From 1949 until 1999, you might have described “Lego” as a set of toy bricks. But Lego has since become so many other things: videogames, books, TV shows, T-shirts, robots, theme parks, and now, a movie—fittingly and effectively titled The Lego Movie. It’s the perfect victory lap to a decade and a half of reinvention, as the Lego Group, a privately held Dutch company, went from the brink of bankruptcy to becoming one of the largest toy manufacturers in the world.
The Lego Movie was always poised to make a lot of money—the film opened at number one at the box office and became the second-biggest February opening ever—but more surprising is just how well received it has been by critics. Currently The Lego Movie maintains a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and perhaps an even more impressive 82 on Metacritic, with Ty Burr of The Boston Globecalling it the "first great cinematic experience of 2014."
And it's true: The Lego Movie is funnier and more clever than it has any right to be. Its tone—both self-aware and unserious—makes it appealing to both adults and kids. The CGI work presents a distinctive faux stop-motion style that looks great and feels true to the slapstick, quick-cut universe that it renders. The Lego Movie is an unabashed and gleeful celebration of the toy’s history.
If Lego owes a debt to licenses like Star Wars and Harry Potter, The Lego Movie seems uninterested in acknowledging that, making them second fiddle to Lego’s own universe. It’s as if to say that the Lego brand is bigger than these properties.
And yet, for a toy brand that is so steeped in nostalgia, it may be surprising that Lego is more popular now than it has ever been. Earlier this year, in the race for toy manufacturer dominance, Lego surpassed Hasbro to pull into second place after Mattel. But that success is the mark of a decade-long comeback after the Danish manufacturer nearly went out of business in 2004.
In the late ’90s, Lego attempted to follow suit with its competitors by diversifying its products. In 1999, Lego inked its first licensing deal with Lucasfilm to create a line of Star Wars-themed sets, which would be a huge success for the company for a year until there were no longer new films to boost sales. Lego ambitiously opened retail stores by the hundreds and found that not only were they in the red but also threatened the relationship with their biggest retail partner, Toys ‘R Us. And while the Legoland theme park in Denmark remained profitable, the newly opened parks in California and Germany were bleeding money. Despite the company’s number of successes in videogames and other ventures, the failures were so steep it threatened to sink the company.
In his book Brick by Brick, which chronicles Lego’s resurgence, David C. Robertson posits that that the company was able to salvage itself and emerge stronger than before by returning to its “core values.” This, as it turns out, meant “making retail customers (rather than kids) their primary concern” and further expanding licensing deals to include sets for Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Spongebob Squarepants. Lego also found its biggest hit of the past decade in a set called Lego Friends, based on years of ethnography research to figure out how to crack the girls’ market—prompting a lot of criticism that it perpetuated female stereotypes. Lego also strengthened its classic lines—a play for parents who liked the idea of buying their children something nostalgic and educational.
While it appeared that Lego was reaffirming its mission to “inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow,” the company actually moved further and further away from that goal. And Lego saw vast returns because of it.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that a parallel lesson surfaces in The Lego Movie. (Spoiler alert for anyone that is deeply invested in the plot of this children’s film.) In a meta-twist, the film switches to the live-action world, and we see that the entire universe we've been exposed to has been an intricate Lego set built in Will Ferrell’s basement. Ferrell, an overbearing father, wants his Lego world to be built as the instructions intended, whereas his son, who has been controlling all of the action in the film thus far, yearns to throw the instructions away, to create new things out of Legos from his own imagination. Of course, the father eventually sees things from his son’s point of view, and it's this moral that shifts the concept of "Lego" from a toy to a feeling—Lego isn’t simply the pieces themselves, but the potential to inspire nostalgia, creativity, and wonder.
You can imagine Don Draper giving this pitch in a smoky conference room to execs from the multi-billion dollar company. It’s doubtful anyone goes into The Lego Movie not expecting it to be, in some ways, an advertisement for the Lego merchandise. On the surface, it’s a celebration of a brand, one that's proud of its legacy and its culture. But the way the Lego positions itself is far more manipulative than it seems. If car ads attempt to embody what it means to be “American,” Lego wants you to associate their products with your childhood. It is the perfect toy brand.
Somewhat ironically, Fox Business criticized the film for pushing a liberal "anti-business" agenda on to kids—an argument based almost entirely on the fact that the film’s villain is named Mr. Business. But in truth, The Lego Movie could not be more about the Lego business itself.
If Lego owes a debt to licenses like Star Wars and Harry Potter, The Lego Movie seems uninterested in acknowledging that, making them second fiddle to Lego’s own universe (surprisingly, Star Wars shows up only for a quick gag with a brief cameo by the Millennium Falcon). It’s as if to say that the Lego brand is bigger than these properties.
Last December, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opened its first week with $73.6 million in ticket sales, lower than the first film. The Lego Movie garnered nearly the same—$69 million in February, generally a much slower month for films. Lego’s not quite there yet, but it's not hard to imagine that The Lego Movie 2 will far surpass the box office gross of many of the movie licenses that it sells kits for. And guess who has the rights to The Hobbit toys?