Step 1: Open the box, make a decision
The Lego blocks in the official Lego Movie Cloud Cuckoo Palace set are divided into sealed plastic bags—some of which contain other sealed plastic bags—but the pieces aren’t arranged in any particular order. One minifigure’s head may be in one bag, the body in another, and the accessories somewhere else entirely. Longtime Lego builders are used to this. The jumble presents a choice: Does the builder dump out all the pieces, and separate them into related piles, or just keep them in the bags as they are, and dig through them to find the right piece at the right time?
That’s the first decision; it isn’t the last. The Cloud Cuckoo Palace set comes with an instruction booklet, showing how to build each character and segment so the finished product will look exactly as it does on the box. My 9-year-old daughter Cady Gray and I are going to build this palace together, and we could follow the booklet page by page. Or we could jump around and make the parts we’re most interested in first, or toss out the booklet altogether, and improvise our own Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Cady Gray and I like to go in order. We take satisfaction in that, just like when we follow a recipe and make cookies. But unlike when we bake—where we lay out our mise-en-place carefully before we begin—we don’t dump out and separate the Lego pieces before we start building. We keep them in the bags, and treat the act of digging for the right piece as a game unto itself, similar to poring over an I Spy or Where’s Waldo? book. We want to be orderly, but not so orderly that this becomes a chore. We want the ideal mix of order and disorder—which, come to think of it, is a pretty good description of The Lego Movie.
Step 2: Build Emmet
In an interview with /Film, The Lego Movie’s writer-directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, talked a little about what they brought to a project that had been gestating at Warner Bros. for years before they came on board. Miller points to two ideas they saw as essential to the movie they wanted to make:
It was really important to us that we had a lot of different universes and a lot of different worlds colliding that had never collided before. Because that’s sort of the way kids play with Lego. They have them all in a bin. My son especially will put Batman and Chewbacca and a cowboy together on a spaceship. And so we wanted to have it feel like that.
We wanted to do a real classic hero’s journey but then turn it on its head. Where we wanted to have a chosen one who was chosen at random and doesn’t actually have any skills whatsoever.
The Lego Movie is in the mold of movies like Star Wars and The Matrix, in that the hero learns early on that everything he thought he knew is wrong, and that his universe has a secret history, involving portals into areas he never knew existed. In the case of The Lego Movie, an ordinary construction worker named Emmet stumbles onto the fabled “piece of resistance” that can stop the evil Lord Business’ plan to permanently stifle the independence of all Lego-folk. Before Emmet knows what’s happening, he’s being rescued from Lord Business’ lackey, Bad Cop, by the Master Builders, who whisk him away to a myriad of Lego realms. Emmet visits The Old West and Middle Zealand, and the anarchic Cloud Cuckoo Land, where he hangs out with a hodgepodge of Lego’s licensed characters: Batman, Superman, Gandalf, Dumbledore, and the 2002 NBA All-Stars, among others.
The Cloud Cuckoo Palace set’s version of Emmet comes with a “piece of resistance,” and even adds a red dot-piece for the back of Emmet’s leg, to represent the tracking device Bad Cop straps to him—which is what lets the villains find the Master Builders wherever they go. That tracking-device detail is as important as Emmet’s reversible head (decorated with both “happy” and “worried” faces), because as Miller points out, the theme of The Lego Movie demands that Emmet be kind of a crummy hero at times.
For me, Emmet’s real moment of revelation doesn’t come when he discovers all the other Lego-lands, but rather when Bad Cop shows him interviews with neighbors and co-workers who barely know anything about him. The Lego Movie satirizes cultural conformity, taking place mostly in the sunny world of Bricksburg, where “everything is awesome.” But Emmet finds out he’s really the only one on his block who’s so dogged about following the rules to the letter. If Bricksburg’s citizens were as uniform as they’re supposed to be, then Lord Business wouldn’t need to zap them all with his glue-gun, “the Kraggle.” Instead, nearly everybody has quirks—even if they’re just one-dimensional quirks, like eating croissants or surfing—while there’s nothing special about Emmet.
