Lego builds the year’s first true blockbuster

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Film director Phil Lord has fond childhood memories of days spent playing with Lego’s colorful plastic blocks. He says he would simply dump what he had on the floor and create a huge mess.

“I never remember picking them up,” he says. He also did not have the patience to create what the instructions on the box told him to.

Fellow director Christopher Miller, on the other hand, says his son is currently hooked on the brick toys, but he first builds exactly what the instructions dictate. “Then he will make his own vehicle, each time more ridiculous than the other,” he adds.

Both men were well aware of Lego’s global and cross-generational appeal when they were approached to direct “The Lego Movie,” which opens in Japanese theaters March 21. However, they say they had no idea that the oddball animated feature would become a blockbuster — much less the biggest film of 2014 so far, already having grossed more than $236 million at the U.S. box office. It was made on a budget of $60 million.

“We knew we were doing something special with so much detail, and hoping that people would realize it,” Miller says when asked about the movie’s financial success. “We were surprised that so many people did.”

Lord is more candid, and he acknowledges there was a risk in making a 100-minute feature film using Lego characters.

“I just always think that my career is headed to the garbage can every time I work on something,” he says. “I am surprised that I didn’t get fired and glad we can continue our careers in Hollywood.”

The movie is set in a world made from Lego bricks and follows the adventures of Emmet, an ordinary construction worker who learns that his destiny is to save the planet. Together with the movie’s heroine, Wyldstyle, and plenty of other characters — some original and some as well-known as Batman and Superman — Emmet’s team battles Lord Business and his gang of evil-doers.

The last time Lego animation looked as awe-inspiring as it does in “The Lego Movie” was when U.S. rockers The White Stripes used the technique more than a decade ago for their “Fell in Love with a Girl” clip, which was directed by Michel Gondry. Miller and Lord push the envelope much further on the big screen. One particularly stunning sequence has Emmet and the heroes aboard a submarine that breaks apart in the ocean and leaves them floundering in the waves.

The English-language version of the film features a healthy roster of A-list Hollywood vocal talent, including Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill and Elizabeth Banks. The movie is computer-animated but leaves just the right amount of analog texture to the beloved blocks to keep it looking familiar.

Lord and Miller have a history of finding kernels of hits in surprise places. The pair tackled the film adaptation of Judi Barrett’s children’s book “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” which was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 2010 and spawned a sequel that was released last year.

They teamed up again in 2012 to adapt the 1980s American drama series “21 Jump Street” to the big screen. Lord and Miller’s sequel to that film, “22 Jump Street,” will be released in North America this summer.

One of the challenges the directors faced, says Miller, was making a movie with only Lego characters that was more than just a 100-minute advertisement for the toys. Fortunately, the finished product has won over many critics Stateside for its plot. Time magazine’s Richard Corliss called it one of the “funniest, cleverest, most exhaustingly exhilarating animated feature in ages.”

In trying to make sense of the success of the film, the two directors surmise that the audience likely had low expectations about the movie, perhaps dismissing it as a cheap ploy to sell Lego.

“Without giving away any spoilers, ultimately the film is about the importance of creativity and play, and how creative voice can be the most important thing,” Lord says, adding that the people involved in the production put all their efforts into ensuring it would be a good film. He admits, though, that “The Lego Movie” owes a lot to the universal appeal of the toy, which seems to have an unusual power to stir the imagination in spite of — or perhaps because of — its simplicity.

“Lego is the one toy that combines left brain and right-brain activity in a unique way, all at once,” Lord says. “I think (the blocks) are also intelligent and cute, very appealing from a designer’s standpoint, and (from a creative standpoint) as well, which is a winning combination.”

Warner Brothers has already given the green light to a sequel, which will involve both Lord and Miller “in a major way.” Not much else has been decided about the upcoming movie, but Lord looks at it in a similar way to how he used the toy when he was younger: Making a mess and never reading the instructions. He’s adamant that he and Miller won’t play by the books or settle for a substandard sequel.

“We have a philosophy about it, and it is that (the sequel) should scare us as much as making the original ‘Lego Movie’ did,” Lord says. “The only way things are going to succeed is to take many risks and make our bosses nervous.”

Will the bosses be that nervous though? The studio must be over the moon about how “The Lego Movie” is performing in theaters now.

“But wait till we tell them what we want to do in the sequel,” Miller teases. “And they will be less excited.”

“The Lego Movie” opens in cinemas nationwide on March 21.



Fish story: Jumpei Mitsui holds a tuna he made out of Lego bricks. It’s comprised of around 5,000 pieces and took him seven days to build. | COURTESY OF JUMPEI MITSUI

Local Lego legend dishes on designs

In 2012, Jumpei Mitsui became the 13th person in the world to be named a “certified professional” by The Lego Group, based in Denmark. He was also the youngest ever, and the only Japanese, to make the short list of expert Lego builders.

The 26-year-old says he has built every object imaginable using thousands of Lego bricks, including an octopus, a scaled-down replica of the Ginza district, a life-size Doraemon and a 6.6-meter-long model of a battleship that took 200,000 pieces and more than six years to complete. He also launched the Lego club at the University of Tokyo when he was a student there.

The Japan Times spoke with the master of Lego on the joy of playing with the blocks and how it helps him see the world in a different way.

What first drew you to Lego and what keeps you building?

Basically, the fact that you can create any existing object using a combination of them. It’s sort of like playing with clay, but there are more limitations to Lego since creating a curve or a ball using only square and rectangle blocks takes some thinking, and that is why it is so fun.

How do you approach your projects? I’ve heard that you seldom write out a blueprint.

I start with the small parts. With the battleship, for example, I began with creating the small items that would be on the ship, such as the cannons. It’s the same with creating a human face using Lego blocks: I always begin with the eyes or the nose then move on to the whole profile.

Has your experience with Lego helped you with school work? You graduated from the renowned Nada High School in Kobe and the attended the University of Tokyo.

Yes, it helps me examine objects in a multidimensional way and imagine their shapes from different angles. I think that’s an advantage in solving math and geometry problems. I don’t think playing with Lego alone can increase your ability to solve math problems, but it is definitely a great way to exercise your brain.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directors of “The Lego Movie,” say playing with Lego stimulates both sides of the brain. Do you agree?

Yes. Coming up with an idea or deciding what to create with Lego bricks is the left brain at work, while the actual building of something and piling up Lego blocks is more of the right side’s job.

What’s your day job?

I work in the steel industry, specifically in developing materials. My experience with Lego has helped me with the job, actually. When you look at steel using high-powered microscopes, you see that it is made of blocklike molecules attached to one another. Controlling and managing such blocks lets us create stronger, more flexible steel.

When you are building something, how are you able to concentrate on it for hours on end?

The process requires that I work my imagination, but I also need to keep a fast-paced rhythm. I find it the most comfortable when listening to metal bands, because the beat helps me keep my focus and pace. I listen to bands like (American metalcore act) Killswitch Engage.

Have you seen “The Lego Movie”?

Yes, I saw it at a screening. The movie depicted Lego blocks in a brand new way, but didn’t lose the feel of the plastic materials. It also managed to express lots of emotion using the blocks, which was great. It was on a different level from any Lego animation that I’ve seen before.