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The Role of Animation in Lego’s Salvation

The Role of Animation in Lego's Salvation

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

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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