I like to think we all know what Lego is – those Danish interlocking building blocks that you can make cool things with. It’s a fairly universal concept at this point.
But what started off as humble building blocks has quickly transformed into video games, shirts, theme parks, television series, spin-off franchises (Bionicle, Duplo, etc.), pop-songs, and of course, movies.
With the recent release of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part we are now up to a total of FOUR feature films based on these building blocks. Under the guidance of the Warner Animation Group, we have seen financial and critical success of these properties … but is it all just to sell us toys?
IT’S REALLY A COMMERCIAL … ISN’T IT?
When the first Lego Movie came out in 2014 it was a pretty weird. I mean, it was a movie about building blocks. It could have easily been something some corporation came up with for a quick cash in on a product. But instead “President Business” is the bad guy – go figure.
Having a quick cash-in was a critique of transmedia – something’s popular, something can be exploited, the IP feels less authentic as companies try to squeeze every last bit of money from the product.
In many ways, the Lego Movies are just that – a means to sell toy bricks.
The human kid creates “Apocalypseberg” in the second Lego film, with new characters being introduced, and pretty quickly kids get new playsets of these building blocks.
Simple vertical integration.
But with incredibly high critical scores and solid box-office returns, the Lego Movies almost transcend being just a commercial – I mean, they still are commercials, but is there something more to it?
WHY THESE MOVIES WORK
It may be odd to think about it, but people were upset that The Lego Movie wasn’t nominated for “Best Picture” … a movie designed to sell toys! That’s honestly pretty surreal – in a cool sort of way.
Think about product placement. This is where some company will pay a filmmaker to include their product in a film. Think James Bond drinking a Heineken, the Terminator passing a series of Pepsi vending machines, Rita Repulsa needing to get to the Krispy Kreme in Power Rangers, or the spontaneous McDonald’s dance sequence in Mac and Me … ultimately culminating in the bottom of the barrel product push in The Emoji Movie.
But then you have The Lego Movie – a film STARRING a product.
The first movie follows a generic bland Lego construction worked called Emmet, who is caught with “The piece of resistance” – the lid to the crazy glue that will freeze their Lego world. Ultimately the Lego characters just served as an almost stylistic choice in a movie about a young boy’s relationship with his father, and Lego being used as a commodity, or something that brings families together.
Then you have The Lego Batman Movie – following Batman as he struggles with the possibility of having a family again, The Lego Ninjago Movie sees another young hero fighting his villainous father, and now we have The Lego Movie 2, where the young boy (now five years older) is fighting with his younger sister over their Legos with the fear that their mother will make them put everything away.
This movie deals with themes of growing up, maturity, gender roles, and what makes someone truly heroic. I’m not sure it’s as good as the first one – the messages were pretty simplistic, but it did have some creative characters and songs (this one’s a musical … yay?)
But when all’s said and done, whether you like the story or not, the plastic bricks come second.
The movies sell an ideology, not a product.
Listening to the original song “Everything is Awesome,” the word “Lego” doesn’t come up once! Instead, you have a positive idea of creativity, friendship, family, and society wrapped up in this movie that happens to feature Lego people.
TRANSMEDIA OR TRANSBRANDING?
As I said before, what we’re seeing with Lego isn’t really transmedia, at least not in the conventional sense. You don’t need to have played the Lego Batman games to understand his role in the Lego movies, you don’t need to have owned a Ninjago set to know about the characters in the Ninjago movie, etc.
Of course, familiarity with the product will add to your appreciation of the movie, but that’s the case for anything – and the story isn’t dependent on it regardless.
Instead, this isn’t a transmedia narrative where each platform adds to an understanding of the world, it’s “Transbranding” – if transmedia is a loose term to define, then consider transbranding even looser.
Although this term isn’t as widely used as Transmedia, nor has it been discussed as much, it is just as much a product of our current convergence culture.
Transbranding incorporates the use of multiple platforms to create a unified product and sell itself. However, that unified product can be compounded from other franchises.
