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Before There Was ‘Barbie,’ There Was ‘The Lego Movie’

Ten years ago today, ‘The Lego Movie’ gave Hollywood an early template for how to adapt a toy line into a successful—and critically acclaimed—film

Getty Images/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

The turning point was a Hillary Clinton tweet. When the Oscar nominations were announced last month, the Barbie duo of Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie missed out on Best Director and Best Actress, respectively. Never mind that Gerwig and Robbie were still recognized for their respective roles as a writer and a producer on the film—or that Barbie ended up with eight nominations, including Best Picture. Some corners of the internet felt that the Academy committed a grave injustice. That’s when public figures like Clinton waded into the discourse, which reeked of opportunism. Then came the backlash to the backlash, headlined by a New York Times piece opining that Barbie was, in fact, a bad movie. (It’s not.) The whole Barbie row was much ado about nothing; besides, if there was ever a film based on an iconic toy brand that was wrongfully snubbed by the Academy, that honor belongs to The Lego Movie.


Ten years ago today, The Lego Movie arrived in theaters saddled with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s not that blockbusters based on popular toys hadn’t been made before—Michael Bay spent the better part of a decade smashing Transformers together under the watchful eye of Hasbro—but The Lego Movie appeared to close the gap between popcorn entertainment and a feature-length commercial even more. I loathe Bay, but even I’ll admit that his Transformers movies have a genuine auteurist sensibility; conversely, The Lego Movie takes place in a world where practically everything has a potential product tie-in. On the surface, The Lego Movie embodied all the cynical qualities of Hollywood’s IP era, brick by tiny yellow brick.

There’s no escaping the fact that The Lego Movie exists to sell toys for a multibillion-dollar company, but the writer-director duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller still managed to turn that concept on its head to near-universal acclaim. As in, something called The Lego Movie was named one of the 10 best films of 2014 by the National Board of Review, which, in turn, made its omission from the Academy’s Best Animated Feature category even more galling. (Imagine a world where Barack Obama tweeted about how The Lego Movie was robbed of an Oscar nomination.) No matter: A decade after its release, The Lego Movie endures as a hilarious send-up of American consumerism and an anarchic celebration of the power of imagination. If there’s any connective tissue between The Lego Movie and Barbie, the former proved that, when it comes to critical adoration and brand management, an adaptation of a toy line can have its cake and eat it too.

The Lego Movie follows the hero’s journey of Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt), an everyman construction worker in Bricksburg, a bustling metropolis ruled by Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who publicly rules under the guise of President Business and leads the all-powerful Octan corporation. (At one point, Emmet lists some of the things that Octan produces: music, dairy products, TV shows, coffee, surveillance systems, history books, voting machines.) When Emmet inadvertently stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance—a MacGuffin capable of thwarting Lord Business’s goal to unleash the Kragle, a.k.a. superglue, that would freeze the Lego world—he joins up with a resistance movement made up of Master Builders, individuals who can create anything without sticking to an instruction manual.

Emmet isn’t what the Master Builders envisioned as their savior. For his entire existence, Emmet was the perfect little worker drone for Lord Business, following the rules with nary an original thought. In a very kid-friendly way, The Lego Movie posits that such mindless obedience is a slippery slope: The lyrics to the film’s Oscar-nominated earworm, “Everything Is Awesome!!!,” emphasize the importance of conformity with some sinister undertones. (In an early sequence, workers dance along to a never-ending loop of the song in full view of Lord Business’s surveillance cameras.) That The Lego Movie builds (pun unintended) to a climax in which Emmet leads an uprising against Lord Business prompted some critics to describe the film, not inaccurately, as “practically communist.” Meanwhile, conservative talking heads decried The Lego Movie’s supposed anti-capitalist sentiment, which is a hilarious accusation to make when Lego was also rolling out an ungodly number of companion toys. (Can I interest you in Lord Business’s Evil Lair for ages 8-14?)

While The Lego Movie does culminate in what amounts to a Lego revolution, the film also pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth behind its world. The whole universe stems from the imagination of a young boy named Finn (Jadon Sand); in lieu of fighting Lord Business, Finn has to deal with an uptight father (also Ferrell) who doesn’t want anyone touching his expansive Lego collection. (The dad has serious “hated The Last Jedi energy.) The conflict between father and son works on several levels, including how one approaches playing with Legos: You can choose to fastidiously follow the instructions that come with a set, or you can build something entirely original with the pieces. At the same time, it feels like The Lego Movie is commenting on the inherent friction behind its own existence, caught between the rigid confines of IP management and the desire to create something new. It’s something Lord and Miller have been reckoning with for much of their careers: At the start of their 21 Jump Street reboot, Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) says the quiet part out loud. “We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times,” Hardy explains. “You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

It’s to Lord and Miller’s credit that The Lego Movie rarely feels hemmed in by the limitations of its premise. All the visual gags—the way the characters eat only foods that can click into place with their claw hands, like croissants and sausages; the last-minute introduction of the larger-sized Duplos to signify the presence of Finn’s chaotic younger sister—play into the audience’s familiarity with Lego without crossing into lazy pandering. Even the movie’s treatment of Lego Batman (Will Arnett), the most ubiquitous superhero of modern times, is refreshingly funny, leaning into the character’s brooding reputation from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. (The lyrics to Lego Batman’s heavy-metal ballad: “DARKNESS … NO PARENTS!”) It’s little surprise that Lord and Miller have since delivered the best Spider-Man adaptations since Sam Raimi by playfully embracing comic book tropes rather than avoiding them. (If only Lord and Miller didn’t go full Lord Business when it comes to the untenable working conditions for Spider-Verse’s animation team.)

Of course, the tragic irony of the Lego Movie franchise is that its early success was swiftly undone by greed. Within a two-year period, three films were released: two spinoffs (The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie) and one sequel (The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part). It didn’t matter that two of the follow-ups were actually quite good—the less said about The Lego Ninjago Movie, the better. Warner Bros. had oversaturated the Lego brand to such an extent that The Lego Movie 2 grossed less than half of what its predecessor earned at the box office. Now, Universal Pictures has acquired the rights to Lego, beginning the cycle anew.

Universal will be hard-pressed to top The Lego Movie, which, in the decade since its release, has been the gold standard for how a toy adaptation can be done right. In fact, when Juno scribe Diablo Cody took on the challenge of writing a Barbie script, The Lego Movie was such a frequent point of reference that it became a creative roadblock. “Any time I came up with something meta, it was too much like what they had done,” Cody told GQ about the scrapped project last year. Enough time has elapsed that Gerwig’s Barbie can stand on its own high heels—and even cast Ferrell in a role that might as well be a live-action Lord Business. With the record-breaking box office numbers Barbie raked in last year, it will probably be a matter of when, not if, Warner Bros. creates some type of follow-up—just as Mattel is planning to build out its own cinematic universe. But if the highs and lows of The Lego Movie franchise have shown us anything, it’s that we should know when it’s time to put away our toys.