It’s impossible to escape. It’s right there in the title. A movie in which all the characters, settings, the entire world is made of a branded product. It might just be the biggest, most high-profile piece of branded content—certainly the one with the highest quality actor roster—ever made in the history of brands or content.
People love Lego. The company estimates that kids around the world spend 5 billion hours a year playing with its toys and it has tripled its sales since 2007. Add directors and writers Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street), and producer Dan Lin (Sherlock Holmes) to the mix, along with names like Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Alison Brie— you get the point—and you have a star-studded, thoroughbred of an animated blockbuster.
What you also have is the potential for a 90-minute monument to crass consumerism. This was something both Miller and Lord were keenly aware of when they signed on four years ago. "It was definitely an issue for us," says Miller. "Right from the start we were skeptical about doing it because people could see it as a giant commercial and that wasn't something we were interested in doing. Luckily, the people at Lego felt the same way. They didn't need a movie to boost sales. If anything, making a movie had much more downside. So they had the same philosophy as us, which was to use Lego as a medium rather than a product to sell." The approach paid off, as early reviews of the film are nothing short of glowing.
At the very start of the process, Lin and Lego vice president for global licensing and entertainment Jill Wilfert, put together a manifesto that they sent to everyone—the filmmakers, the studio, the company, everyone. And in that document is the line, "We are not making a commercial for the toys."
"There was a handshake deal with Lego that, contractually they had certain rights, but at a certain point they had to give those up and believe and trust in Phil, Chris and myself," says Lin. "We got the contract done but then put it aside, we never wanted to have to look at it again. And we never did."
There were three main areas of concern the brand had when it came to the content of the film bearing its name. Language, violence and… kissing. "We learned that parents didn’t like it when Lego characters kissed," says Lin. "We thought it was pretty funny, characters with 2-D flat faces trying to kiss, but we ended up cutting it out."
Beyond approvals and licensing, Lego was an integral member of the filmmaking crew. "They helped us design vehicles, characters, and environments, and their expertise was really necessary for us," says Lord. "We went to Denmark early on in the process and obviously spent a lot of time with the designers, which was a huge inspiration. Lego was founded on high quality and inspiring creativity in children and eventually we started to think about how to translate the principles of the brand into a story."
The filmmakers’ time with the brand's designers in Denmark was spent in daylong brainstorm and building sessions. In the morning Miller and Lord would pitch a general idea like, "we want the coolest pirate ship anyone’s ever seen." Then meet the Lego team of 20 worldwide designers, who would build their own versions of that idea all day, then present to the filmmakers at the end of the day. The ideas that stuck would then turned over to the animation team in Australia to take the ideas and see how they could translate into film.
"It’s a hybrid movie that’s part CG, part real bricks, so we had to actually build things," says Lin. "If you had 15 million pieces of Lego, you could build this whole movie."
Miller says the limitations of the bricks and how people came up with solutions is part of the charm of it all. "You can imagine seeing a Lego pirate ship on water but we wanted it to be on a Lego ocean that's built from thousands and thousands of undulating bricks," he says. "So it was about making things that no one has seen before."
One thing no one has ever seen before is a movie teaser in which Morgan Freeman refers to his own voice as rich molasses. The charming Behind-the-Bricks featurette was a conscious wink-wink from the filmmakers to let us know they know what we might be thinking about something so overtly branded.
"You have to convince the skeptics that there is something more here," says Miller. "It was about making something neat and funny that would get across how this is actually a funny movie and not a soul-less cash grab."
Adds Lord, "We want it to be a soulful cash grab."