After a preview screening of The Lego Movie at the Mall of America theater, my friend Lisa and I stopped by the Lego store downstairs. “I want to get a bunch of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings Legos,” I said, “but you put them together, and then what do you do?”
Lisa replied drily, “You use your imagination, Jay, because everything is awesome and we’re living in a dream! I don’t know what movie you just saw.”
She was right: I’d just ignored what was precisely the thesis of The Lego Movie: Legos free you to use your imagination, if only you’re willing to let go of your preconceived notions about the “right” way for things to be. It’s a nice message, but one that sits uncomfortably with Lego’s increasing proclivity to produce licensed sets of bricks that reproduce set elements from popular movies and TV shows (most recently, to the Internet’s delight, The Simpsons).
The godsend of The Lego Movie is that writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have been permitted to send up the 80-year-old Danish company’s newfound affinity for tie-ins. In his quest to save the Lego universe from superglue, everyman hero Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt — a Minnesotan, of course) is aided by a pop-punk grrrl (Elizabeth Banks), her boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett), and a wizard (Morgan Freeman) who’s not to be confused with Gandalf or Dumbledore, who both have cameo appearances (in Lego form, of course) and exchange a high-five in a moment that might be for Gen Y what the Donald-Daffy piano duet in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was for Baby Boomers.
The Legos of my 80s childhood — also a reference point for Lord (36), Miller (38), and the typical parent of a Lego-age kid today — are referred to as “retro,” the familiar spacemen looking as battered as old B.O.B. in The Black Hole (there’s a retro reference for you). I’d also have appreciated an appearance by the knights of the Yellow Castle, the castle of my childhood — and the last medieval-themed Lego set to comprise mostly generic blocks, before the brand switched to prefab walls, with imprinted stone details, that would be almost impossible to imagine as anything other than castle walls.
That’s the weird irony of The Lego Movie: it celebrates an interchangeability that Legos themselves have been steadily curtailing for nearly their entire history. Even the Yellow Castle, with its build-your-own horses, came with knights, flags, and other unmistakably Arthurian props that couldn’t be coherently integrated with the space people unless you brought Bill and Ted along for the ride.
It would be easy to be cynical about this development, but The Lego Movie‘s postmodern glee (some of it unmistakably lifted from the Toy Story franchise, the first major motion pictures to speculate on what Mr. Potato Head and Barbie might have to say to each other) celebrates the eclectic diversity of the latter-day toy room and, by extension, the pop culture that spawned it.
While my 80s Legos might have been fastidiously free of any brand associations other than their own, my childhood was full of branded products — all, by design, incompatible with one another. You couldn’t put a He-Man sword in the hands of a Star Wars guy, nor could either of those brands easily interface with forgotten franchises like Inhumanoids, M.A.S.K., or Robo Force. Every manufacturer wanted you to buy their vehicles to go with their figures in their playsets.
From that standpoint, the Lego store of 2014 looks something like a utopia. Though the sets all have a lot of specialized pieces, you could give Bilbo Baggins a lightsaber if you wanted to. Homer Simpson could sit at Hagrid’s table. Sure, it’s financial calculation that’s brought these diverse characters together — but couldn’t you say the same thing about the human city you live in? Lego characters are all about the same size and the same shape, and they’re mostly compatible except sometimes not. No wonder they seem so endearingly human.