“The 40th Anniversary of the Lego Minifigure” by S.M. O’Connor

In 2018, The LEGO® Group is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the LEGO® Minifigure™.  Originally, there were twenty Minifigure™ characters.  In the intervening years, The LEGO® Group has developed 8,000 different Minifigure™ characters.  The Minifigure™ was part of the System within the System created by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, who is the grandson of company founder Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891-1958).  [The LEGO® Group refers to all LEGO® toys, including LEGO® bricks, LEGO® Minifigures,™ tires, gears, weapons, hats, helmets, hair pieces, and capes as elements.]  A LEGO® Minifigure™ is a toy person or other being (plastic doll) with horizontally rotating head and vertically rotating arms and legs.  It comes in four pieces (1) the head, (2) the torso, (3) the legs, and (4) a hairpiece, a helmet, or hat.  Without a hairpiece, hat, or helmet, a Minifigure™ is equivalent to four stacked LEGO® bricks.  This way, a builder can place a Minifigure™ can stand in a LEGO® building, and fits perfectly in the LEGO® System.  Some figures also come with a fifth piece, a beard, and/or a sixth piece, a cape.  These pieces are interchangeable, so a customer can create his or her own unique figure if he or she so chooses.  [As an example, I know a fan of David Tennant’s run as the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who and this fellow created a figure of the Tenth Doctor.]  The feet and legs are compatible with the studs on LEGO® bricks and bases.  Thus, they can stand on bases outside of, as well as in or on, LEGO® brick buildings.  They can also sit in LEGO® chairs.  LEGO® Minifigure™ hands are compatible with other LEGO® elements.  One can snap anything from a spear to shovel to a goblet in the hands of a LEGO® Minifigure™.

Removing any doubt about the political mindset of its executives, in a press release, The LEGO® Group stated, “Did you know the traditional yellow colour of the LEGO minifigure’s head was chosen based on focus group feedback in the early and mid-1970s saying this was preferable to white ones?  Since then, minifigures have become increasingly diverse – from the first figures with natural skin tone in 2003 (Lando Calrissian from Star Wars and NBA basketball players) to 2016’s inaugural wheelchair.  LEGO minifigures have also done their bit for unstereotyping gender roles with the likes of female firefighters and ninjas, through to fathers equipped with baby carriers.  In fact, the whole point of minifigures is they let children create and be anyone they want – male or female, helmet or hair, freckles or glasses, anything.  And if you’re worried about our robotic friends, don’t be.  There have been plenty of C-3POs and R2D2s (not to mention other robots) too.”

To create a single Minifigure™ requires the use of eight molds.  Two of them are identical in design but reversed to mold the right and left limbs.  The molds in use today are almost identical to the original molds from 1978, with the result that Minifnigures™ acquired at any point over the past forty years can be mixed and matched with new Minifigures™.  [A father, uncle, or elder brother can pass a collection of Minifigures™ accumulated in his boyhood to his children, his nephews or nieces, or his younger siblings and they can incorporate his old Minifigures™ with new LEGO® sets they receive as gifts or buy themselves.  Also, an adult who wants to create large-scale tableaux now can do so with a combination of Minifigures™ he (or she) received or acquired in his (or her) youth can combine them with Minifnigures™ from new sets or Collectible Minifigures™.]  One thing that has changed in the intervening years is the number of elements that each mold can produce, as well as the speed and scale of production.  As an example, the Minifigure™ head mold manufacture has improved from a rate of eight elements per 9.8 seconds to 128 elements per 14/7 seconds today.

The precursor to the LEGO® Minifigure™ was the LEGO® family introduced in 1974.  Set #200 included five family members: grandmother, father, mother, daughter, and son.  These figures had brick bodies, arms that rotated both vertically and horizontally (which is more realistic than the LEGO® Minifigure’s arms that only rotate vertically) with yellow ring-like hands, interchangeable yellow heads, and interchangeable hair pieces.  The problem with these figures is that they were too large to be compatible with the LEGO® City product line.  Another preliminary step toward the introduction of the LEGO® Minifugure™ came in 1975 with the introduction of a figure of the right scale that had a blank yellow head, a torso with stumps that suggested arms, and a single solid piece that represented a pair of legs.

