Entertainment

04.24.14

How LEGO Conquered Hollywood 65 Years After Its Debut

Beyond the Brick, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival, is more than just the story of a toy we’ve all come to love. At its core, it’s a documentary about survival.

There are few things that Hollywood likes more than a good comeback story, which probably explains how—brick by brick—LEGO has become the hottest thing around. What’s more remarkable? Its resurgence comes a whopping 65 years after the ubiquitous brick made its big debut.

Just how big is LEGO right now? The LEGO Movie, almost five months into the year, remains the No. 1 film of 2014, with its $252 million (and counting) domestic gross. Lady Gaga commissioned LEGO artist (real job!) Nathan Sawaya for brick sculptures that featured heavily in her most recent music video. To commemorate its upcoming 550th episode, The Simpsons universe is being turned to brick. And, just a decade after it found itself on the brink of irrelevancy and financial collapse, LEGO is the second-most successful toy company in the world—not bad for a toy company built entirely on one kind of toy.

Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary turns the lens on that phenomenon. The film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, surveys the myriad wonders sprung from LEGO—the community of Adult Fans of LEGO, the Brick Conventions, the theme parks, the movies, and the pop-culture omnipresence—and then breaks them down to that crucial piece at the crux of its resurgence: a near-universal love for the brick.

It’s tempting to write-off documentaries about fan cultures as filmed zoo exhibits, through which we can gawk at these obsessive, hyper-passionate creatures we can’t entirely relate to—Trekkies, Potterheads, Lord of the Rings fans—from a safe distance. It’s “look at the nerds in their natural habitats,” with the same goal of helping us understand their behavior that a National Geographic special uses on exotic animals.

That’s certainly part of the appeal of Beyond the Brick. Grin- and goober-filled interviews with LEGO designers and master builders, each who echoes some version of “I have the coolest job in the world,” express the sentiments of our own inner geeks, who could only dream of doing such a thing for a living while getting rug burn on our elbows and permanent circular impressions on our thumbs from playing with bricks on the playroom floor for too long as kids. (To wit, one designer says, “The nice thing about working for LEGO is we have all the pieces we need”—a luxury every LEGO owner can understand.)  

The documentary also transports us to Brick Conventions where Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs) break down their own secret language of acronyms—NLSO, for example, stands for Non-LEGO Significant Other—compare their own unsanctioned innovations they’ve made on the product, and show off spectacular, sprawling creations they’ve spent all year erecting.

But as much as those National Geographic wildlife specials have us Googling the cost of African safaris, it’s hard to shake the feeling that these documentaries are, basically, advertisements for the franchises they’re promoting—celebrations of why Star Trek or Harry Potter resonate for so many people. Or, in this case, LEGO. Beyond the Brick, however, escapes condemnation as a glorified infomercial by broadening the scope of what it aims to accomplish. It’s more than just the story of a toy we’ve all come to love. It’s, at its core, a documentary about survival.

After all, how often does something that’s 65 years old find itself being Hollywood’s hottest commodity?

A survival tale it really is, too. Beyond the Brick is “hosted,” in a way, by an animated version of the indelible mini-figurine voiced by Jason Bateman, who whisks us quickly through an early history of the company that was, largely, mired in tragedy. The original LEGO factory in Denmark burned down three times. Seriously.

More than a half-dozen subjects—ranging from celebrity fans like South Park creator Trey Parker to company executives to accomplished AFOLs to an autistic boy using LEGO as therapy—are then used as anchors to explore variations on the same theme: The ubiquity of LEGO today is owed to basic-level creativity it has always fostered. Though we can all remember, and maybe even still get, the feeling of elation when getting our hands on the box of a new LEGO set, the reason people of all ages gravitate to the bricks is because of their immediate power to get us to think outside the box. 

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A father and son prepare their great ball contraption at Brickworld. (Aaron Phillips)

Filmmakers Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson are at a remarkable advantage here. While the subject of their film is more popular than ever—to quote the still-raking-in-the-dough LEGO Movie, “Everything is awesome”—there’s a nobility behind it, too, that seems to reject the idea that anything surrounding it be associated with crude capitalism or commercialism…even when parts of the film veer dangerously close to reading like a LEGO commercial. (There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance in Beyond the Brick given to the company’s recent unveiling of a life-size X-wing starfighter in Times Square.)

And though Junge and Davidson don’t exactly give a counter-perspective to the rotating group of talking heads singing their praises of the brick—though, who exactly is going to go on camera and say, “LEGO is bad for society”?—they drive home a point that we all believe in our hearts, that LEGO really is awesome, with solid evidence.

There’s a Danish mathematician who managed to estimate the over 9 million possible configurations someone could make from the original patented six bricks alone, before eventually conceding that, with so many different kinds of pieces now in existence, the possibilities for LEGO are, actually endless. It’s a theory that, though not tested tactically, seems to be proven in a more metaphorical, and maybe even spiritual, sense as communities of friends spring up around the toy, or when a group of children at a special school for autism are socializing with each other for the first time ever while “playing” with LEGO.

The film also dutifully explores the struggle some have had, especially on the corporate ladder of LEGO, to embrace the idea that something so simple could become so ubiquitous in an increasingly complicated and increasingly technological world.

In 2003, LEGO was actually on the brink of bankruptcy.  Longtime LEGO designers were being replaced by LEGO “innovators,” tasked to move the company away from the focus on the basic brick, which it feared would become irrelevant, and invest instead in unique and customized pieces with more bells and whistles. Suddenly sets were being sold with micro-motor and fiber-optic kits included. Others included so many custom pieces that assembling a set required almost none of the puzzle-like thinking that fascinated LEGO fans for decades before.

Branded kits, like Star Wars, began to bring the company out of the red, but things didn’t turn around until creative control was put into the hands of hardcore fans and designers who understood the history of the brand. Some of those fans are profiled in Beyond the Brick, and some have parlayed their love of the classic product into current jobs at the company.

Grin- and goober-filled interviews with LEGO designers and master builders, each who echoes some version of “I have the coolest job in the world,” express the sentiments of our own inner geeks.

To that regard, the resurgence of LEGO as a company is owed to what has turned out, six-and-a-half decades later, to be the entire magic of the product: a brick that was manufactured in the 1950s can still be snapped together with ones that were produced today. In a fickle and constantly evolving world, it’s a rarity that something can be considered timeless, but that’s precisely what the first LEGO brick was designed to be. It’s a toy that can be embraced across generations, whose use can be understood by speakers of any language, and whose power to ignite the imagination works on people of any age.

The massive popularity of The LEGO Movie flummoxed some people, but it makes perfect sense that our culture, so obsessed with the celebration of nostalgia, was charmed by the idea of a film that was so tied to our collective childhoods—purchasing tickets to it was akin to rediscovering an old box of bricks in your parents’ attic. Beyond the Brick, then, serves as added coursework for those people trying to get to the bottom of LEGO’s resurgent popularity, and, in addition, lays out a convincing argument, brick by brick, for why the comeback is something to really cheer.

As one executive says in the film, the appeal of LEGO is “believing anything is possible if you have the right tools in front of you.”