A LEGO Brickumentary
Starring: Jason Bateman Director: Kief Davidson, Daniel Junge Writers: Kief Davidson, Daniel Junge, Davis Coombe
Distributor: Radius Release Date: 07/31/15
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Here’s something your college economics book didn’t teach you: Make a great product. Sell it to to kids. Wait until the kids grow up and then start advertising it for you, for free. Marketing department? Who needs one when you have devoted followers.
The product in this case is LEGO, which is embracing its cultural zenith following last year’s LEGO Movie — an impending sequel is in the works — and now with a tell-all documentary about the Danish toy company. A LEGO Brickumentary, like the LEGO Movie, is a cheerful examination of all things LEGO, and it innocently blurs the line between entertainment and commerce. But really, says the film’s subtext, aren’t they one in the same?
It’s narrated by Jason Bateman, who plays a little astronaut minifig, or minifigure, who’s animated into the interludes of the film’s chapters that chronicle LEGO’s formation, its rise to prominence, a sudden downfall and then its eventual rise back up to be a $4-billion empire. Other toy companies, like Mattel and Hasbro, the films says, have different lines of toys, like Barbie and G.I. Joe, but LEGO makes only one line, building blocks. And it makes a lot of them, enough to give 100 bricks to every person on the planet.
The film spends equal time with LEGO product engineers and with its many fans, young and old. It’s remarkable how much the company stays in contact with its biggest collectors, and even goes as far to employ them in developing new designs and innovations. Many of its designers simply sit in rooms all day and build new sets, tweaking little details to tell stories and then pitch their sets as eventual products.
We learn all kinds of useless LEGO phrases: Clutch Power is the name given to the strength of the interlocking mechanism at LEGO’s core, AFOL is “adult fan of LEGO,” tubes and studs are the names of the major components of an average brick, and Mindstorms is the robotic line that users are hacking for their own purposes. The company found out about the hacking and instead of telling users to cease and desist, they encouraged them to discover and build new creations.
We meet an artist who uses LEGO bricks in his fine art, a designer who creates a successful architecture line of famous buildings, autistic children who enhance their learning with team-based LEGO projects, a man who creates LEGO guns because the company won’t, and the man who made every LEGO user a potential designer with his CUUSOO crowdsourcing site. One potential designer is an awkward man who creates a model of the Curiosity Mars rover, complete with the cantilever-style suspension of the famous robotic explorer.
In many scenes, adults are shown to be just as involved as children. These adults found LEGO as kids and never gave it up. They snap bricks together in zen-like states. That reassuring click of the bricks just feels right. I played with LEGOs as a kid, and I could relate to the sensation of snapping those famous bricks into place. NBA star Dwight Howard is a LEGO fan, as is South Park co-creator Matt Stone.
A LEGO Brickumentary rarely strays too far from LEGO’s corporate agenda, one of imagination, design and invention. A movie about Nike, for instance, would almost have to examine its labor practices in poor countries or else it would be seen as pandering to corporate interests. LEGO doesn’t seem to have skeletons like that worth digging up. The film does acknowledge severe corporate and brand negligence during the 1980s and ‘90s, when executives felt the all-powerful brick was obsolete and introduced an array of simpler, streamlined sets that stripped bare the core values of the company. The film doesn’t acknowledge the toymaker’s strong links to big oil — the toys are, after all, made of plastic — although that is something the company has only just begun to address.
All considering, this is a fair, if altogether toothless, examination of the company’s culture of creativity. If you played with LEGO, or have kids with LEGOs, there’s something for you here in this charming documentary.