'Lego Movie' Franchise Owes its Meta Comedy to Lego Video Games

Long before Phil Lord & Chris Miller's triumphant 'The Lego Movie,' a gaming studio in the north of England had been setting Lego's now near-synonymous self-referential tone successfully across more than 10 titles.
Credit: TT Games
A screenshot from 'Lego Star Wars: The Video Game'

Just five years ago, Lego — the Danish toy powerhouse that has been making its iconic interconnecting bricks for more than 60 years — wasn’t exactly something that many would have considered had much of a personality. It was plastic, colorful, generally cheery in nature (most Lego minifigures feature a perma-smile), but that was about it.

Then, in 2014, Warner Bros.’ The Lego Movie landed. 

Three follow-up titles later, most recently with The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, and their unmistakable brand of humour — silly, self-referential and with tongue shoved firmly in yellow cheek — hasn’t just become the film franchise’s trademark building block, but has seemingly now become almost an essential strand of the entire toy line’s DNA (and one that, unsurprisingly, has spawned imitators, as anyone who has seen the trailer for Playmobil: The Movie from Lego’s rival European plastic toy giants might have noticed).

But while Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, directors and writers of the first Lego Movie, are undoubtedly the “master builders” behind the films’ initial triumphs, the blueprints for the distinctly meta humor can be traced back more than a decade, several thousand miles from a Hollywood writer’s room and to a small town in the north of England.

Sometime in the early noughties in a studio in Knutsford, about 14 miles south west of Manchester and with a population that barely scraped 13,000 at the last count, the team at the Traveller’s Tales gaming company began coming up with ideas for Lego Star Wars: The Video Game, the first action-adventure title capitalizing on Lego’s successful licensing tie-in with major movie franchises (which, thus far, had only really taken shape in toy sets). The game would be an adaptation of the recently concluded Star Wars prequels, only done in Lego bricks. 

Traveller’s Tales (which would become known as TT Games the next year after a merger, before Warner Bros. swooped in to acquired it whole in 2007), already had experience transferring beloved Hollywood IP to video consoles, thanks to the likes of 1995’s Toy Story, 1999’s Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue and 2003’s Finding Nemo. But Lego would soon become its calling card, thanks in no small part to the quirky, self-aware tone it laid throughout.

It was actually Finding Nemo, in which players guided Marlin, Dory and Nemo across an underwater adventure that closely matched the hit Pixar film’s plot, that provided some early comic inspiration. 

Rather than die in the game, characters were treated to cut scenes with “comedy deaths” — one where a concussed Nemo sees shrimp circling above his head (instead of stars) and another in which he’s catapulted into the distance by a lobster — before they’re respawned and the level starts again.

“We decided pretty early on that the characters in Lego Star Wars wouldn’t die, and we just felt it hit the right tone,” says Jeremy Pardon, TT Games’ head of animation, who has worked on every single Lego title at the company (which now tops 20 games and includes brick-based adaptations of Harry PotterLord of the RingsPirates of the Caribbean and Jurassic World).

Around the same time came an instruction from Lego headquarters that they wanted the game’s characters to be “living and breathing,” that they actually believe who they are and act accordingly (something hammered home with acclaim by Will Arnett’s metal-loving and comically arrogant Batman in the films). Lego also had another, vital, order: make it funny.

TT Games’ response was that, if you’re going to have Lego minifigures, with their stumpy, knee-less legs, arms only able to move up and down and yellows faces featuring — at the time at least — just two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, acting out scenes from Star Wars, well that was inherently funny in itself.

“Everyone’s used to it now, but back then it was new,” says Pardon. “It was just really endearing and really funny seeing these little minifigures re-enacting your favorite scenes.”

TT Games’ first demo for Lego Star Wars gave an indicator of what was to come. 

In the intro, a Republic cruiser is blown up after docking in a Trade Federation base, leaving the two Lego pilots dangling in the air for a brief, comical second before hitting the floor and smashing into pieces. Immediately afterward, a deadly-serious looking Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi appear in a room with lightsabers at the ready, and if the player — now in control of the Jedi masters —attempted to use the force on the chairs arranged around a table, the cantina music starts up and the chairs do a little dance.

“It’s just silly, and set the tone going forward,” says Pardon. 

The animators had an early conversation about Obi-Wan’s personality, deciding that they should exaggerate his “padawan” status for comic effect. And this was underlined in a cut scene later on in the game. As Qui-Gon is busy dispatching a troop of battle droids walking Queen Amidala across a courtyard, Obi-Wan can be seen in the background struggling to get his lightsaber to work. 

Although the graphics look basic by today’s standards, the tone of the scene appears straight out of the Lego Movie franchise and was actually developed by Ross Norcross, who would go on to apply his animation skills on blockbuster films including Guardians of the Galaxy, Paddington and Avengers: Age of Ultron. 

Lego Star Wars: The Video Game — which would earn critical praise and eventually sell more than 6.7 million copies — may have been the initial petri dish, but from it, TT Games were able to develop a rule book they could apply on all future Lego titles. And on the follow-up, 2006’s Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, they could hit the ground running, combining the seriousness of the minifigures, who all fully believe in who they are, and the almost Naked Gun-style tomfoolery going on around them.

Pardon points to a cut scene towards the very end of Lego Star Wars II that perfectly encapsulates what they managed to achieve with this tone. After watching Darth Vader die in his arms, an emotional Luke Skywalker places a kiss his father’s forehead, enters a spaceship, the ramp of which then lifts up with Vader’s limp, lifeless body sliding sarcastically inside. 

“It just beautifully truncated that moment,” he says. “The contrast between the two just made that work.”

There would be 12 more Lego games before the arrival of The Lego Movie, each managing to up the ante (and most doing so without any actual dialog). 

In Lego Harry Potter, the titular wizard's dastardly uncle tries in vain to hide a growing flood of Hogwarts letters, two of which even pop up in the toaster. In Lego Lord of the Rings, Boromir dies, not following a succession of deadly arrows from the Uruk-hai archer but an increasingly ridiculous array of items: first an arrow, then a broom and, finally, a banana. By the time Emmet, Lord Business and the residents of Bricksburg smashed their way into cinemas in 2014, earning almost $500 million in the process, Lego was already supremely silly.

Both Lord and Miller actually came to meet Pardon, alongside TT Games’ founder Jon Burton, before they started shooting The Lego Movie, showing them their original treatment. Naturally, given the comedic groundwork the company had been laying in Knutsford since 2004, it was met with approval.

“I immediately loved it,” says Pardon. “It was right up our street.”