How ‘The LEGO Movie’ Gets Crass Product Placement Right

By  · Published on February 8th, 2014

Something I always try to remember when annoyed with product placement is that our whole, real world is itself filled with product placement. It’s just that there’s a level to its presence that we tolerate, and anything beyond that level in a movie is where we get uncomfortable. We don’t talk to each other in sales pitches, for instance, the way Laura Linney does to Jim Carrey, satirically, in The Truman Show. But we see products and are conscious of them as such every single day. We see LEGOs in any child’s playroom or pediatrician’s waiting area or Star Wars fanboy movie critic’s office. They’re as much a staple of life as the Mac computer I’m typing on or the can of Coke Zero I’m drinking or the nameless but recognizable trademark of Polo Ralph Lauren on the sweatshirt I’m wearing.

The LEGO Movie is more than mere product placement, though. The whole thing involves a world made out of the product. It’s like that classic Tootsie Roll commercial where everything is made out of Tootsie Rolls. Hershey has done a number over the years featuring worlds of chocolate, too. But those are commercials, and The LEGO Movie is not. It’s something we pay to see rather than something paid for in order for us to see it. Still, the world of the product idea makes it kind of okay. We’re not seeing our world invaded by life-size versions of the product, a la Transformers. We’re seeing a different universe, more akin to seeing a version of A Christmas Carol starring Disney characters or Muppets characters. Only this is an original story starring LEGO characters.

Of course, if you want to see A Christmas Carol starring LEGOs, there are a few on YouTube that you can watch. And that’s another point for The LEGO Movie. It’s kind of a big-budget fan film, not unlike the amateur variety found online or even LEGO’s other official works that go direct to video. The difference, besides the greater cost, is the greater talent of the fans (namely writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller). The primary reason that The LEGO Movie is getting such positive reviews and such a high Cinemascore grade and is making so much money is because, first and foremost, it’s made well. It has an imaginative script with jokes that work for multiple ages and senses of humor, and the animation is clever, easy to follow and rendered perfectly with photoreal CG and an innovative modeling program.

One of the aspects of the quality script that seems to be elevating it for a lot of people is the heart. I honestly don’t see the fundamental concept of the product placement here as being much different than Battleship, though I’d call that more of an adaptation of its product than The LEGO Movie is, even if both incorporate their toy’s basic premise (Battleship’s coordinate strategy; LEGO’s instruction-driven constructions) in a similarly creative manner. What faults Battleship (and I’m one of the first to admit I enjoyed it anyway) is its dumb and indifferent script, while what The LEGO Movie has going for it is a smart and genuinely heartfelt script, especially in the third act, which takes an interesting turn that I suppose shouldn’t be spoiled here.

It helps that the LEGO brand has an essence and significance to it that is easily linked to heart (Battleship’s essence is war and explosions, so its movie could not come down to succeeding with a sentimental plot). Great product placement, whether paid for or not, is that which gets at the extra-textual meaning of the product or brand. The way Coca-Cola signifies capitalism and imperialism for One, Two, Three, Goodbye Lenin! and The Gods Must Be Crazy. The way Costco represents a kind of exclusive, boxed-in yet all-in-one world, paralleled with Ben Stiller’s town in The Watch. The way Facebook’s social detachment figures in both fitting and ironic ways with the mostly true plot dealing with an unsociable protagonist in The Social Network.

LEGO’s connotative brand identity is, rather simply, about play. It’s worth noting that the very first movie LEGO sponsored is a 1986 documentary by Jorgen Leth titled Moments of Play, which is just a look at real activities of play around the world, such as dancing and sports and other games. Chaptered titles go further to designate ideas associated with general play but also LEGO, such as creating, building, dreaming, exploring reality. The LEGO Movie celebrates both the order and the imagination that can go hand in hand with playing games or playing with toys, including LEGO. Regarding the imaginative side, it encourages straying from the instructions, which was something the LEGO playsets of my childhood always did (I’m unsure if they still do), often showing alternate building ideas on the back of the box.

Sure, LEGO had a good amount of control over the movie in order to showcase and protect their product as they saw fit (as a Businessweek report reveals, there could be no kissing, and also Lord and Miller kept testing how edgy was allowed). And sure, LEGO is hoping to sell a lot of their products as a result of the success of the movie, although much of that is merchandising specifically associated with the plot of the movie (LEGO Movie-branded LEGO sets, yes), which isn’t that different from most movies. Contrary to what Fox Business ludicrously thinks, The LEGO Movie isn’t anti-capitalistic whatsoever. If anything, its message of doing your own thing with their tools over only having a single dictated option is very free-market-friendly. The villainous President Business isn’t a symbol of business in general so much as greedy business and monopolism. The only way they could have made that more obvious would have been to feature a Mega Blocks cameo.

There are plenty of other cameos of other product properties, from superheroes to movies to household items like Krazy Glue. Many are licensed or owned by Warner Bros. and/or LEGO, but that’s besides the point. The LEGO Movie isn’t about promoting these things as much as it is about employing items that are common and universally recognizable to a broad movie audience. It gives a new meaning to the concept of product placement related to the significance of star texts in cinema (i.e. what we think of when we see certain movie stars in a movie, given their existence in terms of their broader public persona and familiarity). The LEGO Movie shows us a fantasy world we know through our play and imagination, and on top of that it shows us our real world, as it fosters the other.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.