I think most LEGO fans are familiar with the story of Ole Kirk Christiansen, and how The LEGO Group originally developed from his small woodworking company in the early-mid 20th century. It’s been well-documented in a number of official books, like this one, this one, and this one.
But now this history is available in a new format — last Friday marked the 80th anniversary of The LEGO Group, and to honor the occasion, they released a short film detailing the company’s evolution. While it is an animated film, it’s neither stop-motion nor LEGO animation, so I won’t be approaching it with all of the review aspects we’d normally cover on this site. But I did want to talk about it, because… it’s a long, drawn-out mess.
From the get-go, there’s something oddly disorienting about the way “The LEGO® Story” is told. We start by fading from a (CGI) LEGO-brick-built edifice to a real (CGI) building, as we move back in time to Billund, Denmark in 1932. The pleasant voice-over narration tells us that we are following Ole Kirk Christiansen’s story; and, as a man exits the building on-screen, we assume this must be Ole himself.
Except… it isn’t. It’s one of his workers, and about 15 seconds pass before we realize this and meet the real Ole. Huh?
The story continues, and there’s a match cut between the worker exiting and Ole sitting down with his wife, further confusing the two characters (and the audience). Ole laments his work situation, and his wife tries to cheer him up with some dialogue that adds absolutely nothing to the story:
“I know. It’s hard to understand. But at least now… it can’t get much worse.”
Time passes with another dissolve, and the lighthearted narrator informs us “it did get worse!” — Ole’s wife, a character who had a total screen time of 15 seconds, is now dead. The above quote is her only dialogue in the film. So much for Chekhov’s Gun.
(Admittedly, I can’t really summarize it better than YouTube commenter Evan Buchholz: “Jesus, that was the most cheery ‘but it did get worse’ I ever heard.”)
Thus, in the first one-and-a-half minutes, we’re already introduced to the three major issues with the entire film:
- Narration that doesn’t match the tone of the story
- Confusing shot composition and blocking
- Dialogue that restates information we’ve already gotten from the picture and narration
And we still have around 14 minutes left to sit through.
For a moment, I thought maybe this film had been translated into English from another language. LEGO is a Danish company, after all, and a multinational brand. But the lip sync here seems to match the dialogue, and the credits list the “Original Voice Cast”; so I’ll assume “The LEGO® Story” was created in English first.
The majority of TLG’s animated releases — save for the direct-to-DVD films — are either silent or have voice-over, which I believe serves to make them more universal. (Out of all the work we’ve done for TLG at Paganomation, not one film has been dialogue-based.) Strangely enough, the next minute or so of the film follows this approach pretty well. There’s some nice
animation motion capture of Ole interacting with his sons, and the development of the classic LEGO duck.
But as soon as the “Wholesaler” character arrives, we’re back to clunky dialogue. “Now there’s finally someone who can see the opportunities in what we’re doing!” Thank you, we know; we just saw that.
These bizarre inconsistencies continue throughout the film; again, most prominently in the voice-over. Even though we see the company’s ups and downs as the years pass, the narrator never wavers from his chipper delivery of exposition. I attribute this to what’s sometimes known as “LEGO humor” — the sense given through TLG’s cinematic releases that everything is whimsical and fun, even when the information being presented clearly contradicts this idea.
The most bewildering moment of narration comes at around the 10 minute mark; when, out of nowhere, the narrator says:
“Everyone thought that was a good idea, and we were placed on the sofa, with all the presents and flowers around us!”
Wait… “we”?! Who’s “we”? Up until this point, the narrative style has been third-person omniscient; with the voice-over recounting the story, in retrospect, from outside the world the film takes place in. Now, all of a sudden, we’re hearing a first-person account? Who is talking? I literally rewound to the beginning of the film, just to make sure I hadn’t missed some important introduction. I hadn’t.
And then, once again, this left-field change is immediately disregarded, and it’s another minute of run-time before we hear the narrator refer to himself as “I” again. Eventually, the ending of the film suggests the narrator is Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen — I say “suggests” because we never hear his name, and he never introduces himself to the audience.
This is the overall problem with “The LEGO® Story” — it pays no attention to the language of film; the rules that have developed over time so that audiences can clearly follow a story. You can twist and bend these rules to do some interesting things, but when you blatantly ignore them, your film starts to get weird.
If you’re going to tell a story from a first-person perspective, introduce the storyteller from the beginning, so that we know who’s talking to us. If you’re going to have dialogue, make sure that it serves a purpose; otherwise, cut it out entirely. Make sure you’re clear on the tone of your film — tone, as Plinkett reminds us, is how a film feels. Either make a film that’s entirely upbeat, and excise the depressing historical bits; or, tell a story that flows naturally from happy to sad, and have the rest of the film’s elements match and support that.
Finally, have an idea of who your audience is — who you’re making your film for. The “LEGO humor” concept I mentioned above is a way to have films appeal directly to KFOLs; the target LEGO demographic. The confusing, slipshod way this film is made negates that idea; culminating with the narrator discussing “children” at the film’s finale, as if no children were watching.
Which, after 15+ minutes, I can’t say I really blame them. This film could have been half the running time and told the same story more effectively. “Only the Best is Good Enough”? Eh, maybe next time.