This fascinating article from last week illuminated an otherwise unnoticed fact – that over the last few decades, the faces printed on Lego minifigures have been getting steadily more angry and intense. Those cute little plastic guys, population 4 billion and rising, who for a long time faced the world with a uniform array of sweet smiles have succumbed to the creeping angst of a 21st Century obsessed with dystopia and inner turmoil. Is nothing sacred? Is there no refuge from the seeming relentless push towards “dark and edgy” as the only virtues in our entertainment, no matter its form?
My first Lego set came my way when Jimmy Carter was still President; it was a Space set featuring a tiny wedge-shaped ship, controlled by a steering wheel, mounted on a launch vehicle, and it included a single red-suited spaceman, happy at the prospect of the adventures he was certain to have with me. Shortly thereafter Lego became my toy of choice – forget Transformers, G.I. Joes or whatever else, if that wrapped Christmas present didn’t manifest the trademark rattle when shaken it was bound to be disappointment on the morning of December 25th. With birthdays and other special occasions my armada grew to include astronauts in white and yellow, and eventually (once the line expanded) blue and black. And darn it if those little guys weren’t always cheerful. Even when Lego went a step further and introduced the first “bad guys” of Lego Space – Blacktron – beneath those ominous dark-shielded helmets could be found the same delightful grin. The same went for the Town and Castle lines.
Kids grow up, of course, and Lego falls by the wayside… until 1998 and Lego Freakin’ Star Wars drops. By then I’m handling my own discretionary spending and so set after set gets snapped up to the detriment of my income but to the benefit of recapturing childhood glee. But the minifigures have changed. Their faces have been customized to better suit the Star Wars characters. Leia has eyelashes and lipstick, Han has a little wry smirk. Luke Skywalker looks rather dour with a very even, mature expression more suited to the way Mark Hamill looks now than his A New Hope variant. As the line prospers, pieces are refined and more and more sets are released, with the minifigures continuing to evolve alongside them, finally trading in their trademark yellow hue for tones borrowed from the actors who played the characters. And many of them are downright grumpy. A few of the nameless officers still sport the crescent-moon grin, as though working for the Galactic Empire or the Rebellion respectively is the most awesomest job ever, but the more famous characters are all pretty darned serious. And this is only Star Wars – this isn’t considering Batman, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter or the Lego City lines or innumerable others where often, minifigures look pissed off, as if someone has completely ruined their wonderful little plastic day. (We won’t get into the replacement of megaphones with blaster pistols for the Stormtroopers’ weapons, that’s another conversation).
So, is Lego driving this trend or is it merely responding to the downward (emotionally speaking, that is) trend in popular taste? Whenever you hear about a new movie or television series being pitched, the makers’ first comment is usually that it’s “dark and edgy,” almost as a reflex response. It’s what’s in – presumably, a “bright and sunny” film would be laughed out of the room. We have seen countless remakes and reimaginings where otherwise optimistic tales are “darkened” for public consumption. And yet, there is obviously an appetite for optimism that is desperate to be satisfied, growing ever hungrier every time “dark and edgy” sighs its way onto our screens again. We saw evidence of this appetite in recent years with the brony phenomenon coming out of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where otherwise-angst-consumed teens and adults embraced a colorful children’s cartoon that emphasized the importance of kindness in all things. We want to feel happy, yet our entertainment producers keep shoving melancholy down our throats, and we swallow it willingly, trying to ignore the sting of the razor blade as it rattles its way down into our stomachs.
Lego is hedging their bets somewhat, as it often prints Janus-like heads with two different expressions, one serene and one more intense, that can be rotated depending on the mood of play. Part of what made the original smiling minifigure so endearing, however, was that no matter what horrific fate might befall him – usually bisection in a spaceship crash, if we’re going by my experience – he came through it with unflappable joy and spunk, ready to be reassembled for more. No matter what kind of day you’d had, if you’d flunked a test or been shoved into the locker again by that mean kid twice your size, when you shuffled back into your room your Lego men were always smiling at you and standing ever ready to help you explore the very limits of your imagination. Maybe there are limits to what a bunch of little plastic guys can teach a kid, but the attitude of the classic minifigure – embracing challenge with positivity no matter what the circumstance – is worth preserving and passing along. Let’s save the angst until high school at least.