Tim here. With The Lego Movie devouring money at a rate virtually never seen in the middle of winter, and receiving some of the most enthusiastic reviews of any animated film since Toy Story 3, any fears that it would be nothing but a craven toy commercial have been firmly put to sleep. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a toy commercial; but, as Nathaniel put it in his review, “Who cares? It’s wonderful!” Besides, it’s one thing to have a hard-core branding effort for some new plaything that nobody wants or needs, and quite another to have a feature-length advertisement for a 65-year-old icon that’s the best-selling toy in history. Lego doesn’t need The Lego Movie.
Still and all, the fact remains that there’s a mercenary heart beneath the film: not only selling Legos, but selling multimedia franchises controlled by Warner Bros. on top of it. This is done painlessly, even cleverly, and that tends to make it harmless; and in this respect, The Lego Movie represents a striking break from the history of cartoon-as-advertisement. For the most part, previous examples of this commercial impulse have been, in fact, unusually painful, dumb, and harmful .
This particular genie was let out of the bottle by 1969’s Hot Wheels TV show, showcasing what was then a one-year-old toy car line. It was such a new concept, and so petrifying in its implications, that complaints were filed with the FCC over the undocumented ad time pretending to be children’s entertainment. Complaints were not, to my knowledge, filed with the FCC over the hypnotically stiff animation, simplistic and limited even by the low standards of ‘60s television. I’ll confess to having never seen an episode in its entirety (nobody who wasn’t around to catch it when it was new has ever really been in a position to see it in its entirety), but some generous soul uploaded a 10-minute clip to YouTube, letting us all see the magic for ourselves. My hat is off to anyone able to watch the entire thing; I cashed out around 90 seconds in.
The real glut of toy cartoons hit in the 1980s, though, lead by the example of the infamous He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, a show and toy line conceived alongside one another. Something of a barbarian-themed Tom of Finland: The Series for 7-year-olds, the franchise had the good fortune to appear right alongside the explosive popularity of the sword-and-sorcery genre in the wake of 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, and remains one of the great focal points of ‘80s nostalgia. I presume this nostalgia – which, for many years, I shared in – exists only among those who haven’t watched the show in a couple of decades, because it is dreadful. The entire run of the show, and its spin-off She-Ra: Princess of Power (involving dresses and sparkles, because Mattel’s idea of toys for girls was as reductive as its idea for toys for boys) is available on YouTube, and I do not recommend watching it.
Things exploded after He-Man: Hasbro got in on the act in 1984 with a special based on their My Little Pony line, with G.I. Joe and Transformers series quick to follow (all three brands ended up having theatrical movies within a couple of years). The most ridiculous extremes are undoubtedly the Care Bears and Rainbow Bright franchises, owned, respectively, by American Greetings and Hallmark – we have here not just cartoons designed to sell toys, but cartoons designed to sell toys based on greeting cards.
The end of the ‘80s and the ‘90s saw the action figure lose favor to the video game, and so it was that there was a small universe of Nintendo-based cartoons (to the Legend of Zelda fan of a certain age, I offer without context the line “Well, excuuuuuse me, princess!”) and a Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon that at least had the merit of a cast full of reasonably gifted voice actors.
Not all of these shows are equally dreadful in conception or execution – Sonic is comparatively quite decent, for one, and Transformers holds up fairly well, if only by comparison with the Michael Bay features that found a way to have less realistic human behavior than a 24-minute sci-fi action show for children. They are, however, all very contemptuous of their audience’s imagination, and ability to absorb images that aren't disgusting to look at.
And so, back to The Lego Movie... a film that understands something about toys that not a single one of its predecessors does: playtime is fun, and creative, and expansive. It’s not about running the same characters through the same boilerplate scenarios episode after episode, but about finding constantly new things to do with them. There are other reasons that the film works, but this is, to me, the most special: it’s not selling toys as a product, but toys as an experience to be enjoyed and shared.