In both the games, and the Lego Movies there is simultaneously a pop-culture crossover and a single brand.
But I think the key difference between distinguishing these two comes down to their goals – namely, world-building.
Transmedia properties, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, use their IP to cross over stories and characters to create a larger world – developing the history and lore in the process. The world is created on multiple platforms.
There’s a sort of hierarchical transmedia in terms of the spin-offs. Lucy and Unikitty show up in Lego Dimensions and the TV series, but they don’t really complement the narrative of the films – although they do add to the “world-building”, in that it’s all Lego.
Transbranding doesn’t develop the individual worlds it incorporates. The Lego Movie doesn’t further develop Gandalf or Batman’s characters, they’re simply caricatures of those characters created for comedy.
The “Lego World” isn’t a sprawling narrative across different platforms, it’s a distillation of pre-existing properties to create its own identity.
CONVERGENCE CULTURE: LEGO EDITION
When you consider the Lego Movie as more than just a … Lego Movie, try to think of it as a WB promotion as well.
Of course, as a property Lego can be seen as a unifying way to connect multiple-unrelated IP under a single unified brand.
But the pop-cultural knowledge you need to appreciate the actors Batman brings up in the second movie, or the clichés of a chosen one or “Special” to appreciate the plot points in the first one is practically essential.
Fortunately, the characters they choose to focus on are predominantly WB properties – unsurprisingly. Justice League jokes take precedent over anything Marvel-related, Warner Bros-owned villains like Agent Smith from The Matrix, and Voldemort are more prominent than others, and Lego Batman pokes fun at his countless interpretations over the years – all WB-owned.
Think about other examples like Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. A Nintendo product of Nintendo products – loosely held together by the rules of the in-universe toys.
Disney Infinity, and Wreck-it-Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet accomplish the same thing – offering a creative outlet for a wider cultural landscape. Take the Princesses in Wreck-it-Ralph 2 alongside Marvel superheroes and Star Wars stormtroopers. With Disney owning such a wide range of cultural IP they offered ways for fans to contextualise their brands – creating a more approachable identity for the company.
Knowledge of pop-culture is more important than your knowledge of Lego.
With properties like, Doctor Who, Sonic the Hedgehog, Teen Titans Go, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars we see such a cultural convergence that the entire world exists as pure caricature – but all unified under a single property.
METANARRATIVES AND AUTHENTICITY
In terms of popularity, the Lego Movies have (for the most part) avoided criticism for simply being one big product placement. But why?
I believe it comes down to authenticity created by a metanarrative … bear with me.
A metanarrative is essentially a narrative that explores its own story, often by poking fun at itself.
It’s a product of this post-modern fixation we have at deconstructing genre and establishes a connection between the viewer and what’s on the screen.
A good example of this post-modern storytelling is Deadpool. Everything from breaking the fourth wall, to being aware of superhero tropes, to dissecting and subverting the clichés of his own genre is symptomatic of this metanarrative.
Through the Lego Movie’s explanation of interconnecting worlds, it’s now possible for old and new fans to contextualise their favourite Lego characters as part of a larger universe. Again, this creates a more personal, intimate connection with the property.
This is something that is increasingly important with advertising. Whether it’s LeBron James ntelling you not to drink Sprite, or Anna Kendrick not being in a Superbowl ads, this cynical self-awareness sells.
The Lego Movies are no exception to this, and has the entire franchise built on a metanarrative. Emmet being “the Special”, Batman saying he has “Val Kilmer Lips” and “George Clooney charm”, Rex Dangervest calling the second movie’s plot out for being “just a symbol of the death of imagination in the mind of an adolescent” is all a part of this manufactured metahumor, or even a song literally called “Catchy Song”.
But why be so self-aware? Why not just tell a story?
Well, it all comes back to authenticity.
It’s been well-documented now that we crave authenticity now more than ever. Anything that even has a hint of superficiality is quickly discarded in an attempt to create a meaningful experience.