Jens Nygård Knudson led the team that developed the LEGO® Minifigure™.  They went through fifty-one stages of development over a period of three years.  In 1978, the company introduced the LEGO® Minifigure™ with Set #600, a policeman who came with a buildable LEGO® brick police patrol car.  The LEGO Group received an American patent on the LEGO® Minifigure™ in 1979.

LEGO® Pirates was the first theme (product line) to be introduced with Minifigures™ that had diverse printed faces instead of the standard Minifigure™ smiley face.  A number of the Minifigures™ had beards and/or mustaches. Some had eyepatches.  There was also a Lady Pirate with lipstick.   This was the first theme (product line) to be introduced with clearly demarcated heroes and villains because the theme pitted pirates against the militaries of colonial empires and Polynesians in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean.  [By contrast, LEGO® Castle had armies arrayed against each other from the very beginning, but it was up to each individual child to decide which army he championed.  There were no clear-cut villains with LEGO® Castle until the Wolfpack Renegades appeared on store shelves in 1992.]  The Imperial Soldiers represent the French, the Imperial Guards represent the British, and the Imperial Armada represent the Spanish.

 

Minifigure-prototypes-from-min-19751978

 

Figure 1 Credit: The LEGO® Group Caption: These are prototypes of the LEGO® Minifigures.

Some-of-the-first-LEGO-minifigures-launched-in-1978Figure 2 Credit: The LEGO® Group Caption: The LEGO® Group introduced Minifigures in 1978.  These five Minifgures represented three product lines: LEGOLAND® Town, LEGOLAND® Space, and LEGOLAND® Castle.  From left to right, we have a Classic Astronaut from LEGOLAND® Space, a policeman and a doctor or nurse from LEGOLAND® Town, a foot soldier from the Yellow Castle in LEGOLAND® Castle, and the Fire Chief from LEGOLAND® Town.

Some-of-the-first-minifigures-launched-in-1978-with-transportationFigure 3 Credit: The LEGO® Group Caption: These three LEGOLAND® Town Minifigures – a fireman, a policeman, and a doctor –or is she a paramedic or is she a nurse? – paired with motor vehicles from 1978: a fire chief’s car, a police car, and an ambulance.

Early-prototypes-first-and-more-recent-police-minifiguresFigure 4 Credit: The LEGO® Group Caption: This picture demonstrates the evolution of the LEGO® Minifigure police officer from an English bobby to a mid-20th Century policeman to a modern policewoman and policeman with realistic details printed on their chests.

 

Early-prototypes-first-and-more-recent-minifigure-doctorsFigure 5 Credit: The LEGO® Group Caption: This picture demonstrates the evolution of the LEGO® Minifigure physician

Early-prototypes-first-and-more-recent-space-minifiguresFigure 6 Credit: The LEGO® Group Caption: This picture demonstrates the evolution of the LEGO® Minifigure astronaut.

LEGO-building-figure-from-1974-stage-extra-from-1975-and-minifigure-from-1978-2Figure 7 Credit: The LEGO® Group Caption: This picture depicts the evolution from the LEGO® building figure to the Minifigure.

3Figure 8 Credits: Courtesy of The LEGO Group Caption: In the first castle set in the LEGOLAND® Castle theme (as it was originally known), eight Minifigures™ bore the Yellow Castle flag’s crown on their breastplates and shields.  Later Minifigures had emblems printed directly on their chests.  Most infantrymen have a helmet that has a nose guard and flares out to protect the neck.

9Figure 9 Credits: Courtesy of The Lego Group Caption: The first Pirates chief was Captain Roger (a.k.a. Captain Redbeard).  Like him, Captain Ironhook, Captain Brickbeard, Pirate Captain, and the Zombie Pirate all have an eyepatch, a peg leg, a hook, and a bicorn hat with the Jolly Roger.

