The figure-based BIONICLE theme played a crucial role in rejuvenating the business of the LEGO Group. In the early 2000s, with the increased popularity of media and entertainment alternatives, LEGO as a company faced the real risk of financial bankruptcy and cultural obsolescence.
The launch of LEGO Star Wars in 1999 and BIONICLE in 2001 have since been credited as averting the specter of the company’s dismal fate.
Adult enthusiasts (AFOLS, “adult fans of LEGO”) – especially at the time – commonly mocked BIONICLE and held the theme in derision for being too strange, and for not being “real LEGO”.
Nonetheless, in the early 2000s, a generation of LEGO fans and builders resoundingly said otherwise. At the time of release in 2001, BIONICLE hit like lightning and catered to an audience who may not have otherwise gotten into the more traditional building brick system at the time. The popular theme rumbled along for a decade, before passing into the distance after a 2010 discontinuation. Though BIONICLE never quite gained “pop culture” status, the LEGO IP nonetheless became an indelible memory for many loyal fans.
But now, after 10 years and a failed reboot later, will BIONICLE come back as a full LEGO theme? What’s next for the Toa? Is it merely up to fans to uphold their legacy?
For further detail on this subject, I recommend checking out the business book Brick by Brick. But for now, read on to get a peek at the thoughts of your resident LEGO Maniac.
The BIONICLE Theme Was Ambitious.
Debate is not foreign among BIONICLE fans scattered around the online space. Ideas swirl about whether BIONICLE can truly be translated into System (brick-built) LEGO, or if it must forever be a figure-based building system, speculation persists about the reluctance of LEGO to acknowledge the theme, about the expiration of the retired BIONICLE building system, among a myriad of other things.
Some say that BIONICLE cannot become a miniaturized System theme without losing the design intricacy and articulated movements characteristic of the figures of old.
Others assert that due to the small size of the passionate older audience, BIONICLE will never be a toy theme again, instead existing only as a story medium.
And still others say that the retirement of “constraction” (action figure) LEGO products – even Star Wars figures were cancelled! – bodes ill for another BIONICLE launch.
Ironically, despite the disillusionment and pessimism, people generally don’t get so passionate about nothing. The original BIONICLE phenomenon connected with it’s audience on an almost visceral level. People intuitively recognized the ambition behind the toys and thematic content. I suspect that this undercurrent is more widespread than is immediately apparent.
During it’s hey-day, BIONCLE provided a highly collectible alternative to more expensive LEGO sets (you could get a Toa canister for under $10 bucks!), as well as a sprawling multimedia story, a world. BIONICLE was damn unique, especially for 8-12 years old at the time.
In LEGO’s Bits N’ Bricks ‘NICLE episode, Alastair Swinnerton, one of the co-creators of BIONICLE, discussed the massive ambition that fueled the development of the theme:
“…our goal was to be bigger than Pokémon. And in order to do that, you had to understand why Pokémon was so big – what it was that appealed to the kids… It was the whole “gotta collect them all” thing, you know, the set building, which obviously fed right into the LEGO Group ethos. We knew we had that, particularly with the masks, so we definitely fed off the success of Pokémon in order to, not replicate it, but try and do it better…”
The Potential of BIONICLE is Still Embryonic.
Disenchanted cliques of BIONICLE fans have it wrong. Narrow-minded AFOL purists have it wrong. Even LEGO got the BIONICLE concept terribly wrong the second time around.
BIONICLE as it was (or more precisely, as it ended up fading into) cannot return. But BIONICLE – as it can be – most certainly can.
The failure of the 2015 BIONICLE “reboot” showed the writing on the wall… for those willing to read. You can’t just wrap a product in BIONICLE branding, slap some classic motifs on it, and call it a good day.
The global macroeconomic situation may have deteriorated more rapidly lately, but I believe the US will weather the storm fairly well overall. This huge market could provide the prime environment for LEGO to take a new risk in returning to more original in-brand thematic experiences.
It is time for the LEGO BIONICLE theme to get a spectacular glow-up, an epic level up, and to show just how bionic the “biological chronicle” can be.
It is time for LEGO to take another risk in order to launch the Second Bionicle Revolution. This Revolution should make the original products seem crude and archaic. This Revolution should make the 2015 “reboot” look like a cheap off-brand knockoff.
