The most popular building block of our childhoods and consistently the most popular toy brand in the world is Lego, which against the odds has evolved into more than just a toy block but has conquered the worlds of film, television and video games as well.
This line of plastic interlocking construction bricks that can be used to build almost anything was first manufactured in Denmark and the company that makes them was founded in 1932 by a carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen. Christiansen was born in Jutland, Denmark in 1891 and grew up in poverty, but as a six-year-old farmhand he developed a talent and passion for whittling wood, eventually working as a carpenter by the age of 20.
After working as a carpenter in Germany for five years, Christiansen finally bought his own woodworking and carpentry shop with the money he saved and helped construct buildings in his own local community. By 1930 he built and operated a workshop and employed a small workforce, but the onset of the Great Depression that year forced him to lay off some of his workers while the demand for previously popular items like ladders and ironing boards began to shrink. In 1932 to keep business afloat, he shifted focus to building things that might be more popular: toys. These included yo-yos, trucks and dolls.
The transformation into a children’s toy company would mark a significant turning point, as would the company’s new name which Christiansen adopted in 1934: “Lego,” which was short for the Danish word “leg godt” which means “play well.” The company would later officially be known as The Lego Group.
At first the building blocks and Lego’s other toys were carved from birch wood before being dried, sanded and painted, and even in his poor community, Christiansen continued making them, sometimes even accepting food in place of money to give them away. Despite working through the Depression and Nazi-occupied Denmark during World War II and surviving two accidental fires that burned down his shop and his products, Christiansen always persevered and rebuilt his company.
The first time Lego moved from wood to plastic was in 1947, and in the 1950s, when Christiansen’s son Godtfred became junior managing director of the company, Lego focused on developing the plastic brick, eventually achieving the proper grip that allows multiple blocks to stick together, an interlocking ability that Lego patented in 1958, the year the modern Lego brick design we all know was developed through the use of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) polymer. Although self-locking building blocks had been pioneered by an English inventor named Hilary Page back in 1940 after he founded the toy shop Kiddicraft.
Since then, there have been many different types of Lego bricks of all shapes and sizes.
In the 1970s, the humanoid Lego minifigure was introduced and there were now Lego men and women who could live in Lego houses. This led to Lego sets with various themes like dinosaur, medieval, pirate, cowboy, space and robot themes. A Lego universe would eventually form with such sets as Lego City, Lego Technic, Lego Friends, Bionicle, Ninjago and the Mindstorms robotics line.
Lego would become even more popular when it began licensing Lego sets based on existing properties, such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, DC superheroes, Marvel superheroes and Mario.
Just to really drive home how popular these toy blocks are, a theme park based on Lego called Legoland was introduced in Denmark in 1968, later arriving in Germany, Japan, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) and the United States (California, Florida and New York), and Lego-themed stores known as Lego Stores were first introduced in Australia in 1984 and since then have gone worldwide.
Even the world of film has not been immune to the influence of Lego. Not only did the White Stripes come out with a music video for “Fell in Love with a Girl” in 2002 which was directed by Michel Gondry and featured stop-motion animation with actual Lego bricks, but there are tons of movies, TV shows and video games based on the toy.
The first official Lego film was the 2003 computer-animated straight-to-DVD film Bionicle: Mask of Light, which spawned a whole Bionicle film series, not to mention a lot of films from Warner Bros. Animation based on DC Comics superheroes like Batman. On the big screen, Warner Bros. also released Warner Animation Group’s The Lego Movie (2014) which was directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and was a major financial and critical success, followed by The Lego Batman Movie (2017), The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017) and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019).
Television series include Lego Hero Factory (2010-14), Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu (2011-present), Lego Friends of Heartlake City (2012-17), Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles (2013-14), Legends of Chima (2013-14), Mixels (2014-16), Lego Elves (2015-18), Lego Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures (2016-17), Unikitty! (2017-20), Lego Friends: Girls on a Mission (2018-present), Lego City Adventures (2019-present), Lego Monkie Kid (2020-present) and the British reality competition series Lego Masters which ran on Channel 4 from 2017 to 2018 and was ported to several other countries.
There have been video games based on Lego since the company founded Lego Media International Limited in 1997, the same year Mindscape’s Lego Island was released for Microsoft Windows and became a huge success. That led to more video games like Lego Creator, Lego Racers, Lego City Undercover, Lego Worlds, Lego Builder’s Journey, Lego Brawls and games based on the Bionicle and Ninjago series, as well as many popular licensed video games from Traveller’s Tales like Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Batman, Lego Harry Potter, Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, Lego The Lord of the Rings, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, Lego The Hobbit and Lego Marvel’s Avengers.
My introduction to Lego was the same as most people’s. Me and my siblings used to build things with them for fun all the time. We were a creative family so Legos were right up our alley. The possibilities for what we could create were endless, and I assume that might have something to do with how easily the toy can be adapted into every medium: you can do anything with Lego blocks. Not just in their construction but in their artistic expression. I’ll always be amazed at how Lord and Miller turned something called The Lego Movie into one of my favorite films of all time, because when you hear that title, you don’t expect a great work of art. You expect a mindless commercial. Actually that film was kind of mindless and a commercial in addition to being a work of art, but I feel like that just cements my point about the toy’s versatility further. Although arguably the most surprising success story is Traveller’s Tales. The Lego Star Wars games continue to be so popular that video game adaptations of Lego sets have become a regular thing. WB owns Traveller’s Tales and in a rare move the game developer seems to play nice with rival studios. But the games are also more than just commercial hits. I’ve played the Lego Star Wars games and they are very fun and addictive. And they are abound with humor as they recreate the scenes from the films with usually entertaining results. No matter how old I get, they seem to always find a way to pull me back into the Lego universe like I’m the Millennium Falcon caught in a tractor beam.