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The Appeal Behind LEGO Movies and TV Shows

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Apart from being the classic toy for generations, LEGO has now established itself as a viable contender for movie-goers and show-watchers around the world, from their wildly successful standalone movies (The Lego Movie 1 and 2), to their TV shows (Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu, the Marvel and Justice League episodes, Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures, etc.) to their franchised movies (The Lego Batman Movie, for example). LEGO’s success as a film and TV franchise comes from a variety of factors, from their interpretation of adaptation as play, to their subtle breaking of the fourth wall, to their multiple forms of adaptation into one film, making it appealing to audiences of all ages.

One major appealing factor behind LEGO’s success with its films and TV shows is its appropriation and adaption of beloved characters, actors, and celebrities — the movie featured superheroes from the DC comics, past presidents, and other famous figures from history, making many one-line tongue-in-cheek references (Lincoln’s statement, “ A house divided against itself… would still be better than this” resulted in a wave of light chuckles from the audience). The LEGO Movie serves as an example of the idea of ‘post-literary adaptations’, proposed by Thomas Leitch in his work, Film Adaptation and its Discontents. According to Leitch (250), the idea of adaptation is no longer restricted to the written word alone but can be derived from non-literary, and non-narrative sources as well, resulting in a stream of influences being used in popular works and feature films. The entertainment industry today has entered this era, with films referencing other forms of entertainment, including comic books, graphic novels, video games, and more, with film companies building successful franchises based on comic books and video games (from Marvel to Battleship). This is clearly visible in The LEGO movie, with Master Builders consisting of popular characters, including comic-book heroes, Lord of the Rings characters, and real-life celebrities.

The film is interesting from another aspect as well; though the majority of the film takes place in the ‘LEGO’ world, where everything is made up of LEGO bricks, the second half of the film reveals that the entire world takes place in Finn’s imagination, when Emmett falls into the real world, shifting from animation to live-action. The nested structure of the film is interesting to study in terms of meta-adaptation (Hunter, 274). Voigts-Virchow uses this term to describe a work that focuses on the production of the text, and the adaptive process between media and texts (Ibid). The film highlights its own mediality (a term used to define the characteristics that define a medium, including its limitations) through its animation — a trait followed by all LEGO movies and TV shows. The LEGO franchise is based on addressing the fact that the world is made of bricks, and the films address this in fun, tongue-in-cheek ways, from body parts being slipped back on (like in LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu), or to buildings crumbling like a large stack of bricks, to characters themselves being amorphous and constantly changing (like Queen Whatevra Wa-Nabi in LEGO Movie 2). The films and TV shows highlight the fluidity of LEGO itself, from the Master Builders being able to reconstruct anything from bricks in The LEGO Movie, to the nature of LEGO bricks itself being vital to the way the world works (LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu).

The first LEGO movie was an astounding success thanks to its postmodern subversiveness and to the playful marketing the film goes through, making it an enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek watch for the adults in the audience. The film addresses multiple themes, from the absurdity of the LEGO world to the inside jokes made on product placement. Having worked in Warner Bros, the goal was to make a movie that would be relatable to children without being patronising. In an interview with the producers of the movie, Zeitchik (“The Lego Movie”) writes of the aim the producers had with the movie; the goal was to replicate the essence of earlier Warner Bros. cartoons that were entertaining to watch but didn’t talk down to children, with the producers wishing to create a style similar to the adult humour and existential crises found in Looney Tunes.

Another unique appeal to the LEGO world is the idea of adaptation being performed as play (Hunter, 274). The idea of ‘play’ has been defined by scholars, with Henricks conceiving of play as an act that finds expression in imagination, which then stretches out into constructive, interpretative activities; players are willing to express their creativity in specific contexts and settings, often defined by the culture around them (Hunter, 275). It is why children’s games may seem whimsical but have strict rules to be adhered to, yet playing is in itself fluid and amorphous, containing the act of both making and unmaking within — its why rules can be broken, and why games consistently change. One theory of adaptation (proposed by Hutcheon) places the adaptation in similar veins as the idea of play, with Hutcheon defining it is a ‘transposition of a recognisable work that requires a creative and interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging’ (Ibid), pointing out to the fact that adaptations themselves remake source texts, putting the source material together in new, creative ways to re-tell a story. Multiple films and television shows have adapted a number of stories from a variety of sources for entertainment, resulting in a form of convergence culture, where media can get translated from one platform to the next, making it relatively easy to re-write age-old stories. Thanks to the Internet, convergence culture has resulted in a slew of media that can be manipulated and shared amongst millions, resulting in a society where re-mixes and mashups are the norm.