With BIONICLE, you need to think big by thinking small, and think small by thinking big. BIONICLE was born to be huge – encompassing – and it is time for LEGO to realize its true potential, its destiny!
The original spark of potential which flared in 2001 is what I like to call Iconic BIONICLE.
The first two pillars of the LEGO Group products are the System and Technic ranges. Iconic BIONICLE must become the Third Pillar of the LEGO Group, with all that that entails.
As the Third Pillar in the Lego repertoire, the previous reliance on large specialized pieces simply will not do the job this time… nor will the narrow, closed-ended, instant-gratification story structure that dominated the original BIONICLE’s later years (2005-2010).
As its own independent, cohesive, comprehensive, and functional system, BIONICLE must both transcend and also integrate with the LEGO System and Technic modes of building. It must transcend by presenting new opportunities for integration with people’s lives and providing new and lasting value.
Imagine a BIONICLE that appeals to not only another generation of LEGO fans, but also to the everyday worker looking for an immersive experience, and to present or up-and-coming biologists, engineers/designers, storytellers, anthropologists… Both LEGO System and Technic have had many applications in engineering and robotics as an example, not to mention personal DIY applications. Surely this is not beyond the purview of LEGO set designers and graphic artists.
A fully fleshed out BIONICLE system should be able to similarly (but differently) find value in a new frontier of real-life integration and application. Just imagine…
BIONICLE is an Epic Story and Product Medium.
It should be obvious, but just to clarify: I’m a BIONICLE fan. And I admit that my tastes view anything short of the high bar set by the original experience of BIONICLE to be a missed opportunity. With that said, “fan service” for the existing BIONICLE community should not be the focus of a BIONICLE revival. The fan community as it stands today can only be targeted by LEGO after the BIONICLE line is momentously reinvigorated, not merely rebooted. If LEGO adopted a “fan service”-based approach to a new BIONICLE, it could easily result in further implosion of the theme into niche oblivion.
BIONICLE exists in symbiosis as both a product and a story medium, not one without the other! If you get a Toy without the rich context and purpose, you get the failed 2015 “revival” – and we all know LEGO is not interested in a repeat of that. If you discard the LEGO product aspect of BIONICLE in favor of only Story, you get fan-fiction and increasingly niche appeal.
When BIONICLE first launched, people did not buy into it because it was BIONICLE. No one knew what the heck a “BIONICLE” was. We bought into BIONICLE to get to the experience – which was an immersive conduit of imaginative ideas. It connected, and connected big. Iconic BIONICLE was more than a toy, or a story.
It started out as a huge container where we could invent our own characters and stories inside it. So in response to the cynical fans, I say “the age of BIONICLE has barely begun!”
Why Wasn’t BIONICLE An “Evergreen” Theme?
A more recent theme like Ninjago has had “evergreen” longevity, with a continuous presence of sets since 2011.
Ninjago has had the advantage of the pop culture recognition afforded by ninjas as well as over-the-top mechas. For better or worse, LEGO invests a lot of thematic variation into the theme.
LEGO Star Wars also has had longevity, because, well… it’s Star Wars.
The Lego City lineup has been an evergreen presence for many years now – it is a self-explanatory and well-established theme.
Now BIONICLE, on the other hand, is… a strange collection of (sometimes uncanny) robotic creatures. It requires some justification – some compelling reason – that we should become invested in that world.
Regardless, it goes without saying: I love it. And so did many kids, young adults, and some young at heart upon its release at the turn of the millennium.
The original BIONICLE was something unique and rare. The theme took itself seriously and had the command to take itself seriously! It had a strong and compelling internal rule book that it followed coherently. But why didn’t it stay that way and become “evergreen”?
Partly because it was not given enough time to. From 2005 onward, the theme became too focused on character and political development; the essential BIONICLE experience became diluted and gradually stagnated.
The 2015 BIONICLE “reboot” made use of lots of pretty art assets, as well as overstimulating, over-compensating figures. But the theme had no substance, no thematic cohesion or cultural grounding.
The depth of meaning and timeless roots of the original line were entirely absent. The result has left the overall 2015-2016 “reboot” to age like sour milk. Of interest only to (some) collectors, and CCBS (Character & Creature Building System) builders.
The LEGO “stories” of late – which include Ninjago and recent theatrical releases like the LEGO Movie, the LEGO Batman Movie, etc. – have all had a tongue-in-cheek, self-parody, spoof-y vibe. There is no alternative theme from LEGO today, and it is becoming more obvious each year. It is as if nothing is held sacred anymore.