LEGOminifigure40_infographic_JPEG

Figure 10 Credit: The LEGO® Group Caption: This is a 40th Anniversary LEGO® Minifigure Milestones Infographic.

In 1990, the first specialized Minifigure™ and glow-in-the-dark element were introduced – the ghost.  Introduced in 1990 in two LEGO® Castle sets, Black Monarch’s Ghost (Set #6034) and the Set #6081 (King’s Mountain Fortress), the Ghost Minifigure™ had a black head; white hands, arms, and torso; and waxy white glow-in-the-dark cowl.  Originally, Ghost Minifigures™ had a white brick instead of legs, but starting in 1997, Ghosts had white legs.

That same year, The LEGO® Group introduced the first Minifigure™ with a dress.  The maiden or princess character who came with King’s Mountain Fortress was the first female Minifigure™ to have a backwards-facing slope brick (instead of having a pair of legs) in order to represent her dress.

In 1993, The LEGO® Group introduced the first beard-and-mustache piece. The beard element slipped down the neck, fitting between the torso and head elements.[1]  This came with a wizard in the LEGO® Castle theme. Majisto, one of the first Minifigures™ to have a name, led the Dragon Masters army, and had a blue pointed hat to match his torso and legs, glow-in-the-dark magic wand, and white beard, all of which were new elements.

In 1999, The LEGO® Group introduced the first licensed Minifigure™ with the LEGO® Star Wars™ theme (product line).[2]  For the first time, the Minifigure™ to be sculpted into a different shape.

Many of the Minifigure™ heads now have two expressions, one on the front and another on the back that will be hidden behind the hair, helmet, or hat, as seen with Good Cop / Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson) in The LEGO Movie (2014).  Introduced in 2001, this is called a reversible head.

The next year, 2001, saw the introduction of a LEGO® Star Wars™ Yoda with short legs,  Ever since, designers could incorporate short legs into Minifnigures™ that represented children, dwarfs, and Santa’s elves.

In 2003, for the first time, a Minifigure™ existed authentic skin color instead of a yellow head with LEGO® Basketball (2003-2005) a subtheme of LEGO® Sports (1998-2005) that was made under license from the National Basketball Association.  These Minifigures™ even had hair printed on their heads.  From 2004 onward, licensed Minifigures™ no longer had yellow heads and hands.

In 2007, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Star Wars (1977) – which George Lucas re-titled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in 1981– The LEGO® Group manufactured 10,000 gold-chrome C-3PO Minifigures™ packed in random LEGO® sets.

Introduced in 2009, Microfigures stands just two bricks high.  Initially, they came only with LEGO® Games, but the new 6,020-piece LEGO® Harry Potter™ Hogwarts™ Castle (Set #71043) comes with four Minifigures™ and twenty-seven Microfigures.

In 2010, The LEGO® Group introduced the Collectible Minifigure™ theme (product line) in which individual Minifigures™ are sold in sealed mystery bags.  One never knows what one will get.  The LEGO® Group hoped collectors would trade Collectible Minifigures™ they did not want for those they did, but in practice collectors sell the Collectible Minifigures™ they do not want or managed to acquire for financial speculation.

By 2014, The LEGO® Group had manufactured 5,000,000,000 Minifigures™.  Two years later, The LEGO Group introduced the first baby figure.  Technically, this figure is compatible with Minifigures™ but is not itself a Minifigure™, though it has the head, arms, and hands of a Minifigure™.   That same year, 2016, saw the introduction of the first wheelchair for a Minfigure™.  There are over 650 Minifigure™ heads available in 2018.

