Mere months after “The Lego Movie” demonstrated that audiences’ affection for the Danish construction toy could generate international bigscreen interest of blockbuster proportions, Oscar-blessed short-film helmers Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson unveiled “Beyond the Brick” at the Tribeca Film Festival. At the time, the feature-length docu felt like little more than a glorified DVD extra, so shamelessly rapturous toward the brand that it may as well have been commissioned by the Lego Co. itself. By waiting more than a year to release it, however, Radius has given the tightly assembled, all-ages-appropriate film — theater-bound under its former subtitle, “A Lego Brickumentary” — a chance to entertain on its own merits.
Although loaded with details sure to thrill those who’ve just received their first Lego set (with an estimated 86 Lego bricks for every person on earth, odds are good that most kids will come in contact with the toy at some point), the film was clearly designed with AFOLs in mind. That’s “Adult Fans of Lego,” for those uninitiated in the geek-speak adopted by hardcore Lego aficionados — just one of many fresh terms viewers will need to absorb in order to follow the fast-paced, densely packed docu as it bounces around the globe (and even into space) to profile Lego fanatics who’ve adapted the interlocking plastic toys to an astounding array of uses.
In Denmark (where the toy was invented), theoretical mathematician Soren Eilers explains to students how he calculated the number of possible configurations one can make from six two-by-four studded blocks (the answer: 915,103,765). In Australia, two guys constructed a working car entirely out of Lego (fun fact: The plural of Lego is Lego). And in New York, appropriately named therapist Dan LeGoff uses the toy bricks as a tool to treat children with autism.
The directors interview designers, architects, artists and, of course, filmmakers — the latter ranging from “The Lego Movie” power duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to up-and-comers Jonathan Vaughan and Matt Cohen, who are shooting their own crowd-funded Lego movie (“Melting Point”) in one of their moms’ garages. Though super-low-tech by comparison with last year’s toon feature, “A Lego Brickumentary” also features a fair amount of original animation: The entire film is emceed by a wise-cracking minifig (those 4-centimeter plastic dudes with yellow skin and plastic-helmet hair), playfully voiced by Jason Bateman, in a limited-movement style true to brick animation. Most of the jokes are real groaners, though the humor is welcome, while shooting select exteriors with tilt-shift lenses (for a miniature-faking effect that makes real-world buildings look like tiny Lego sets) adds another creative touch to the overall package.
Factoring in its extensive access to Lego employees and internal projects (including a super-secret life-size “Star Wars” X-Wing model assembled for Times Square), the film exhibits an oddly promotional tone that might rub audiences wrong if it were hyping any another product. In this case, however, the approach makes viewers feel like part of an exclusive club, one that counts Lego-proud crooner Ed Sheeran, basketball star Dwight Howard and “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker among its more high-profile members.
Between its seemingly frivolous subject and frothy reality-TV-style format — meticulously constructed to set up and pay off a sequence of mini-dramas over the overloaded film’s impressively tight running time — “A Lego Brickumentary” seems like a strange fit for social-issue filmmakers Junge (“Saving Face”) and Davidson (“Open Heart”). Teaming up for the first time, the duo previously made uncannily similar Oscar-nominated short films about surgeons dedicated to treating heartbreaking Third World cases, which might explain why this project tries so hard to justify Lego’s save-the-world versatility. Brimming with hyperbole, the docu falls just short of claiming that Lego can cure world hunger, and had the helmers looked just a bit harder, they surely could have found someone using the toys to do just that.
Film Review: 'A Lego Brickumentary'
Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight), April 26, 2014. Running time: 93 MIN.
(Documentary) A Radius-TWC release and presentation of a Gem Pictures, Tiburon Pictures, Helo production, in association with Futuristic Films, Milkhaus. Produced by Brendan Kiernan, Justin Moore-Lewy, Daniel Junge, Chris Brown. Executive producers, Jim Packer, Anthony Romano, Bob Lewis, Jill Wilfert, Lee Clay, Jill Wilfert. Co-producers, Molly Tait, David, Coombe, Chad Herschberger, Chelsea Matter, Melinda Oakes, Kathleen Fleming.
Directed by Daniel Junge, Kief Davidson. Written by Junge, Davis Coombe, Davidson. Camera (color, HD), Robert Muratore, Tony Molina, Shana Hagan, Aaron Phillips, Luke Geissbuler, Jasper Gray, Adam Beckman; editors, Davis Coombe, Tiffany Hauck, Chad Herschberger, Marko Jakubowicz, Inbal Lessner, Darrin Roberts; music, John Jennings Boyd; original animation, Tommy Williamson, James Morr; sound designer, Lawrence Everson; re-recording mixer, Everson; associate producers, Andrew Oppenheimer, Ryan Egan.
Tormod Askildsen, Jamie Bernard, Will Chapman, Matt Cohen, Soren Eilers, Alice Finch, Dwight Howard, Dan LeGoff, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, David Pagano, Stephen Pakbaz, Trey Parker, Nathan Sawaya, Ed Sheeran, Adam Reed Tucker, Jonathan Vaughan, Jan Vormann, Marcos Wesley. Narrator: Jason Bateman.