That is why a TV series and BIONICLE are not a good match – it would require too much linearity and “plot” and campiness, which once again would likely devolve into a demanding and obsessive canon niche. Perhaps a BIONICLE TV series could function, if it adopted a “vignette” style a la Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack… but even then, BIONICLE already can accomplish this through short animation – rather than feature-length episodes.
BIONICLE needs to return to the eerie, ethereal, uncanny-cool factor that it launched with in 2001. THAT is how BIONICLE can become evergreen; it must draw from the timeless.
For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and related works are biblical in scope. Tolkien’s works draw out and concentrate a lot of the most compelling facets of ancient traditions, culture, and mythology.
BIONICLE started off in a similar vein of timelessness and grand scope, with the feeling that there was always something more than what was said or shown. It excited fan theories, instead of bluntly and inelegantly “solving” them. This provided the environment for immortal memories to be created.
In addition to drawing from the classics of antiquity – the world treasures that have stood the test of time – the LEGO Group should not flinch away from using the motifs of ancient cultures in order to convey and embellish the world of BIONICLE… but that is the subject of another post! For now, I’ll say that exactly the opposite should occur – interacting with the present-day keepers of ancient cultures presents a new opportunity for LEGO to engage with an audience, beyond the product.
The Theme Is Not Dead. So Will LEGO BIONICLE Come Back?
Today, the LEGO Group does not face a financial problem of the magnitude that occurred in proximity to BIONICLE’s launch in 2001. LEGO once jealously guarded its original brick system product; we need that LEGO back. With the recent surge in popularity of collectible commodities from retro videogames to Pokémon cards to a Transformers Beast Wars revival from Hasbro, why hasn’t LEGO gotten in on the action?
The company does not view these developments as a threat which necessitates a BIONICLE return. Instead they put out nostalgia-driven sets through the LEGO Ideas platform, such as Voltron and Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone, and Transformer’s Optimus Prime.
Where in the blazes is BIONICLE? Once could say that the generation that grew with BIONICLE are ready for their own dose of nostalgia. But even more than that, in my humble opinion, the world is ready to be reintroduced to BIONICLE. During the LEGO 90th Anniversary contest in 2021, BIONCLE won the fan vote on the LEGO Ideas website – to the chagrin of many an AFOL. The theme was placed in the running to have a commemorative set released in 2022. (Spoiler: it didn’t happen!)
On the surface, a commemorative BIONICLE set seems cool. But let’s be real. That would not satisfy anyone. BIONICLE fans set a high bar in wanting BIONICLE in all 2001 splendor. AFOLs want more standard LEGO. And the world outside of those camps would not even know what to do with an isolated “BIONICLE” set. We need a full BIONICLE revival for a new chance at cultural relevance and timelessness to emerge.
The LEGO Group may just need some acute competition, in order for them to endeavor to neutralize it as they did in the late 1990s. The Pokémon phenomenon – which rivaled the Super Mario Brothers and console wars boom that preceded it – definitely provided such an impetus back then. LEGO faced high obsolescence risk as people’s time, money, and interest went elsewhere.
We won’t get the true BIONICLE back until LEGO faces a new disruptive threat… not unless the LEGO Group currently makes room in their business and philosophy to shoulder the risk in order to give BIONICLE a momentous revival. It would require digging deep, not out of forceful necessity but willing choice. Are they up to it?
I hold hope, but not expectation at this time. But that is enough.
BIONICLE holds the potential to be the next evolution of LEGO.
Until then, the original BIONICLE – and fan projects breathing life into it – is good enough for me.
I’ll leave you with some thoughts from Alastair Swinnerton, reflecting on the enduring appeal of LEGO BIONICLE:
“We created a world that they could inhabit as children. “We created so many layers of creativity in the same way, if you like, as the Star Wars™ universe. We created a universe with huge levels of backstory for the different characters that just resonated in the same way as Star Wars™ and currently the likes of Marvel and DC. I think we just got the formula right. … We achieved what we set out to achieve. We created something like Star Wars™ and like Pokémon that wasn’t either of them, but that appealed to the imagination of the audience in the same way.”
Since you’re here, go further and check out more of my thoughts on LEGO BIONICLE!