Lego has built its empire just like the interlocking bricks themselves, by connecting kids and adults, using pop-culture and mass appeal. On July 31st, A Lego Brickumentary will premiere. It’s the very first full-length documentary chronicling the powerful toy brand.
The film is narrated by a minifig voiced by Jason Bateman, who maintains a lively and chipper, Everything Is Awesome-type feel, which really resonates for fans. Beginning back in the 1930s when the company was first founded by Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen, the history of Lego is recreated through a series of stop-motion Lego scenes. It’s a pretty effective way to cover the major moments in the company’s history. The stop-motion scenes were also spliced with archival footage and photographs. By the 1950s the company was on a course for world domination, once it realized the formula of success lay in their revolutionary interlocking design, which meant the possibilities for building were virtually limitless. It is actually pretty awesome watching the history of Lego told through Lego stop-motion.
However, it’s not all rainbows and minifigs. There have been plenty of issues that have popped up over the past few decades that shed light on the perpetuation of gender constructs, by launching sets aimed squarely at ‘girls’. In response, the film highlights Alice Finch, an AFOL (Adult Fans of Lego) known for her amazing builds. Unfortunately, Finch feels a bit like a token, and there are many, many women AFOLs out there the filmmakers could have reached out to or at least referenced more heavily. For instance, Mariann Asanuma was a Lego Master Model Designer until she branched out to become the world’s first and only female Freelance LEGO Artist.
I would have liked just a bit more in-depth analysis of gender issues, since Lego clearly didn’t always have a gender problem.
The filmmakers Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson come from a place of socially-conscious documentary filmmaking, and I was really hoping A Lego Brickumentary would go into more detail as to the social impact of Lego, from its use as a therapeutic method for autistic children and people suffering from PTSD, to the toy company’s reinforcement of gender stereotypes with sets such as the Lego ‘Friends’ series. As mentioned, these were only touched upon, which is a shame, because non-Lego fans will likely take the film as a very well-done infomercial.
Junge won the Oscar in 2012 with Saving Face, which exposed the horrible acid attacks against Pakistani women, and Davidson was nominated for an Oscar for Open Heart, about impoverished Rwandan children in need of open heart surgery. Don’t get me wrong, the film does cover child psychologists using Lego with autistic children, but I felt like it just touched the tip of the iceberg.
For me, Lego has always been more than just a toy. Even when I was young. It was the first toy, and pretty much only toy for kids of the 80’s, that didn’t come prepackaged with a story. Sure, you had Lego Space sets and Lego Pirate sets, but the point was to build these sets and then make them your own, add your own narrative to them. Barbies, Transformers, G.I. Joes, all those Mattel and Hasbro toys fit a certain mold and didn’t require too much imagination, and certainly didn’t require creativity to build. Even Transformers, simply transformed from one thing to another. Mostly, you just recreated scenarios you saw on the shows that promoted the toys sets.
Lego is different from those other toys. Lego grows with you. That’s one of the more salient points the documentary makes and gets absolutely right. How many toys from childhood have the versatility and aesthetic appeal to grow with you?
One thing to keep in mind with Lego, there are no rules or directions. Sure, you can following instructions for building a set, or you could just let your imagination run wild. This is nowhere more impressive than the AFOL crowd. Seeing what Master Builders and amateur super-fans can design and build can be truly inspiring. Not only are these mega-sculptures engineered impressively, but they also show that there’s an art to the build. The film highlights Nathan Sawaya, a Lego artist who uses the bricks to create three-dimensional sculptures.
The film ends with the building of an almost life-size replica of a Star Wars X-wing fighter. What I wanted more of was the company’s comeback from near collapse in 2003. Critics of the brand at the time argued that the company was inundating the brick market with too many custom pieces and that the brand was getting diluted.
Some may criticize the documentary as being too niche, too focused on people who are already fans of the 80-year old toy brand. But, what the film does so well is use its charm to showcase just how diverse the toy company is in its appeal, spending a great deal of time exploring the evolution of Lego, from its humble beginnings as a wooden Danish toy, to the global enterprise that all but dominates the modern toy industry. I wouldn’t necessarily consider it one long infomercial for Lego. Would a documentary about ice cream make me want to run out to an ice cream shop? Hell yes.
While there may be a few bricks that don’t quite fit, I loved the film for what it was. I just wanted more.
Here’s where you can rent or purchase it on Amazon.