Late last month it was announced that Sony Pictures Animation spent nearly a million dollars on the rights to a movie pitch revolving around Emoji, those colourful little icons inserted into text messages when mere words are not enough to convey how happy/sad/nonplussed you are right now. You’d be forgiven for thinking that doesn’t quite scream ‘gripping narrative’; while many Emoji, from the classic smiley face to the cheeky grinning poo, are anthropomorphic and could conceivably carry a story, just as many depict inanimate objects, including the cassette tape, the line graph, and the aubergine. On top of that, the characters such as they are have no established settings, personalities, or bodies below the neck. Have animation studios finally overreached in their search for hot properties to adapt?
Way back when The LEGO Movie was first announced, the twittersphere lit up with snide comments suggesting even more far-fetched adaptations. ‘What next, eh? The Playmobil Movie? The Angry Birds Movie? The Tetris Movie?’ Little did we know that, one brick-shaped box office smash later, Hollywood’s answer would be ‘all of the above’. It seems that after LEGO‘s critical and commercial success studios, and animation execs in particular, are willing to adapt any and every pre-existing property they can get their hands on, whether it has a built-in narrative or not. We may balk, but The LEGO Movie nevertheless stands as an example of animation’s uncanny ability to adapt the unadaptable.
Toys and games have been common subjects for animators since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan lifted restrictions on advertising content in children’s programming. The resulting shows — He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers — took their characters and plots from the toylines on which they were based. These shows were successful, but their ‘goodies vs baddies’ structures were simplistic and repetitive. In fact, it was LEGO’s lack of a predetermined narrative which provided a fertile ground for its unique thematic focus.
Adaptations, usually literary, have been a feature of cinema almost since its inception. Some early directors, however, saw little point in using the unique capabilities of film to recreate a story which originated in another medium. Fernand Léger, cubist painter and avant-garde filmmaker, wrote that “the idea of putting a novel on the screen is a fundamental mistake […] They [directors] sacrifice that wonderful thing, the ‘moving image,’ in order to inflict on us a story that would be better suited to a book.” The same could be applied to animation which faithfully adapts simplistic plots conceived for toylines, which clearly have completely different narrative demands from feature films.
The Lego Movie, then, succeeds in that it’s storyline (while knowingly derivative of ‘chosen one’ narratives such as The Matrix) isn’t adapted, because LEGO has no storyline to adapt. Instead, the filmmakers have chosen to adapt something more abstract, and seemingly more difficult to convey onscreen; the experience of play. The central conflict in the film is not between good and evil, but between order and chaos, invoking a choice every child with a LEGO set must make: do they build according to the instructions, or let their imaginations run wild? As in many of the toyline’s ‘themes’, the movie’s storyline is a loose structure designed to enable as diverse a range of building opportunities as possible, which are dramatised onscreen as lightning-paced bricklaying action sequences.
Animation is uniquely able to convey such experiential adaptation as it places the viewer not in the diegesis of the player, but in the imaginary world of the play. We watch the action unfold through the eye of the unseen child’s imagination, rather than spending 90 minutes watching a kid throw bricks around and make sound effects. The same logic will hopefully apply to the forthcoming adaptations I mentioned earlier; one imagines that Tetris and Angry Birds will consist of scenes other than a player hunched over an iPhone, swiping at the screen. Instead, we’ll get to experience the thrill of gameplay from within the world of the game; the mounting tension of clearing a crucial last-minute line, or the catharsis of knocking down an elaborate fortress with a well-placed canary.
It will be interesting to see how Sony’s Emoji attempts to build a plot around the experience of deliberating whether the basketball or the fried shrimp best expresses your current emotional state, but if The LEGO Movie is anything to go by, animated adaptations are far from bound by their source’s narrative, or lack thereof.
 Léger, Fernand, Fonctions de la peinture (Paris: Gonthier, 1965), pp. 138-139
Sam Summers is a PhD candidate at University of Sunderland’s Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies. His research focuses on the use of intertextual references in contemporary animation in general and DreamWorks’ animation in particular, with a view to contextualising and historicising the studio’s role in the development of the medium.