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The Role of Animation in Lego's Salvation

Features
by Charles Kenny
February 20, 2014 9:00 PM
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Lego Movie contruction

The Lego Movie is far and away the hottest film of the month, period. Having blasted away the critics with a 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film then took aim at the competition and has destroyed it for the second week running. It all seems so far away from just a few short years ago when Lego (the company) was in serious trouble. Now that it's back on form, what role has animation played in bringing the company back from the brink?

Firstly, we need to go back a few years to see just how bad a shape Lego was in. The blocks still had the massive, limitless appeal they've always had, but they were fighting a losing battle against things like video games. The iPad was still a gleam in Steve Jobs' eye, but consoles and PCs were eating away at all traditional toys; not just Lego.

The problem was that while competitors could quickly create interactive content based on their characters, Lego could not. The entire appeal of their product was that the child was the one who placed an identity on the minifigs. The company could use broad tools to frame their role in make believe, but aside from indicating the robbers from the cops, the role the of the character, was entirely out of their control.

Despite some early attempts at interactivity (Lego Mindstorm and Lego Bionacle being the obvious ones), the company was far behind the competition and falling further. What saved them was an obvious idea that was long overlooked. 

Realising that what they lacked were identifiable characters, the company set out to license characters from others. The result was the explosion in Lego licensed sets like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and so forth. Now, kids could use characters they were already familiar with; which had a not-surprising bump in sales.

All that had the unfortunate effect of leaving the venerable minifig out of place. No longer suitable for the licensed sets, they were destined to reside where they always had; in Lego's traditional buckets and building sets.

That changed when someone hit on the bright idea of using Lego itself as inspiration for content. The Bionacle series served as a prototype, and was followed by Clutch Powers, Hero Factory and most importantly, Star Wars. With these series' the company realised that they could, after all, market their original creations in original ways. They did have characters after all! Needless to say, these direct-to-DVD films have sold well; being among Amazon's best-sellers. 

Which leads us to the recent smash of a feature. Deftly combing both licensed and original characters, the Lego movie is perhaps the ultimate proof of the Lego System's versatility as a storytelling medium.

You've probably noticed that I haven't actually mentioned animation yet. There's a good reason for that: you've never seen any live-action Lego stuff have you?

Indeed, Lego, in their march towards motion picture entertainment, has relied exclusively on animation. Heck, even independents see the value of doing so; stop-motion Lego films are scattered around the internet, and are surely to increase exponentially!

While stop-motion was prohibitively expensive for a feature, CGI has been the tool that has brought Lego to life and a decision to ape stop-motion in the feature has not gone unnoticed by both critics and audience members alike. In fact, Phil Lord and Chris Miller have been praised for doing so when it was clearly over and above what would have been acceptable.

Today, Lego as a company is much stronger. Their traditional buckets continue to stimulate kids' minds, their sets have gained a whole new lease of life (with a sheen of villainy for Octan apparently) and their licensed products continue to fly off the shelves to both kids and adults alike.

Would all this have been possible if the company had not turned to animation? Undoubtedly not. The success of the original films contributed to the feature, and that has driven demand for Lego content through the roof. A second feature has already been announced, and a Lego-fied Simpsons episode will be broadcast later this year. Yes, animation has played a critical role in the success of Lego, and that is something that shouldn't be forgotten.

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