It’s that blank-slate quality that lets Emmet become whatever he needs to be to save the day. And it’s his extensive knowledge of the instructions that let him elude Lord Business’ forces, by “fitting in” so well that they can’t find him.
Step 3: Build Wyldstyle
When the kids of the early 2010s grow up and look back on this era, will they remember it more as the age of Frozen, or The Lego Movie? And will a given kid’s choice be contingent on gender? Children’s movies have a boy/girl problem—just like movies for adults. Hollywood’s perception seems to be that boys (and men) won’t go see movies about girls (or women), while the reverse isn’t true. That’s one reason why the hero of The Lego Movie is Emmet, not the Master Builder known as “Wyldstyle.” The other reason is that Emmet is doggedly un-special, while Wyldstyle is super-capable. But that doesn’t mean Emmet couldn’t have been “Emma,” and Wyldstyle… well, “Wyldstyle” still works as a guy’s name, I guess.
Give Lord and Miller credit, though, for how much they make Wyldstyle a real character, and not just Emmet’s eye-candy sidekick. (They do mock the sexualization of heroines a little in The Old West sequence, by slapping a cleavage-revealing saloon-girl dress on Wyldstyle, albeit of the flat-panel Lego variety.) Wyldstyle has insecurities, evident in the forced toughness of her name, which is one of the many she’s used over the years instead of her real name, Lucy. Wyldstyle also ties too much of her personal identity to her boyfriend, Batman—who doesn’t care as much in return. In the last third of The Lego Movie, though, while Emmet is indisposed, Wyldstyle takes charge, and gets to be the main hero for a while.
I don’t know how much American pop culture’s gender issues have affected my daughter. We’ve never tried to impose anything on her in that regard, either in terms of forcing her into dresses or forcing her toward gender-neutrality. She has “girly” toys and clothes, and she has her tomboy side. She’s just herself, mostly. And she likes Lego more than our son, because she’s a crafty individual in general. Cady Gray knits, sews, draws, does origami, and builds with blocks. As we assemble Wyldstyle, she doesn’t show any more interest in that character than she does in Emmet, aside from pointing out when I grab the wrong set of legs for her. (“Wyldstyle has a stripe on her pants, Dad.”) She digs through the bags with a little smile on her face, telling me, “Okay, we need this little bobby, and this little bibby.” At this age, she’s still more interested in the fantasy world she’s constructing than she is in what it’s trying to sell to her.
Step 4: Build Executron
Let’s not be coy about this: The Lego Movie is a feature-length toy commercial. In an interview with Screencrush, Miller insists the Lego executives had very little say in how the filmmakers used their products, saying:
When we talked to them about it originally, we said, “This isn’t going to work if it feels like it’s coming from you guys.” It can’t be, “Here are the toys we want to sell! Now, go make a movie about it!” It has to be something where a filmmaker has an idea and wants to tell a story and they’re using Lego as a medium and not a product. And, that means you have to trust us and basically hand the keys over to us. We promise we’re not going to do something that’s against your core values, we actually want to do something that reflects very well on Lego, but it has to feel like more of a grassroots thing. It has to feel like it came from outside your company.
Nevertheless, The Lego Movie is designed to make viewers feel warmly toward the Lego family of products (including the toddler-friendly Duplo, which makes a surprise appearance at the end). And I have to say: It’s a really good commercial. This movie is some Don Draper-level pitching: a 100-minute ad that plays on adults’ sense of nostalgia for the days when they were young and creative, and flatters the youngsters for all the amazing things they can do with Lego.
Lord and Miller say they insisted everything in The Lego Movie look like the actual toys, even having the animators “build” the worlds using only a toolkit of computer-generated Lego bricks. While that adds to the film’s overall cuteness, it also means that when my daughter and I play with the Cloud Cuckoo Palace set, we’re playing with something that looks almost exactly like the movie. That’s not something I could’ve said about the Star Wars toys I had when I was a boy.
