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Engineer Brian Brenner Rates the Lego Movie a Blockbuster, Sort Of

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The idea of making an entire movie about Lego toy building blocks seemed far-fetched and a bald-faced marketing ploy. It didn't appear to have much of a chance at success. Who would watch it? And after a movie about Legos, what next? Maybe a movie about toothpaste ("The Colgate Movie") or toaster ovens? With the expectation bar set pretty low, the reviews came in.

Rotten Tomatoes, a website with aggregated movie ratings, reported the reviews to be 96% positive. For movie reviews, that is almost impossible. If there are only two reviews, it is possible to get a 100% positive rating since there are only two reviews. But with a larger number, there always will be enough curmudgeons to drive the percentage down. Maybe reviewers responded to anything positive on the screen because the movie's premise was so profoundly unlikely. One review called it the best movie ever made.

I am not exactly in the target demographic for "The Lego Movie," being that I am older than 11. But I may be in a secondary target demographic: I like non-violent, happy movies where things tend not to blow up on screen. I also still like to play with blocks. Legos are blocks, but they lack the free form of imagination provided by a good set of traditional wood blocks.

Often, Legos come with complex instructions and specifications. But they're still blocks, and you can still build bridges and other things out of them. So, between the film's subject matter and the hyper-positive reviews, I was ready to go to see it.

My reaction may have been a case of low expectations in reverse.

I thought the movie was OK, but not the Rotten Tomatoes' 96%-rated best-ever blockbuster. The plot was bloated and repetitious because, after all, it is tough to make a 90-minute movie about Legos. Also, there were things constantly being exploded on the screen, violating my criterion to avoid movies in which things get blown up. Granted, it was the Lego toys that were blowing up as opposed to people or large cities, but it was still things blowing up. Only in this sense is it a "blockbuster."

On the positive side, the movie is visually astonishing. Someone with lots and lots of time on their hands built gorgeous Lego models of just about everything. Then, they used a type of stop-motion animation to film the walking, talking Legos.

Prominent Engineering Themes

While it wasn't the best movie ever made, "The Lego Movie" may be one of the best engineering movies ever made. Not since "Apollo 13," with its square carbon dioxide-scrubber peg in a round hole, have engineering themes played so prominently in a plot.

The movie is set in Lego-land, a place in which Lego people go about their lives surrounded by Lego buildings and bridges.

The main character is a Lego contractor-engineer who spends each day demolishing and rebuilding vast swaths of the Lego city. This character is meticulous about following instructions. Everything must be done in a particular order and in a particular way. Conflict arises when the Lego characters are challenged by creativity. What happens when you don't follow precise instructions and go off script?

In its way, the movie nicely captures the fundamental tug of war between engineering creativity and convention. Engineering and building is a process of following exact instructions. You can't place the bridge deck before you build the piers. But at the same time, we constantly apply incremental changes: new approaches, new |materials, new analysis. When and how is it decided what to change? If the old way worked, why risk the new way?

So they made a movie about Legos with engineering themes. It's not the best movie ever made, but, based on its box-office take, it looks like it will be one of the most successful movies ever made. In other words, everything is awesome! 

Brian Brenner, P.E., is a vice president with Fay, Spofford & Thorndike in Burlington, Mass., a faculty member at Tufts' University and the author of two funny books about engineering life. He can be reached at


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