Literary Lego

An Irishman’s Diary about a possible gap in the toy market

‘I was strangely in sympathy with The Lego Movie’s bad guy, who wants to curb all the anarchy and stick everything together. That apart, I was on the film’s side generally in its attempts to champion a now old-fashioned toy.’

‘I was strangely in sympathy with The Lego Movie’s bad guy, who wants to curb all the anarchy and stick everything together. That apart, I was on the film’s side generally in its attempts to champion a now old-fashioned toy.’

Thu, Feb 20, 2014, 01:00

Although he was famously born in Rathgar’s Brighton Square, which is of course not a square but a triangle, James Joyce spent a slightly longer part of his childhood in Rathmines, just around the corner from where the Swan Cinema is now.

I was reminded of this at the weekend while bringing my children to The Lego Movie , at the same cinema. We had aimed for 3.30 showing, which was in plain old 2D (a bonus, as far as I was concerned). But that was sold out, so not only did we have to await the next screening, which was in 3D, forcing us to buy yet another pair of disposable glasses to go with the 50 or so at home, we also had an hour to kill first.

So back out in Rathmines, which, as always, was appearing in brash, surround-sound 4D, I took the kids for a short walking tour, with historical commentary, where possible.

As with many Irish people, this suburb was my earliest introduction to the city. But apart from a few unchanging landmarks, such as the Town Hall, the library, and McDonald’s, it’s barely recognisable now from ye olde worlde Rathmines I remember, circa 1985.

It’s still as garish and grotty as ever, in ways both good and bad. It’s just that most of the details have changed. Even the venerable 24-hour shop on the corner with Ardee Road – the first all-nighter in Dublin, if I remember correctly – is something else now.

Urban development proved to be a sub-theme of The Lego Movie too, as it happened. Without giving the plot away, the film’s moral is that too much planning control is bad, creative anarchy good. Suffice to say that children and nostalgic, pre-crash property developers will both love it.

But the film’s main hero is of course Lego itself. And it’s funny how that has become a good cause. In its early years, during the middle of the last century, it had its critics, partly because it was plastic and therefore bad. Some people thought it could never replace proper, wooden toys. But its Danish makers knew otherwise, and by the time I was born, it was an established classic.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Lego myself. As a child, I found the bricks a bit ugly. And as an adult I find them – all too often – with my bare feet, while going to the bathroom in the morning. In general, fatherhood has taught me to hate all playthings that come in a thousand little pieces, as opposed to one large one, which is my preferred model.

So I was strangely in sympathy with The Lego Movie ’s bad guy, who wants to curb all the anarchy and stick everything together. That apart, I was on the film’s side generally in its attempts to champion a now old-fashioned toy.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite share the enthusiasm of the reviewers. Yes, it’s remarkable that they made an entertaining film at all from characters that can’t form facial expressions. But despite its own moral, and clever scripting, there was a sense as the film went on that it was being assembled from a Hollywood kit, with all the usual feel-good conclusions in place eventually.

It’s not a patch on the peerless Toy Story series, with which it invites comparison. Both suggest that toys have a secret life, although crucially, in Toy Story , they have a life of their own, whereas the Lego characters remain subservient to human imagination. Maybe that’s the difference.

But it’s an unfair comparison, I know. The Toy Story films were a level above anything else in latter-day animation. In fact, they outdid even my other all-time favourite film franchise, The Godfather , by having a Part 3 that was just as good as the first two.

Anyway, back on Rathmines Road afterwards, I wondered about the influence of Lego on the generations of its users who grew up to be architects. The design of McDonald’s (to the Rathmines branch of which the children were urgently drawing my attention), for example: that must definitely have been by a Lego enthusiast.

And the other thing I wondered about was whether Lego Inc, despite its commitment to anarchy, might ever consider introducing special historical editions, for adults, to be built once and then left that way.

It strikes me, for example, that there might be a niche market for a Lego version of James Joyce’s Dublin. It would be a special edition in more ways than one, what with triangular squares, and all that. And naturally it would come with a copy of Ulysses as an instruction manual. Then, finally, enthusiasts could test Joyce’s claim that, if it ever proved necessary, the 1904 city could be reconstructed from his pages, brick by brick.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

@FrankmcnallyIT

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