Lego cannot just sell its product. The movies cannot be about how great Lego is and the cool new playsets that are coming out.
Instead, there needs to be regular self-awareness, acknowledgement of the wider cultural space, and a deconstruction of its own story.
That way, it becomes less about selling plastic bricks, and more about letting you in on the joke too. A personal connection is established, and you don’t feel like you’re being advertised too.
And thus, Lego transcends simply becoming another product to being a smart, well-written movie with hundreds of self-referential humor and Easter Eggs.
EVERYTHING IS AWESOME! BUT IS IT SUSTAINABLE?
What we see now is a rise in subtle selling. Rarely will companies just advertise a product claiming how great it is. Instead, we are in the age of connectivity and experience.
The Lego Movies aren’t about selling a product, they sell an experience. They sell stories, characters, and soundtracks to complement their “Awesome” image.
But again, it is a product.
That said, the filmmakers have done a great job at creating an engaging world and original self-aware characters to better entice the viewer.
Compare this to something like The Emoji Movie, where there is no acknowledgement of the absurdity of the products, and they simply directly sell the apps which feature in the film – unsurprisingly it didn’t go down well.
But now we’re at The Lego Movie 2. Although there was great talent behind it, it hasn’t been quite as well received as the first one.
This is a bit odd, because I felt like there was more social commentary in the sequel than the original – especially given the Warner Bros. backdrop of the DCEU.
It’s not bad … but it hasn’t been as much of a crowd-pleaser as the first one.
(SPOILER WARNING FOR LEGO MOVIE 2)
So, the character of Rex Dangervest (itself a gritty mature caricature of Chris Pratt’s characters from Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World). It turns out that he is a version of the innocent, super fun Emmet from the first movie.
Emmet has to choose whether to become “grittier” or retain his childlike wonder and imagination.
With Warner Bros’ revising of the DC Extended Universe – going from neck-snapping Supermen to a kid with powers in Shazam – the Lego Movie 2 feels like a response to their prior fixation with grittiness.
Even Lego Batman is less Christian Bale and “more of a Keaton guy” – I’m the same if I’m honest.
But ultimately The Lego Movie 2 reaffirms that it’s OK to hold on to that childlike imagination … with Lego of course.
This ultimately felt like a clever response to that more than anything purely Lego-related, but for the target demographic … being a kid’s movie … quite a lot of this most likely went over their heads.
I mean, how may ten-year-olds will have even seen the Dark Knight Trilogy?
No, this was more of a self-aware adult movie with kid stuff in it – sort of like how Toy Story 3 got more of an emotional response out of the parents.
This sequel just felt like more of the same – good, but not different.
Not only have we been exposed to metahumor in the Lego Movies previously, but in so many other genres as well. Rick and Morty, Deadpool, Family Guy, The Simpsons, Disenchantment – IT’S EVERYWHERE.
I think that postmodern satire is in danger of becoming mundane. It’s not dead, but there’s always that danger that pop-culture will move on.
It’s no longer just enough to dissect a genre anymore, there needs to be more substance to it.
With The Lego Movie 2 being a musical, I fear the substance that was there was just drowned out with all the self-aware songs.
It’s good, but it could have been better.
I’m definitely fascinated with where we go with all this self-aware culture. I personally believe it peaked in 2017 with Rick and Morty and Deadpool being at the height of their popularity.
There was a cynical edge to everything but there needed to be something more offered.
But I am optimistic. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse just won best animated picture and offered a meta-commentary with an original gripping story as well – a thrilling combination of modern Spider-man storytelling and post-modern edge.
I think that’s what companies need to start realising – make fun of yourself sure; but offer something new as well. Even with The Lego Movie, one of the greatest self-aware pieces of media out there, it’s now five years old and could struggle to keep up its momentum – as anything might.
As for selling a product about plastic building blocks, these movies will forever rank highly in terms as case studies in advertising.
If you enjoyed this, please feel free to comment, follow, retweet, etc. I’m always open to thoughts and opinions – whether you agree with me or not.
Until next time …