Legos' soul moves aside for movie tie-ins, video games

Wednesday, September 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

A little more than a year ago, while straightening up my childhood bedroom during a visit home, one of the most depressing moments of my life occurred. 

Although much of my Lego collection has been disassembled and stored away for years, I have always kept some of my favorites on display: The Deep Freeze Defender, Mach II Red Bird Rig, a bunch of knights decked out in the finest armor and weaponry in all the land, and a couple of original space creations my older brother built. 

When I finally decided it was time to take down these monuments of my youth, guilt overcame me. As I began to take everything apart, my imagination lashed out at me for turning my back on it. Unable to continue, I merely broke each object into large, easy-to-reassemble chunks and laid them in their Rubbermaid tomb.  

Such emotions might seem odd to some, but I attribute much of my creativity to my years spent playing with Legos, and the process was emotional. I have often described this day as the saddest day of my life, and an article about Lego in The New York Times on Sunday morning got me thinking about why I feel this way — and why I mourn what Lego is becoming. 

The article profiles Lego and its miraculous rebound from a $344 million loss in 2004 to pre-tax earnings of $355 million in 2008. The catalyst for this turnaround is a revamped business model. Since its conception, Danish-owned Lego tended to focus on product quality more than profit and efficiency. With a new strategy strictly enforced by a new CEO, the company has streamlined production, established "concept stores," ventured into video games and movies, and relies heavily on Hollywood licensing contracts for theme sets such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars.         

Although I think some of these changes are good, and I am thrilled that a brand as estimable as Lego has found a way to survive in a tech-oriented world, I lament the loss of something uniquely Lego in this new business strategy. In the article, Jonathan Sinowitz, a New York psychologist, perfectly expressed my sentiments. 

“What Lego loses is what makes it so special,” he told the Times. “When you have a less structured, less themed set, kids have the ability to start from scratch. When you have kids playing out Indiana Jones, they’re playing out Hollywood’s imagination, not their own.”

Lego has always had themes, but The Deep Freeze Defender’s space theme and the Mach II Red Bird’s model theme are completely generic; the plot and characters were all my own. I loved building my own landscapes where pirates and knights coexisted. Whether a set remained in its intended form or was used with other pieces to make something entirely new, everything was part of a world that I created, not a studio executive.  

Lately, when I do my obligatory walk through the Lego aisle at a store, I am usually disappointed. I used to be jealous of all the new pieces and sets, but now they are either too movie-oriented or contain gaudy pieces that are so theme-specific it’s hard to imagine them being used outside their intended construction. I never thought the words “hard to imagine” and “Lego” would ever find their way into the same sentence. 

When I finished my breakfast and morning reading Sunday, I moseyed over to Target from the Panera Bread in the Columbia Mall. With Legos fresh in my mind, I decided to swing by the toy aisle. When I turned the corner, I found two mothers and their children scanning the Lego section. One of the boys was practically falling out of his cart as he reached for the colorful boxes, and the boy in the other cart babbled incoherently as his eyes, turgid with excitement, darted from set to set.   

I couldn’t help but smile as I was reminded of the pure joy that Legos gave me, and it was nice to see that the brand remains popular. After the aisle cleared out, I spent some time looking at the different boxes and comparing them with the ones I remembered from my childhood. 

Then something struck me. Often, on the backs of the boxes, Lego used to prominently display alternative ways to use the pieces besides for the main construction. Versatility and creativity had been a major selling point.  I quickly moved from set to set looking to see if this was still true. It’s not. 

Dejected, I trudged away. I never thought Lego would quit thinking outside the box. 

Andrew Del-Colle is the arts editor for Vox Magazine and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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