Review: A LEGO Brickumentary
Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
LEGOs are the little toy that could. What began as the brainchild of a Danish carpenter in the 1940s has gradually grown into a corporate powerhouse that generates $4 billion annually in revenue. The signature plastic blocks and yellow figurines are popping up everywhere, from feature films to video games, and further expansion seems likely—this year, the valuation-consultancy firm Brand Finance found them to be “the World’s Most Powerful Brand.” It’s appropriate, then, that this weekend sees the release of A LEGO Brickumentary, a documentary about the history and impact of LEGO around the world. Viewers hoping for an in-depth look at the company will be disappointed, though, as the movie does little to contradict the company’s now-infamous catchphrase that when it comes to LEGO, “everything is awesome.”
The film both examines the many types of people that are using LEGOs as a tool of innovation and offers an inside look at how the sets of plastic blocks are made. There are a few brief interviews with LEGO designers who stress the importance of story when crafting LEGO products. It’s ironic, then, that the documentary doesn’t have its own story at all. Sure, there are small “characters” and conflicts, mainly talking heads involved in a particular aspect of LEGO culture, but each serves primarily as a spokesperson for a singular message: that LEGOs are one of the greatest inventions ever.
A LEGO Brickumentary, though it’s intriguing in parts and enjoyably upbeat, is the blandest form of documentary. It’s not story-driven; it’s not character-driven; it’s certainly not issue-driven (that might actually require a critical look at its subject)—it’s brand-driven. Every scene serves only to illustrate how LEGOs are an incredible toy being used for all sorts of innovative purposes, from engineering space vehicles for NASA to teaching cooperation among children with autism. It’s more like a 90-minute commercial than an examination of the LEGO brand.
The same could be said, of course, for The LEGO Movie, last year’s delightful feature film based around the brand. But a lot of what made that endeavor so surprisingly charming, and somewhat subversive, was its self-awareness: It was a movie based around a corporate product in which big business is the villain. It felt edgy and dangerous, as if the filmmakers were trying to bite the hand that fed them. A LEGO Brickumentary appears far less cognizant of its own role as promotional tool. Everything feels carefully calculated and polished, from the pun-cracking LEGO figure (voiced by Jason Bateman) who narrates everything onscreen, to the celebrity testimonials that exist solely to promote the brand. Ed Sheeran and Dwight Howard love LEGOs—they must be great!
And sure, LEGOs are great, or they wouldn’t have become the second-largest toy company in the world. Many of Brickumentary’s subjects are fascinating, like a university mathematics professor trying to calculate just how many combinations of LEGO blocks are possible, or the aspiring filmmakers who make stop-motion LEGO movies in their garage, or the everyday people who submit ideas for LEGO through the crowdsourcing LEGO Cuusoo service. They’re so interesting, in fact, one wonders why directors Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge didn’t choose one of them to be the subject of a feature-length film.
It’s precisely the fact that LEGO is such a powerful and influential brand that makes A LEGO Brickumentary so frustrating. There are plenty of intriguing questions raised by even a cursory glance at the company’s history and culture. Is it better to promote the building of your own unique LEGO creations, for example, or are the pre-packaged instructions and guidelines now part of the appeal? To what extent is LEGO’s success due only to its collaboration with other trademarked properties like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and is that further reinforcement of brand consumerism a healthy one? Or what about the controversy over the company’s attempts to market to women with its LEGO Friends line?
The only time A LEGO Brickumentary explores any sort of conflict about LEGO is when it touches on a brief period in the late-1990s when the company was struggling financially. Rather than thoroughly investigate this period, however, the film simply portrays it as a time when the brand learned to be more responsive to its customers. Nothing is a problem for the LEGO brand, it seems—not even the actual problems. It’s appropriate that the film’s original title, “Beyond The Brick,” was ditched, because A LEGO Brickumentary never ventures beyond the most superficial examination of its subject.