Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s The Lego Movie performed what seemed like an impossible feat: making a film based on a popular toy line that functions as both a tribute to those toys and a celebration of the general notion of play without coming across like a feature-length act of shilling. A LEGO Brickumentary, which seems to have been produced more or less concurrently with its more entertaining sibling, feels like a quasi-educational companion piece—or possibly a backup, in case the Miller/Lord film failed to further endear its brand to audiences and potential consumers. But it succeeded wildly, which leaves this nominally higher-minded project from an indie distributor looking more promotional than a big-budget movie that probably sold thousands of Lego sets to both kids and adults.
Adults get plenty of attention in Brickumentary, which spends some of its running time with the AFOL (adult fans of Lego) community, outside and inside of the company itself. “The nice thing about working for Lego is that we have every piece that we need,” one employee notes, and he sounds touchingly sincere about this perk. Directors Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge drive home the company’s grown-up fan base by logging an amusingly eclectic array of celebrity testimonials: Ed Sheeran, Trey Parker, and NBA star Dwight Howard. (Howard is most endearing, Parker most articulate, and Sheeran the most inexplicable.) Accordingly, the promotional bent isn’t kid-exclusive or even Lego-exclusive. All of its subjects, Lego-owned or not, seem to be starring in a chipper infomercial: Davidson and Junge bookend their movie with the mostly uninteresting saga of constructing a nearly life-sized model of a Star Wars X-wing, and tell an uncritical and conflict-light story about Nathan Sawaya, a former employee who now produces art pieces with the plastic bricks.
This is all presided over by an animated mini-figure narrator (voiced by Jason Bateman at his least sardonic), and while the film’s animated segments can’t really compete with their fictional counterparts, they are pretty neat as far as explanatory documentary animation goes. Some of the movie’s best moments feature the telling of Lego history via Lego-based animation, explaining how the organization grew from a small Danish company plagued by multiple factory fires to a beloved worldwide brand that nonetheless almost went out of business in 2003 before staging a massive comeback. But much of this information comes in broad strokes. The notion that Lego sets at the dawn of the 21st century contained too many custom pieces and too few pieces overall is an interesting one that’s only addressed for a few moments before the movie explains how the company righted the ship: by not doing that anymore, and also by getting into the licensing game.
This doesn’t just reflect a lack of scrutiny applied to the toy company. Few of the movie’s many small points of interest, from the history of fan-made brick-films (which the movie questionably categorizes under the umbrella of “more serious endeavors” involving the toys) to the footage of autistic kids using Legos for therapy, receive more detailed attention. Yet in its home stretch, Brickumentary decides it’s been offering in-depth portraits and attempts to connect them in a meaningful way, most noticeably by converging the experiences of an autistic kid who the filmmakers barely profile with the non-amazing story of that giant X-wing. It’s more of a nice anecdote than an emotional high point. Brickumentary has plenty to temporarily divert Lego fans, but little to distinguish itself from the kind of primer profiles that used to run on TV newsmagazines. Unlike The Lego Movie and Legos themselves, it seems best suited for kids.