Retro Review: Bionicle – Mask of Light (2003).
Before The LEGO Movie and Ninjago, there was Bionicle The Movie: Mask of Light. While a bit dated, it’s actually a decent kids flick.
I don’t apologize for the fact that I just plain don’t like the new LEGO movie universe. They may not be blatant commercials for toy lines like films from the 1990’s (think G.I. Joe or Transformers), but they’re no less cynical. Using a barrage of pop culture references and Adderall addled pacing, they feel like an attempt to introduce as many familiar faces in 90 minutes as possible, all so they can sell branded video games featuring those characters. It’s the Disney Infinity marketing scheme: throw well known characters into some feather-weight adventure meant solely to sell games and add-ons. The LEGO Movie gets under my skin further by thinking irony and winking at the camera excuses such crass commercialism.
With this jaundiced background, I was surprised that LEGO’s first Bionicle movie, Mask of Light, was actually a solid adventure narrative that seemed less interested in hawking toys than in condensing years of TV stories into a cohesive mythos. Only one new character is introduced, so it wasn’t like LEGO was funding the project in the hopes of selling a mint of new merch. While the end product was a tad overstuffed with world-building, and boasted dated graphics, Bionicle: Mask of Light was a decent flick you could sit your kids down in front of without worrying about your credit card number.
The History of Bionicle.
In the early 2000’s, LEGO was trying to build a very different empire. Still primarily focused on moving physical boxes of blocks, they created a television universe of toys with a more mature feeling: Bionicle. A fairly standard adventure series, Bionicle used computer generated graphics to tell a story of warring factions – light and dark – on a mystical island. Eventually the story spread to new islands, under the sea, and even into the sky in order to introduce new characters and sell new play sets.
Halfway through the Bionicle run, LEGO and Miramax teamed up for a feature length straight-to-DVD movie: Mask of Light. This film summarizes the first arc of the Bionicle series, bringing back the original 6 heroes and adding a quest adventure to find a prophesied 7th hero, the guardian of light. Sequels would go on to summarize the other arcs of the show, making for a loose trilogy of films from 2003 to 2009.
Bionicle: Mask of Light (2003.)
The world of Bionicle is made up of the elements fire, water, wind, earth, stone, and ice, and divided into light and dark. The founding spirit of Bionicle gave life to the elements, giving each domain a guardian to shepherd the people. Shortly after this golden age, the spirit of shadow descended on the world and sealed away the founding spirit. Many generations later, two young Bionicles discover a mask of light, the key to finding a 7th hero, the guardian of light. Along with the 6 elemental guardians, our young heroes leave their home to find this savior, all the while being pursued by the minions of the shadows.
While the opening narration spells out a pretty coherent genesis myth for Bionicle, the next half hour is a word salad of names, places, and concepts. Our protagonists, young Jaller and Takua, spout off so many proper names in their early dialogue, they might as well be speaking a foreign language. You meet at least two populations, hear about two gods, six heroes, and a hearty dose of peripheral characters. Much like dropping into a later episode of Game of Thrones, you’re going to be confused as to who the heck everyone is talking about for a good chunk of the time.
The heart of Mask of Light is the spiritual journey of our two young heroes. It’s a standard coming of age adventure with the fantasy elements of a heroes journey, much like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit – or the spate of fantasy adventures that copied Tolkien like Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara series. Our two protagonists find a mystical artifact and must make a journey to discover their destiny. Along the way they make friends, attract foes, and learn to find faith in themselves and each other. It’s not a story that will set the world on fire, but it is handled competently and provides a solid backbone for the film.
A Face Only a Mother Could Love…
My biggest complaint about Bionicle is how ugly the character models are, and not in a technical sense. While the CG used to create Bionicle is definitely a relic of the early 2000’s, it’s not actually very bad. It’s certainly not as hideous as contemporary feature films such as Kaena the Prophecy. The settings are vibrant and varied with nice details, and the animation is mostly fluid (although you get that odd combination of weightlessness and heaviness that animation of the era suffered from. Some character movements seem untethered from gravity while others feel like their covered in lead, for no discernible reason.) The problem isn’t the animation, its the character models.
Bionicle as a toy line looked like a blend of robot insects with clunky knights in armor. Bionicle The Movie doesn’t amend that aesthetic. Our heroes look like swarthy dwarfs with ill-fitting armor for a face. If not for the voices, you wouldn’t make the assumption that they are supposed to be children; you’d just assume they are a race of short and stocky creatures. The characters with adult proportions look better, but still have ugly tin-can heads. The artistic director may have had his hands tied, but even the characters from the TV show looked less alien and bulky.
Mask of Light isn’t a world-beater, but it is a solid adventure story for kids. If you can make it past the first half hour of exposition, the story opens up into a fine heroes’ journey that has nice settings, decent action, and plenty of characters to get to know. I can’t recommend it to adults, even if you were the biggest LEGO Bionicle fan in your youth: the PG rating means that the narrative is pretty vanilla and the action consists mostly of the standard kid’s show equivalent of people not actually trying to hurt each other while ostensibly fighting.
The adventure aspects of the film are better than average, and by the end I was actually considering firing up the sequel to see how our heroes’ story turns out. All in all, if you managed to make somebody who never saw your TV show or played with your toys feel interested in your universe, you’ve done something right.