Years ago, all LEGO minifigures had a placid, happy expression and a pointedly non-ethnic skintone that fit their role in the larger LEGO universe: They were props, the same as a tree or a fire hydrant. But as LEGO has made more movie tie-ins—and video games—its minifigs have become more brooding. Darker. Angrier.
Christopher Bartneck, a researcher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has concluded that LEGO minifigs most commonly feature happy or angry expressions, but the proportion of angry or combative faces is on the rise. Moreover, the angry faces and happy faces are not necessarily assigned to heroic or villainous characters appearing in the LEGO sets. Everyone's got a grim, or disdainful, or fearful, or pissed-off expression, regardless of alignment.
"We cannot help but wonder how the move from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces impacts how children play," wrote Bartneck.
Given that LEGO Minifigs have six points of articulation, and are smaller than an adult pinkie, my guess is that children play with the newer, angrier LEGO Minifigs the same way I did: You grasp the minfig at his shoulders between your thumb and forefinger, make him hop up and down as you speak a few lines of expository dialogue (Something like, "I'm gonna kill you,") and then smash him into an adversary drop-kick style. Facial expression has zilch to do with that.
Bartneck's research turned up a scale of six facial groupings, comprising "disdain," "confidence," "concern," "fear," "happiness," and "anger." Only one of these, "happiness," was "happy." All others could be taken to have some measure of aggression behind them, as all look like your standard closeup from a Zack Snyder or Michael Bay flick. And maybe that's the point, because now all LEGO sets seem to license the latest Zack Snyder or Michael Bay flick.
But Bartneck's paper seems to cast LEGO's own early history in too rosy of a light. Even when I was eight or nine I never viewed LEGOs as some PBS toy. When my brother and I got the LEGO cop station, the first thing we did was make a huge LEGO prison, and then a giant LEGO A-Team van. And then we made another van, and loaded both up with bricks, and put a driver on them, and smashed them into each other from great distances across the living room floor. If it was a good wreck, the LEGO minifig with the happy expression was decapitated.
This was in 1983, when everyone in LEGOLand was the same dull-eyed Stepford Minifig with that medicated grin. We knew there were questions you didn't ask. LEGO Set 6309, released in 1988, had five occupations: cop, doctor, fireman, air traffic controller, and mechanic. In four of those careers, lives are on the line every day. We knew they were hiding pain. But even the fifth one ... the mechanic ....
What do you think he's going home to? Quiet guy, keeps to himself, slick hair, a big pipe wrench ...
Smells like cigarettes and Aqua Velva ...
WANT YOUR BOAT, GEORGIE?