Out there in the twee world of indie films is a new movie about Legos. As most Lego-themed projects do, it has an insipidly punny title—A LEGO Brickumentary.
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Brickumentary is an attempt to explain the magical genius of Legos, to showcase the wonder the toys instill in people, and to normalize the culture’s adult fanbase. Or at least that’s what the New York Times says. I didn’t see the movie this weekend because I was off attending Washington’s annual Lego convention, the Brickfair Lego Expo.
Let me start by putting my cards on the table: I am, as the kids used to say, down with the Lego program. Sitting on one shelf of my office—not my home office, but my actual, real office, where I work with other grownups—is the Lego Batmobile (set #7784-1). On my desk is a Lego X-Wing fighter (#75032) and a Millennium Falcon (#75030). My attic is crammed with Lego sets that I have not yet gotten around to building and I have written about Legos before.
I share all of this not because I’m proud of it, but merely by way of trying to impress upon you that when I look around at the adult Lego fanatics, even I think, Whoa.
Yet you can see why grownups have so much trouble letting go of Legos. They’re the perfect toy; maybe the best toy ever invented. Originally conceived by Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen in 1932, the first Lego blocks where made of wood. In 1958, Christiansen’s company, the Lego Group, created the modern version of the brick. Made from plastic, these bricks are compatible with any of the Legos you would buy today.
The bricks are tiny marvels of engineering. Not only have they proved to be forward-compatible across more than half a century, but they’re more or less indestructible. I’ve owned tens of thousands of them since my childhood. Neither I, nor any of my friends—or my kids, or any of their friends—have ever managed to break one of them. Yet the most remarkable aspect of Lego engineering is probably the company’s quality-control regime.
At the manufacturing level, making Lego bricks is no different from making crayons, or plastic lawn chairs, or any other object derived from injection molding. Except that Legos have details to the scale of micrometers and—this is the key point—every Lego sold is perfect. You can spend your life sorting through boxes of Lego pieces looking for a lemon and you’ll never find one. The Lego Group’s level of quality control makes Apple blush; it is nothing short of astounding.
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All of that said, the Legos you played with in your youth probably differ in character from what your kids play with today. In the 1960s, and ’70s, most Lego “sets” were just giant collections of bricks. Your parents schlepped to Toys ‘R’ Us and bought you a box of 100 bricks (or 250, if you lived in the nice part of town) and you took the semi-random assortment of pieces, added them to your collection, and then went about building towers or hovercrafts or jet fighters or whatever else your imagination could come up with.
Beginning in the 1980s, however, the Lego Group shifted gears and started selling sets that were more specific collections of pieces, along with instruction manuals with step-by-step guides for building, say, a police car. In the 1990s, the company went into decline and nearly went bankrupt. What saved it was an even more radical evolution: They began licensing properties—Star Wars, DC Superheroes, Disney Princesses—so that just about every set they offered was intended to be built in a certain way. Playing with Legos became more like model building than an exercise in free play.
Some people don’t like this evolution because they think it means that Legos no longer nurture the creative impulse. But in the wild, kids almost always seem to bend toward the free-play view of Legos. They build the Batmobile using the instructions the first time, but then they want to take it apart and do their own thing. (Which is why sensible people put the thing in their office, where it’s safe from the children.)
And on this score, it turns out that the weirdos at Brickfair are actually a good influence. We don’t want our children to grow up like them, exactly. (If you’re 50 years old and you’ve just spent $30,000 buying pieces to make a giant Lego St. Peter’s, then you’ve made some interesting life choices.)
But it’s good for the kids to see grown-ups who aren’t obsessed with keeping perfect little out-of-the-box models tucked away on a high shelf, but are instead doing the hard work of creativity.
They’re keeping the spirit of Legos safe from the rest of us stunted adolescents.