In such an instance, the LEGO Movie and other LEGO shows have an undeniable appeal; not only do they adapt much-loved characters into their world, the LEGO brick itself functions as a medium, as a form of expression, allowing users to make and unmake entire worlds. The movie and the shows foreground the idea of adaptation as play, focusing on the inherent flexibility of the LEGO brick (the brick itself is designed so as to be capable of connecting with any other LEGO brick, making them useful no matter what pieces you have). With LEGO first moving into the domain of adaptation by creating playsets for Star Wars in 1999, the ball has rolled into LEGO producing series in their own right, focusing on re-working text into spaces of play, providing views with a sense of creation and re-creation, creating a malleable world that can literally be torn apart, brick by brick, to create something entirely new. LEGO derives its name from a Danish phrase, ‘Leg Godt’, literally translating into ‘play well’, and its films reflect the overall view of the company, with a highlight on malleability, creativity, and play.

Popular culture studies, despite being a relatively new discipline, is important to recognise the effects that popular culture has on today’s globalised world. Theories of popular culture abound in cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, and other humanities, with scholars either rejecting the value of popular culture (by deeming it to be “low-brow”), or recognising the potential that popular culture has to reinforce and invigorate existing social norms, or to even sow the seeds of change. Defining popular culture can be challenging, and definitions fluctuate between including mass culture and folk culture, with unique aspects arising from both associations. Associated with mass culture results in implications of capitalism and commodification, with popular culture being seen as a set of commodities that are driven by profit, with a motive of being sold to consumers. Association with folk culture, however, implies that popular culture can be studied as a form of resistance, with subcultures that can be received within and beyond a particular subcultural group. Current approaches in popular culture are more holistic, viewing them as products and as forms of resistance. LEGO itself captures both concepts within their world, particularly in The LEGO Movie. The movie combines consumerist culture (each time a Master Builder builds a new product, brick numbers are shown, pointing out that these bricks — and the subsequent world — is available for purchase) while also satirically pointing out the deep implications between politics and business (the villain is, quite literally, a controlling businessman named President Business who lulls the population into complacency with product placement and consumerism). The movie aptly juxtaposes both the resistance and reinforcement of consumer culture, promoting creativity and play while also marketing their own bricks (Odgren, 31).

Though LEGO tv shows and movies (particularly LEGO Movie 2) are geared towards younger audiences, adults can enjoy the playful, tongue-in-cheek nature of these shows, whether they break the fourth wall, play with the narrative, or even highlight the fact that the world is what we can make it to be. LEGO’s playful, light nature feels like a breath of fresh air in a world plagued with harsh rigidity, a fun break from a world bound by rules that most of us don’t fully comprehend. LEGO’s relevance to pop culture, its inclusivity of beloved characters from stories around the world, and its stop-motion animation style work together to make it an endearing watch, while still eliciting a few laughs from an older audience with witty remarks on the absurdities of the LEGO world — the films and shows embrace the medium they work with, taking the idea of play forward in a world that seems geared towards constant productivity and efficiency while still poking fun at established cinematic tropes. At the end of the day, these shows remain accessible for all ages; after all, who doesn’t love playing with LEGOs?

References:

Hunter, Madeleine. “Bric[k]olage: Adaptation as Play in The Lego Movie (2014)Adaptation, Volume 11, Issue 3, December 2018. Pp 273–281. https://doi.org/10.1093/adaptation/apy015.

Leitch, Thomas. Film Adaptation and its Discontents. Pp 250. JHU Press. 2007. Retrieved from https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/adaptation/#_ftn18.

Zeitchik, Steven. ‘The Lego Movie’: Building a postmodern, tongue-in-cheek toy film”. The Los Angeles Times. February 2014. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-lego-production-20140207-story.html.

Williams, Raymond. “Popular Culture: History and Theory”. Cultural Studies, Vol. 32 (6). Pp. 903–928. 2018. DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2018.1521620.

Eriksen, Neil. “Popular Culture and Revolutionary Theory: Understanding Punk Rock”. Theoretical Review, no 18. September-October 1980. Published by Encyclopaedia of Anti-Revisionism Online. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-6/punk.htm.

Odgren, Elissa. “Learning How to Build Community Without Following the Instructions: Finding Pieces of Resistance in The LEGO Movie”. Popular Culture as Pedagogy: Research in the Field of Adult Education. Pp 31–48. Sense Publishers. 2015.

By Natalia Ahmed

Natalia Ahmed, a graduate student from SSLA, is currently trying to find her place in a chaotic world. Her passions revolve around literature and film, with cultural studies being her one tie to sanity. She prefers naps, sleeping, and more naps – in that order.
For fun reviews and more essays on popular culture, visit https://medium.com/@natalia.nazeem to check out some more quarantine thoughts.

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Feature Image by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash  

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