The Lego Movie: A Toy Renaissance?

March 5, 2014 12:00 PM

Lego MovieSo the very first Lego feature film has hit screens this month, to rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. With its heart-warming story and its hilarious dialogue, both kids and adults have been highly entertained by the movie based on the little plastic bricks we all know and love. Despite Lego facing bankruptcy ten years ago, they manage to remain one of the biggest toy-makers in the world but is this down to the bricks or their more astute move to video games that have been extremely popular lately? Can the Lego Movie reignite our interest in toys and pull us away from our consoles long enough to go out and buy some Lego? Let’s take a look at what makes these bricks so special…

The Lego brand was created in 1932 by a Danish Carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen. The name Lego was derived from the Danish words leg godt, meaning play well. Lego originally made wooden toys but manufacturing problems and factory fires meant that plastic toys were a more viable product and so they started creating plastic bricks in 1947. The company actually based their ideas of interlocking bricks on designs belonging to an English company called Kiddicraft after Christiansen came across the design at a demo of the injection moulding machine they were later going to use.

Their idea or not, Lego went on to develop the brick we know and love today and acquired their very own patent in 1958. Whilst enjoying accelerating popularity, the company began to market different Lego products to appeal to a wider market. Duplo was created in 1969 and was made up of bricks that were 8 times the size of Lego bricks so they were suitable for toddlers. Lego Technic was launched in 1977 and was aimed at an older market looking for more challenging designs.

What’s so special about these little bricks? Why are they better than any other building blocks? Well, for anyone who’s not familiar (if you live in a cave) here’s a breakdown of its basic generic concept. Lego sets are made up of a variety of bricks that interlock lego moviewith each other by way of corresponding patterns on the top and bottom of bricks. Take a look at the picture to the left for a better idea. Lego bricks from 1958 still interlock with bricks made today which obviously means that Lego pieces must be manufactured with a high degree of precision. The machines that make Lego bricks have a tolerance as small as 2 micrometres to ensure that the pieces fit firmly yet are easily disassembled. For those techy types, the material used is acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or ABS polymers to save remembering a mouthful. Lego develop their sets in three stages. The first stage is market research, identifying trends and development needs by interviewing children or stationing designers in toy shops. The second stage is to create computer-aided design (CAD) drawings from sketches produced in response to the market research. The designs are then prototyped using an in-house stereolithography machine and are tested by designers, children and parents before finally being altered in accordance with the focus group research.

It’s clear that a lot of thought goes into making the number one toy brick in the world and they are very conscious about making sure they stay current. One way they managed to do this was by acquiring specific licenses for their play sets including Avatar, Harry Potter, Bob the Builder, Cars, Sponge Bob, Toy Story, Star Wars, LOTR, Pirates of the Caribbean and Spider Man to name just a few. This often meant capitalising on the latest blockbuster with a cunningly timed release of limited edition toy sets. Like any successful company, Lego expanded even further with theme parks, books, clothing and television shows. However, the company’s early attempts at diversification are often cited as the cause of their financial difficulties in the early 2000s. Too many different directions and not enough focus led to disappointing sales and left the company in dire straits. Lego stood at the brink of bankruptcy ten years ago and a lot of work was required to keep them afloat. One thing that probably helped? Video games.

lego marvelIt’s fair to say that gaming consoles have exploded in the past few decades. The gaming industry now makes more than Hollywood and is expanding all the time. So it’s easy to see how Lego could have lost a bit of its appeal and needed a digital facelift by moving into the video game market. However, was it a mistake to encourage the digital gaming and pull interest away from toys or was it a scheme to hope that kids would want to continue the fun with real Lego once they’d completed the games? I suspect it was a bit of both. Lego released their first video game in 1997 initially with their own games such as Lego Racer but before long they became known for their licensed games which were regularly well-received by critics and gamers alike. Their most recent instalment, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, received five star reviews. They are fun and family friendly but have the humour to keep adults entertained as well, the perfect combo for universal popularity. But did anyone rush out and buy tonnes of Lego when they’d got bored of their consoles? It doesn’t appear so.

Lego had long resisted the calls from Hollywood but has only recently given in, perhaps a symptom of their waning popularity or an acceptance that we live in a multimedia world now where if you haven’t got your own movie, you’re simply not cool. They released a straight to DVD film in 2010 but this didn’t make any waves so to the big screen they went. In an era where everything is a remake, reboot, adaptation or sequel, it wasn’t a massive surprise to see the Lego Movie trailer pop up a few months ago with a semi-impressive cast.

It would be easy to rake in respectable box-office figures off brand recognition alone and just use it as a cash cow to boost the company’s revenue. But what they actually did was a lot more effective. Similar to the Toy Story movies, filmmakers, in alliance with Lego execs, captured the spirit of play time, the attachment to our toys and the creative imagination we could enjoy when playing with them. You can’t get that from a video game. The film paid nostalgic homage to a once favourite childhood pastime and threaded the story with the fundamental concept of Lego. You can create whatever you want to. There are no limits to the imagination. It managed to tug heartstrings of audiences and has done what the video games failed to do – make us want to play with Lego. For adults, there’s the nostalgia factor and for kids, there’s the endless possibilities for creative and rewarding fun.

It was Lego who demanded a February release. Despite the studio wanting a Christmas date, Lego insisted they don’t have any problems selling Lego at Christmas but they do in February. Smart thinking and it seems to have worked as the demand for Lego has rocketed, so much so that criminals are trying to capitalise on its sudden popularity. Just last week, thieves smashed their way into a toy shop in Sussex to steal Lego worth thousands of pounds. The movie has already been given a sequel, expected to hit screens in March 2017 and the Lego Movie Video Game (get your head round that one) hit shelves this week.

So it seems as though Lego has cemented itself in popular consciousness for a while longer. Having faced the possibility of bankruptcy a decade ago, they have now overtaken Hasbro to become the second biggest toymaker in the world, with 8.8% of the market, behind Mattel, the guys who make Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher Price toys. The company was recently valued at around $15 billion and shows no signs of slowing down, with its multimedia mega brand still pumping out products in all areas of the market. Here are a few fun facts about the little interlocking bricks;

  • There are 86 pieces of Lego for every person on earth.
  • There are 7 sets of Lego sold every second.
  • As of 2013, around 560 billion Lego parts had been produced.
  • During the moulding process, the plastic is heated to 232C until its consistency is that of dough.
  • In 2006, the Lego website had an average of 8,137,062 individual visitors a month.
  • It would take 40,000,000,000 bricks on top of each other to reach the moon.
  • The Lego club has 2.4 million members worldwide.
  • There are 915 million ways to combine 6 Lego bricks.
  • Laid end to end, the number of Lego bricks sold annually would reach round the world more than 5 times.

Awesome! Will the Lego Movie manage to spark a toy renaissance? There’s no doubt about it. If kids didn’t want to play Lego before, the Lego Movie is sure to have them nagging their parents to go out and buy the latest play sets so they can recreate the magic of Emmet and friends’ journey. Switch off your Xbox and go buy some Lego immediately.