Transforming The Lego

Considering I was never a big fan of Lego, I have some strong opinions about the…what does one call it these days? Toy? Brand? Meta-Franchise? The LegoTM. I have reservations about The LegoTM, and even though The LegoTM provides my child with hours of entertainment every day, I feel as if The LegoTM isn’t doing enough. Or else it’s doing far too much.

In my day, Lego was mostly random coloured blocks, imagination not included. I had some, and I used them as fairly generic backdrops for the adventures of my stuffed animals or action figures – sort of like 3D versions of the hastily scrawled backgrounds you’d find in cartoons like Spider-Man or The Flintstones. They were never promoted to star status in my creative play, mostly because it was easier to hit the narrative ground running with a ready-made G.I.Joe helicopter than to spend 90 minutes building one.

But there was another reason I shunned active Lego play, and it’s the same Number One reason I still balk when my kid begs me to join the assembly line. Both G.I.Joe and Lego helicopters need a guiding hand to help them fly; however, only one of them will still be in one piece when they make it to the landing pad. Lego constructs have a habit of crumbling during play – or, in my case, during assembly.

(To friends in the know: yes, yes, my G.I.Joe helicopter was also busted beyond recognition by the time I was done playing with it. But that was deliberate, sadistic toy-sabotage, and a topic for a different post.)

In The Lego Movie, the villain has a secret weapon called Kragle, a glue which can render any Lego construct paralyzed and permanently unchangeable. I still don’t understand why we’re not supposed to root for this. As Lego started to be sold in kits, and with increasingly rarefied pieces and dizzyingly complicated instructions, I felt as if the company was being diabolical by not including a tube of Kragle inside each box.

In theory, I get it: Lego is the toy you can transform into anything you want. Yet in the decades between my youth and The Lego Movie, the Danish company’s brand tie-in product lines brought the toy further and further away from its adaptable origins. If they’d sold a Lego Millennium Falcon in the 80s, I would’ve begged my parents for it. But I would not have dreamed of trying to turn it into a TIE Fighter or a Slave One, much less invent a whole new Star Wars vehicle. The risk of creating a blocky, bumpy abomination would be too great. Also, it would fall apart in ten seconds flat, after which no one would ever believe me.

Then there are the mind-boggling metaphysical implications. I’m not even joking. Take Batman, a character who began in comics, but who exists primarily in live-action movies. You can buy Lego products to recreate Batman adventures, or else make your own; fair enough. But then you can buy Lego: Batman video games, wherein you re-enact the plots of Batman films, except everything looks Lego-y, and when you kill the Joker, he splits into a hundred Lego pieces (and also: wait. Did you just kill the Joker? Is that a Batman thing to do?). So…what is that video game supposed to represent? Is it just The Dark Knight Rises with a plasticized yellow filter? Or an interactive interpretation of some kid’s faithful recreation of Batman cinema? What about the appearance of Batman in The Lego Movie? What about Lego: Batman: The Movie?!? Where does Batman end and Lego begin?

I’m mostly being facetious here, but underneath it, I’m concerned. As soon as Lego sanctions video games, TV shows, or movies with the Lego name, they’re cutting off avenues of creativity, and stating that certain Lego stories are canonical. I don’t know why this matters to me, except that the Lego ethos seems to be “anything you imagine,” whereas the business model increasingly seems to be “anything we can get our hooks into.” Now you’ve got Lego Disney, Lego Ghostbusters, Lego Ninjago, Lego Star Wars, and – here’s another mindfuck for you – Lego Minecraft. Some kind of complicated platform tie-in gambit called Lego Dimensions involves Doctor Who, Back to the Future, and Harry Potter, among others. Licensing may have saved Lego from bankruptcy in the 90s, but it also committed the product to an increasingly complex completionist mentality, instead of freeing imaginations to wander whither they will.

For this reason, I hesitated to take my Lego-obsessed child to any of the Legoland Parks nearby (one in Germany, one in Denmark). It appears to be moot, as they are closed in the off-season; but even if they were open right now, would it be worth the trip? Is Legoland Deutschland a haven of creativity, or a stolid, static simulacrum? Would my kinesthetic five-year-old enjoy the 1:150 scale re-creation of the world’s tallest skyscrapers if she isn’t allowed to touch them? We all know they will fall apart at the slightest caress.

Europe also has Lego stores, and today I walked into one in search of extra Lego characters (X says she has enough piece for building; like Young Scott, she sees them as mere window dressing, but she’s hungry for storytelling resources). Generally I enjoy visiting toy stores, but this was a gruelling experience: a greeter stopped me to get all the details about my search, grilled me about my kid’s interests, then tried to sell me a VIP pass before finally pointing me towards a large, gumball-machine-like dispenser where I could assemble my own people at a cost of 7 Euros per 3 humanoids. Like so many other aspects of The LegoTM, I could appreciate the elegance of the concept from a distance, but in practice it gave me a headache and I just wanted somebody to hand me a box of single-jointed yellow-faced dudes and let me call it a day.

In one forlorn corner of the brightly lit store, there languished a small supply of “Classic Lego” kits: multicoloured squares and rectangles with no fixed purpose. For such brightly coloured chunks of plastic, they seemed so forlorn and desperate: will anyone make a franchise out of us? they seemed to say? I ignored their cries, picked up a box of Lego City Water Rescue Rangers, and escaped before the staff could upsell me into another Dimension.


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