Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
There’s something odd hitting the Cartoon Network this weekend—a TV special entitled “Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace.” The Lego Star Wars games have been amazingly successful, particularly given their rather weird premise of making movie scenes playable in a world that follows the rules of Legos and the Force simultaneously. But while animations based on Lego Star Wars are nothing new, they’re usually short humor pieces like the Quest for R2 D2. While Star Wars, like many of the series dominating pop culture in the past decades, presents an epic battle with the fate of the galaxy at stake, the Lego adaptations find the humor in the series.
The levels of adaptation at work in a Lego Star Wars tv special are pretty staggering—from film, to Lego set, to video game, and back again to television. The Lego characters have apparently achieved a life of their own, independent of the actors who made the roles famous. When we talk about transmedia storytelling, we’re often not talking about the good kind. We spend a lot of time on adaptations: consider, for instance, the Harry Potter franchise. The movies were not a supplement but a retelling—while there is a different experience in each case, it doesn’t really extend the narrative. It transforms it, but much is kept faithful.
On the other hand, something like Star Wars has developed an incredible range of outlets for storytelling. The novels explore stories that move long past the limited chronology of the films, extending the canon of the narrative into directions that would never have been suited to film. This is the key of transmedia. The new form offers opportunities to extend the narrative, so the complete experience is best enjoyed across them.
So, why is the Lego Star Wars TV Show interesting? There’ve certainly been a number of games made into shows and movies, often with disastrous results. And adding more layers of conversion isn’t always a good thing. Just ask the Transformers series.
The inclusion of Lego characters among the many animated TV programs Star Wars has spawned is in part building upon what fans have been doing with their Legos for years. Remember playing out stories with your lego figures? I certainly did—long before the characters were associated with franchises or stories in any recognizable way. Fan videos often take a stop motion approach and extend that idea of play: some recreate scenes, while others tap into the rich fanon or opportunities for parody. Check out the “Star Wars Christmas Special”, Lego-style.
And in case you’ve forgotten – yes, this is definitely better than the original Star Wars Holiday Special. The whole thing is up (illegally) on YouTube, but watching it is definitely an endurance test. Not all extended narratives are a good thing.
We’ve reached a moment of particular cultural nostalgia for the 80s—and by all accounts the 90s are next. Shows like My Little Pony, in what amounts to a reboot, are popping up alongside ads for the new Smurf movie. Some of these prospects are less horrifying than others, but in all cases it marks a time when the mainstream media is just as avid as the fan community to get their hands on classic icons and remake them in their own way. The Star Wars Lego special is another outlet of this desire. It might sell a few more video games, but probably not. The Lego Star Wars video game franchise was already a defining success of the series.
Star Wars keeps good company in the Lego series, which has stuck to adaptations of colossal hits. As a business model, it makes sense, but there’s also a method to the process. Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean—all of these boast characters so iconic that their peculiar personalities are easy to invoke, even in the peculiar faces of the cylindrical-headed Lego men and women. While nearly all the series that Lego has adapted involve some level of humor, they also involve high stakes: big quests, epic battles, heroic measures. All of which are fuel for comedy, as movies like Spaceballs and Galaxy Quest have already taken advantage of. The Lego franchise has become a systematized opportunity for parody, and an outlet for the humor inherent in the most epic of adventures.
The brilliance of the Lego franchises is in achieving what most movie-tie in games fail to achieve: a distinct role in the transmedia experience through metahumor and self-mockery. The cut scenes play like nearly-silent films, often parodying outright the series or drama within a moment. (Take, for instance, the death of Cedric Diggory in the fourth “book” of the Lego Harry Potter game. The solemnity of the scene is undermined as Dumbledore pulls out the instruction manual for putting together minifigs and offers it reassuringly to Cedric’s father.
While we appear to have seen the last of the Harry Potter films, we haven’t seen the end of the Harry Potter Lego series. Despite a darkness that would seem to be out of place in the Lego universe, the game appears to be coming in November:
But then, perhaps taking the final chapter of Harry Potter into the land of Lego will lighten it up a bit, just as Yoda’s battle against the Sith in “The Padawan Menace.” Certainly, Lego has built themselves a brand to rival most empires, and this in an era where physical toys could too easily become passé. As we continue to celebrate the epic—and with The Hobbit on the way and Game of Thrones ruling HBO, there’s plenty to rejoice in—let’s hope Lego and others keep the sense of humor to continue to pull our favorite popular myths into new dimensions.