I’m not one of those parents who’s overly anxious about companies trying to extend their brands at my children’s expense (or my expense, more literally). These aren’t cigarettes or sugary cereals I’m buying. If my children’s heads are turned by a toy or a book or a piece of clothing that has an Angry Bird on it, or Pikachu, or a Koopa Troopa, to me that’s just part of their being kids in this culture. As someone who’s spent the better part of my life consuming and thinking about that culture, I confess to feeling a pang of paternal pride whenever my offspring fall for the same kind of cheap junk I fell for when I was their age. I feel like the tiny plastic torch is being passed.
Step 5: Build Snail
This is how the mind (or the marketers) can play tricks on a person: When I bought the Cloud Cuckoo Palace set and saw that one of the major characters was Snail, I thought, “Oh sure, Snail. Princess Unikitty’s little pet and constant companion.” I somehow convinced myself that Snail is a frequently seen character in The Lego Movie. Then, after building the Palace, I went to see the movie again, and didn’t spot Snail once. (Apparently, Snail is gigantic, and appears only briefly, in the background in Cloud Cuckoo Land.)
Similarly, before I re-saw The Lego Movie, I would’ve told you that the Palace in our kit features heavily in the movie, along with its protective catapult. Not so. The main building the characters spend time in during their visit to Cloud Cuckoo Land looks like a dog’s head. And while there is a sort of catapult that comes into play during Bad Cop’s raid, it looks nothing like the flower-missile-thrower in this set. When I decided I wanted to write about a Lego Movie Lego set, I thought it would be fun to look at a toy based on a movie based on a toy. I hadn’t counted on The R5-D4 Factor, which affects nearly all movie-derived playsets.
Step 6: Build Catapult
There are no words in the Cloud Cuckoo Palace instructions, just icons. One of those icons suggests that while the completed catapult can be used to launch the flower-missile across the room, the missile should not be launched at anyone’s head. That’s good advice. I’d say that it’s advice directed more toward boys—since in my experience, boys are more likely to find a way to turn anything into a weapon—but one of the perpetual dangers of selling a toy with a million uses is that some of those uses could send a kid to the hospital.
Step 7: Build Princess Unikitty
The basic Lego bricks are largely interchangeable from kit to kit, but then there are those pieces designated for specific vehicles, buildings, or characters. As we root around in the bags for Princess Unikitty’s ears, Cady Gray says, “We need those. They’re the only thing that signifies that it’s a kitty.” When Princess Unikitty is completed, my daughter looks her over and says, “It’s a little bit strange. But then everything’s a little bit strange.” This is why I like making things with her. It’s fun to spend an hour looking at the world through her eyes.
Step 8: Build Cloud Cuckoo Palace
It takes 33 steps to build the actual Cloud Cuckoo Palace—the most elaborate series of instructions in the set—and it’s not lost on either my daughter or me that there’s something ironic about being given such a detailed plan for a structure that’s supposed to look like a free-build. “We need a humpy thing,” Cady Gray sighs as we jump into it. “When has there ever been a time when we didn’t need a humpy thing?” But the further we get into assembling the Palace, the more we begin to appreciate how well the Cloud Cuckoo Palace represents the Cloud Cuckoo Land of the movie, and how well the Cloud Cuckoo scenes in The Lego Movie encapsulate what the movie is about.
When the Master Builders and Emmet arrive at Cloud Cuckoo Land in The Lego Movie, Princess Unikitty greets them with a long boast about how free her kingdom is, because it has no rules, no frowns, and no bushy mustaches. (Wyldstyle astutely points out that Unikitty’s list of Cloud Cuckoo Land’s virtues includes “a lot of nos.”) Later, when the heroes are trying to escape Cloud Cuckoo Land by building a submarine, everyone freely contributes their own pieces, and makes something that’s untenable. The point: Too much freedom can be just as destructive as too much order. Instructions can be useful, as a way to construct the solid foundation from which creative types can embellish.
I don’t know if it’s intentional or not that the otherwise brightly colored Cloud Cuckoo Palace has a couple of gray pieces tucked away in the back of the structure—as though commenting on this very idea that that even the craziest buildings start with hard concrete and metal. But then I’m also not entirely sure that The Lego Movie itself has a coherent philosophy. Sometimes the movie seems to argue for following the rules, and yet the villain is someone who wants to stamp out all idiosyncrasy.
