When Battleship opened in the summer of 2012, Hollywood was looking more and more like a Toys “R” Us outlet. With film adaptations of Candy Land, Ouija, Monopoly and Stretch Armstrong in the pipeline, this was a new era of toy-to-film franchises—a neat reversal of the ’80s and ’90s, when producers looked to playthings to extend franchises outside the multiplex. But it was not meant to be. Battleship sank at the box office, earning just a third of its $200-million-plus budget, and the ripple effect was swift: Monopoly went directly past Go to development hell, and Universal shed its much-hyped Hasbro partnership, paying millions in penalties to not make movies.
Battleship flopped in part because it lacked recognizable characters—plastic grey ships and red pegs don’t exactly make for compelling leads. The upcoming Lego Movie makes up for that in spades. Thanks to a host of iconic characters, and unique cross-generational appeal, the ubiquitous interlocking bricks may just build a film empire to rival Disney.
The plot of the CGI movie is nothing special: An Everyman doofus named Emmet (voiced by Parks and Recreation’s Everyman doofus Chris Pratt) is mistakenly drafted into a save-the-world mission to stop the villainous President Business (Will Ferrell). The fellow Legonians who help Emmet, though, push the film into unprecedented territory. Batman, Superman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Gandalf and Han Solo all pop up in the film in a when-brands-collide whirlwind—guaranteeing interest from a huge swath of moviegoers who grew up not only with Lego, but also with the dozens of licensed characters the film crams in. “I know I wasn’t on my own in getting a little shiver of joy from seeing the trailer and watching Wonder Woman, the Turtles, and even Lego’s 1980s space guy, all in the same scene,” says Christopher Ratcliff, a movie-marketing expert with the London-based firm Econsultancy.
The nostalgia factor is key. Just Google “adult fans of Lego” to uncover a world of grown-ups crafting insanely detailed Lego recreations of the Old Testament, animating mini-Star Wars figures to create “Imperial March” Lego orchestras, or publishing such serious fan magazines as novelist Joe Meno’s Brick Journal. “Everyone has played with Lego at some point in their life, and the company’s dedication to a high-quality play experience keeps fans around,” says Carl Merriam, a 29-year-old Californian who created BrickLaboratory.com to share his intricate works (which range from Lego toothbrushes to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu).
By casting Pratt and a host of adult comedy all-stars—Jonah Hill, Alison Brie and Will Arnett (who does a spot-on Dark Knight)— producers are also hitting the Pixar sweet spot, mixing highly refined nostalgia with expertly crafted pop-culture homage.
Warner Bros. is lucky to have snapped the deal into place, first wooing the notoriously fickle Danish company back in 2007. “You couldn’t get into bed with a better company than Lego,” says Joe Pulizzi, a brand expert with the Content Marketing Institute. “It’s been part of our culture for at least 50 years.”
Still owned by the family of founder Kirk Kristiansen, Lego has slowly and carefully expanded its brand since introducing its bricks in 1958. (It wasn’t until almost a decade later that play-sets hit the market, and another 10 years after that for mini-figures.) It also eschews traditional advertising, preferring direct-to-family campaigns via its free Lego Club magazine. Add to that Warner’s enormous social media campaign inviting fans to build their own Lego characters online, and it’s a cultural behemoth that’s impossible for both kids and adults to escape.
The edgy in-jokes courtesy of co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street) are just icing on the cake. “I’ve noticed a lot of little things from the trailer, like the blue ‘space guy’ character’s helmet being cracked, and anyone who still has their old space figure from the ’80s has the exact same issue!” says Matt Delanoy, a 35-year-old graphic artist near Chicago who shares his Lego work online. “That detail tells me that the people in charge aren’t just a bunch of suits cashing in on a toy.” Surely the sweetest words a studio could hear.