew up with Batman and Star Wars action figures, and I spent plenty of time sitting in front of a Super Nintendo.

But Legos were always a little different. The most obvious appeal of playing with Legos is architectural: You could follow the included instructions to build what was on the box, or blow them off to build whatever else you felt like.

But in retrospect, that wasn’t actually my favorite thing about Legos as a kid. What made them so much fun was how open-ended they were after you were done building. The houses and cars and ships were just generic houses and cars and ships, and the figures were all generic astronauts or pirates or knights with the same interchangeable yellow faces. It was the perfect mix of specific and open-ended: any of the characters and settings could be anything. It was two toys in one, and they both required tons of imagination.

In the years since then, Lego has clearly learned from the success of its licensed properties and the next logical step is making its own, so it can have the whole pie to itself. Next February, we’ll undoubtedly see original Lego Movie characters like Emmet and Wyldstyle and President Business alongside the Lego versions of Star Wars characters and D.C. superheroes. In some ways, it’s a relief to see that Legos are more popular than ever — but I hope the kids that end up playing with them do more than replicate what they saw at the movie theater.