Except that the villain isn’t really a villain. Lord Business, a.k.a. President Business, is just a Lego representation of “The Man Upstairs,” the human father of the human little boy who’s been the one manipulating The Lego Movie’s characters and telling the story all along. And when The Man Upstairs realizes that his remarkably talented son thinks of him as a control freak, he lightens up, and just lets the kid play.
But even at his meanest, The Man Upstairs isn’t a completely bad guy; after all, he’s the one who built these universes in the first place. I could pivot off that and make a case for The Lego Movie as a Christian allegory, about a creator and his son. Really, though, The Lego Movie is mostly about Lego—and about itself.
The history of Lego is the history of a toy company that started out making a variety of conventional blocks and wooden vehicles before focusing more on its colorful plastic-brick set. Then in 1955, Lego developed its “system of play,” selling different kits that could work together. What started more freeform became better defined over the years with the proliferation of specific designs, and then in the 1970s, with the addition of the familiar Lego minifigures, which themselves became more specific year by year. There’s always been some level of contradiction intrinsic to Lego, between the particularity of the kits (which have gone from “build whatever you want” to “build a house” to “build Bilbo Baggins’ house”) and the interchangeability of the materials, which have followed the same basic design since 1958.
The Lego Movie, meanwhile, is about Lord and Miller taking what these corporate entities have provided them—and not just Lego, but also Warner Bros., and all the owners of the licensed characters that they sprinkle throughout the movie—and having playtime. Hence the seemingly conflicting ideologies at the heart of the movie. Lord and Miller can’t completely trash the Lord Businesses of the world, because they recognize that they need those people, even if it’s just to make a movie that looks like the product of some kid playing in his basement.
Step 9: Build the sun
The build goes quicker as Cady Gray and I approach the end, and as the available pieces dwindle. Even if we wanted to improvise at this point, we really couldn’t, because we no longer have the material for it. We’d just be adding unnecessary adornments to structures that have their own integrity and purpose.
At this stage in the process, we’re also getting a little loopy. Looking at a picture of a hand holding the completed sun, my daughter laughs, “Apparently, an important step is to hold it up in the air.”
Step 10: Put away the leftovers
As with the randomness of which piece is in which bag, the scattered pieces left over after a Lego build also seem arbitrary. This isn’t like constructing bookshelves, where any leftover “little bibby” probably was meant to be attached, and might be really, really important. These pieces are just extras. Cady Gray and I have one more set of handcuffs than we need, and an extra Unikitty horn. These don’t add up to anything. I couldn’t build an entirely new character or structure out of these bits. And if I were to lose Unikitty’s all-important ears, there’s no replacement.
What was left over when The Lego Movie was finished? In interviews, Lord and Miller have said they cut a lot of jokes because they didn’t fit with the flow of the movie, but were those jokes recorded and animated? We’ll have to wait and find out when the Blu-ray comes out.
Almost any creative endeavor leaves behind odds and ends. When I write an article, I start with a page full of notes, which I cut and paste into groups, forming a rough outline. Then I follow that guide, filling in the spaces between the notes with actual sentences. But there are always those notes that keep getting pushed to the bottom of page, and stay there even while I’m in the editing and refinement phase, because I’m sure I can find some place to put them.
I almost never do, though, because the nature of the creative process is that once a shape suggests itself, it begins exerting its own will and rejecting everything that doesn’t go along. As much as we may want to toss out the plan, it usually makes more sense to try and build on what’s already there than to rip it all up and start again. When in doubt, I like to go back to the 10 characteristics Lego founder Ole Kirk Christiansen’s son Godtfred came up with in 1963:
• Safety and quality
• Always topical
• Each new product multiplies the play value of the rest
• Imagination, creativity, development
• Endless hours of play
• Healthy and quiet play
• Play all year round
• Unlimited play possibilities
• Enthusiasm to all ages
• For girls, for boys
Next month: Gremlins Colorforms adventure set