 

Digital Minifigures

 

In 1997, The LEGO® Group introduced digital Minifigures™ with the videogame LEGO Island.  Produced by Tinseltown Films, LEGO: The Adventures of Clutch Powers (2010) was a direct-to-video released on D.V.D. in 2010.  This is an adventure story that sees hero Clutch Powers and his companions go from a modern environment representative of LEGO® City to a prison in outer space representative of LEGO® Space to a planet with medieval European technology representative of LEGO® Castle.  The story freely combines science fiction and fantasy as the villain who escaped from prison is a wizard.  The name of the hero is a joke.  LEGO® bricks are held together by the clutch power created by the combination of the studs atop a LEGO® brick with the tubes inside the brick above it.  There are a few jokes and allusions to movies that parents, uncles and aunts, or elder siblings watching this film with little children may appreciate, but it is very much aimed at little children.  The film features the voices of Ryan McPartlin (Chuck), Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck), Roger Rose, Jeff Glen Bennett, Paul Michael Glaser, Gregg Berger, Christopher Emerson, and Alex Desert.

Under license from Lucasfilm, The LEGO Group has produced a few 3D C.G.I. (computer-generated imagery) short films.  Treehouse Animation made LEGO Star Wars: Revenge of the Brick (2005), a short film that aired on the Cartoon Network in 2005, the same year that 20th Century Fox released Revenge of the Sith. It took a tongue-in-cheek at the Battle of Kashyyk.  Peter Pedersen directed the M2Film production Lego Star Wars: The Quest for R2-D2 (2009), which aired on the Cartoon Network in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the LEGO® Star Wars™ theme.  It was also a sequel of sorts to Pedersen’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Brick (2008), which combined elements of all four Indiana Jones films (with a few Star Wars jokes thrown in).  The plot followed characters from the C.G.I animated television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Mr. Pedersen also directed the M2Film production Lego Star Wars: The Bombad Bounty (2010), which aired on the Cartoon Network.  Darth Vader hires Boba Fett to kill Jar Jar Binks.  The running gag in Bombad Bounty was that Jar Jar Binks was accidentally responsible for things going wrong for the villains such as the destruction of the first Death Star in Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Boba Fett’s death in Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), but, because it is a children’s cartoon, Fett and Vader are still alive in the end.  Indiana Jones appeared in both of Pedersen’s Lego Star Wars films.

Michael Price, a writer and producer of The PJs (1999-2001) and The Simpsons, wrote and produced Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace (2011), which aired on the Cartoon Network.   The plot involves Yoda and substitute teachers C-3PO and R2-D2 rescuing Jedi Academy younglings from the Sith.  Price established a new continuity for these cartoons, sort of like the way John Favreau’s Ironman (2008) became the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, quite apart from the earlier Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man films.  The cartoons are aimed at small children, but are full of meta-fictional humor that appeals to adults and teenagers watching the cartoons with their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, or younger siblings.  Several voice actors and actresses who had provided voices for Clone Wars, reprised their roles for The Padawan Menace.  Anthony Daniels also reprised his role.  Ever since The Padawan Menace, Daniels has provided the voice of C-3PO for LEGO Star Wars short films.

Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out (2012) aired on the Cartoon Network.  Kenneth Colley, who played Admiral Piett (the commander of Darth’s flagship Super Star Destroyer The Executor) in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi reprised the role to provide the voice of Admiral Piett.  Likewise, Julian Glover, who played General Veers (the commander of Lord Vader’s ground forces) in The Empire Strikes Back, provide the voice of General Veers.  Brian Blessed, who provided the voice of C.G.I. character Boss Nass in The Phantom Menace, provided the voice for this cartoon.  Ahmed Best provided the voice of Jar Jar Binks yet again for The Empire Strikes Out.  Luke Skywalker had to contend with fans hampering a mission as a result of becoming a famous “Death-Star-Blower-Upper.”  Meanwhile, Darth Vader had to contend with a “Sith-ling” rivalry when Darth Maul showed up.

