Lego makes a shared film universe with humour and heart

Lego films have something for everyone with a combination of humour, energy and references to pop culture, and there are a lot more titles in the pipeline

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 February, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2017, 8:00am

There’s no way Ben Affleck’s Batman could hang in a live-action film with the Wicked Witch of the West, robotic Daleks from Doctor Who, King Kong and the Kraken of 1981’s Clash of the Titans.

But in the fledgling shared universe of the animated Lego films where literally anything goes? Everything is awesome.

Warner Bros’ new cinematic franchise is only two releases deep but already building what looks like a successful interlocking landscape. Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the 2014 adventure comedy The Lego Movie introduced a signature creativity, spoofing sense of humour and cartoon look that captured audience imagination and rang up more than US$257 million in box office. The first spin-off just arrived with the superhero-centric The Lego Batman Movie, which opened at No. 1 last weekend with US$53 million against strong competition ( Fifty Shades Darker , John Wick: Chapter 2 ).

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That’s not all: The Lego Ninjago Movie arrives on September 22 (based on a toy line inspired by Asian culture, martial arts and monsters) and The Lego Movie sequel is set for 2019.

It’s just the start of a series of films that aim to dig into brand crossovers and fill them with manic energy. While, say, a Marvel superhero film probably won’t be crossing over with Star Wars anytime soon, Lego has already tapped into a variety of huge properties with the freedom of animation, with characters from Gremlins and The Lord of the Rings stopping by Gotham City in Lego Batman.

“For fanboys and general audiences, this is as hip as it gets right now,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “You can throw some pop culture references in an Avengers movie but you can go gonzo in the Lego franchise.”

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The biggest challenge for Lego going forward is keeping it fresh and not just a rapid-fire string of references, adds Uproxx.com senior entertainment writer Mike Ryan. Lego Ninjago might be a tougher sell than the Dark Knight “because a lot of people don’t know what that is,” he says. “Which means it will make a billion dollars because anytime someone underestimates these films, they are proven wrong.”

There’s a logic to Lego’s grand scheme, says producer Dan Lin, and if the upcoming films are successful, they’ll continue to “approach different genres in a Lego film way.”

Lin likens the franchise to “the Boyhood version of Lego.” For him, the films mirror the play experience of a child: as in the The Lego Movie, kids start out messing with generic Lego people and creating their own original story. As they get older, they get into superheroes and comic books, and later develop an interest in karate and giant monsters.

“It plays into what makes Lego fun. You can get the Death Star Lego set and then mix it with something else,” says Justin Theroux, who voices the Lego Ninjago villain Lord Garmadon. “The building blocks are there, literally and figuratively, to squish everything together.”

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Lego Batman director Chris McKay wanted his film to be alike his experiences of going to the cinema in the 1980s. “There were oblique references to things that made me curious,” he says. “I got to [Martin] Scorsese and [Akira] Kurosawa through [George] Lucas and [Steven] Spielberg.”

It’s happening in Lin’s own home. “I have kids who are too young to watch Harry Potter but they know the characters now because of the Lego movies. It’s their way to enter into these myths at an early age in a family-friendly way.”