Despite what seem to be generally positive reviews, I have no intention of seeing the Lego movie. I think its very existence an affront to childhood.
Legos have been around since the late 1940s, and even today there’s no toy on the market that rewards creativity and imagination as richly as the famous (and obscenely expensive) plastic blocks. The very name, Lego, is derived from the Danish “leg godt” which means “play well.” Their popularity may have had something to do with the post-war building boom both in Europe, which was recovering from World War II, and in the United States, which was struggling to house the baby boom generation. But the toy is fundamentally inspiring, even to adults. I keep a tub of blocks handy for periods of deep despond, writer’s block and professional despair.
For many years—certainly all the years I was growing up—the toy was perfectly abstract. Unlike action figures, there was no narrative element to the Lego brick. They came with no story line, no preconfigured personality. They were all about pure imaginative possibility. The interlocking pieces abided by certain rules of geometry, which were immutable, but this was little different than, say, the way wood or stone determines the final form of a statue.
The introduction of Lego figures in 1978 was a grave act of heresy, and it has been generally downhill for the toy since then, with marketing tie-ins to the “Star Wars” movies and the like. But there are still a few Lego masters whose loyalty to the toy’s abstraction keeps the original vision alive. In 2010, Adam Reed Tucker took over a gallery at the National Building Museum with Lego facsimiles of famous skyscrapers and other architectural icons. I explained the exhibition’s delights this way:
The Lego brick was also the perfect toy for the age in which it was introduced, which helps explain why Tucker’s models have a cultural power that ordinary architectural models might not. Legos arrived at two critical moments in architectural history. The international modern style had spread the rectilinear and functional lines of its austere aesthetic around the world. Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, in New York City, was finished in 1958, the same year the Lego brick began its colonization of the world’s playrooms.
And suburbia was in full flower. Levittown, the Long Island prototype for mass-produced housing, was finished in 1951. A 1956 law, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, created the interstate highway system, which in turn created the ribbons of concrete connecting all those “ticky tacky” boxes that Pete Seeger sang about in a famous 1963 song.
The creation of a movie, with all the usual clichés of kids’ movies, defiles the toy. It connects the bricks to a mass-market narrative, grounds their meaning in someone else’s fantasy, and invites children to forego the free play of pure imagination for the derivative play of imitating the film. This is not “leg godt” at all, but commercialized play that encourages a nexus of pre-packaged narrative and consumerist desire in kids whose imaginations should be given more scope and freedom.