More recently, the format has changed to one miniseries of short films per season on cable television (and streaming on Netflix).  The three-part LEGO Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles aired on the Cartoon Network in 2013.  A new character created just for LEGO® Star Wars™, Jek-14, a Sith-enhanced clone trooper made by Count Douku, debuted in “The Phantom Clone” episode of The Yoda Chronicles.   Starting with The Yoda Chronicles, Billy Dee Williams, who played Lando Calrissian in the original trilogy, has provided the voice of an adult Lando and his father, Lindo, in flashbacks.  He also provided the voice of Lando in The LEGO Movie (2014).  The four-part Star Wars: The New Yoda Chronicles aired on Disney Junior in 2014.  The miniseries dealt with Jek-14 joining the Rebels and Yoda and the Emperor fighting for decades over the Jedi Temple’s collection of holocrons (digital/holographic books used by the Jedi and Sith to preserve knowledge).  LEGO Star Wars: Droid Tales (2015), a five-part miniseries aired on Disney XD.  C-3PO retells events from the whole saga (Episodes I-VI), plus the cartoon Star Wars Rebels.

Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu is a Danish-Canadian 3D C.G.I. animated series produced by Wil Films ApS and The LEGO® Group and shown in the U.S.A. on The Cartoon Network since 2011.  It is now in its ninth season.  This is the second of three cartoon shows dedicated to a LEGO® theme, LEGO® Ninjago, and the first to be dedicated to a non-licensed theme.  As with The Adventures of Clutch Powers, it is aimed squarely at children.

LEGO® Friends (2014-2016) was a four-season-long streaming series with four-minute- long episodes.  LEGO® Friends: The Grand Hotel (2015) was a short film.  On March 4, 2016, Netflix released LEGO® Friends (2016). Episodes are twenty-two minutes in length.  All of these programs are aimed at young girls.  My eldest niece found them entertaining.

Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, The LEGO® Movie was a 3D (three-dimensional) C.G.I. animated film released by Warner Brothers Pictures.  It featured the voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, the aforementioned Liam Neeson, and Morgan Freeman. This is a film for the whole family that is not simply funny, it is poignant and can bring some parents or other adult caregivers to tears or the brink of tears.  Warner Animation Group made the film with a budget of $60,000,000 and it made $469,000,000.  It was the first in a series of films.  The LEGO® Batman Movie (2017) was a stand-alone, spin-off comedy with Will Arnett’s LEGO® Batman character.  It also featured the voices of Zach Galifanakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Héctor Elizondo, Eddie Izzard, and Mariah Carey. This is another film for the whole family that has many funny moments, but also has troubling aspects.  That same year, The LEGO® Ninjago Movie (2017) was also released.  It featured the voices of Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, Olivia Munn, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, and Jackie Chan.  This was another Warner Brothers production.  The LEGO® Movie: The Second Part (2019) will be released in February of 2019.  These film are essentially love letters to, and commercials for, the Minifigure™.

 

ENDNOTES

 

[1] These hats and beards would reappear later in LEGO® Harry Potter™ and LEGO® The Lord of the Rings™ sets.

[2]  Introduced in 1999 in time for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), LEGO® Star Wars™ (stylized LEGO® STAR WARS™) is the first and longest-lasting licensed LEGO® theme.  In addition to LEGO® construction toy sets, the theme has also included cartoon shows, video games, books, and other products.  Originally, most of the sets were related to the prequel trilogy, as those three films were being released at the time, and The LEGO Group released sets inspired by the first trilogy under the subtheme Classic Star Wars.  The LEGO Group and Lucasfilm unveiled the theme at the International Toy Fair in New York City in February of 1999.  However, the license was extended, thus far, three times to lapse 2011, then to lapse in 2016, and (in 2012) to lapse in 2022. Reflecting The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, the Disney name appears on newer LEGO® Star Wars™ sets (as with LEGO® Disney Princesses™).   The first three LEGO® Star Wars™ sets in the LEGO® TECHNIC theme were released in 2000.  The first two LEGO® Star Wars™ Ultimate Collector’s Series (U.C.S.) sets were also released in 2000.

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