|Parent theme||Lego Technic (2000–2003)|
Bionicle (//) was a line of Lego construction toys marketed primarily towards 8-to-16 year-olds. Originally a subsidiary of Lego's Technic series, the line launched in Europe and Australasia in 2000 and in the Americas in 2001. Over the following decade, it became one of Lego's biggest-selling properties; sprawning into a franchise and playing a part in saving the company from its financial crisis of the late 1990s. Despite a planned twenty-year tenure, the theme was discontinued in 2010, but was rebooted in 2015 for a further two years.
Unlike previous Lego themes, Bionicle was accompanied by an original story told across a multimedia spectrum. It depicts the exploits of the Toa, heroic biomechanical beings with innate elemental abilities whose duty is to maintain peace throughout their universe. Bionicle's success prompted subsequent Lego themes to utilize similar story-telling methods.
After suffering a ten-year downturn in the 1990s, the Lego Group went forward with the belief that a theme with a storyline behind it would appeal to consumers. Their initial attempt was the space opera franchise Star Wars, which became an instant success. However, the royalty payments to Lucasfilm marginalized Lego's profits, prompting them to conceive their own story-driven themes. Their first attempts were the short-lived Slizer/Throwbots (1999) and RoboRiders (2000) lines, which proved popular and prompted Lego to move forward with their idea of a new story-driven theme that would run continuously for at least two decades.
The project was originally conceived as "BoneHeads of Voodoo Island" by art director Christian Faber and Lego employees Bob Thompson and Martin Riber Andersen from a brief by Erik Kramer that was sent to outside writers. One of the writers who received it was Alastair Swinnerton, who rewrote the concept and was later invited to pitch it to the Lego Group at their headquarters in Billund, Denmark. The revised concept was well received and Swinnerton was commissioned to expand his initial pitch into a full 'bible'. On his second visit to Billund, the project was given approval and entitled "Bionicle" at an internal Lego meeting (a portmanteau constructed from the words "biological chronicle"). The names "BioKnights" and "Afterman" were also considered prior to the finalization of the brand.
To accompany the sets, Lego worked with Swinnerton and the creative agency Advance to create an elaborate story featuring red herrings, arcs and extensive lore centering on half-organic, half-robotic characters and telling it across a vast multimedia spectrum including comic books, novels, games, movies and online content. The use of tropical environments and characters based on classical elements were carried over from Slizer/Throwbots and RoboRiders, as well as the Lego Technic building system featured in those sets. One particular element – the then-innovative 'ball-and-socket' system which created free joint movement – would feature heavily in Bionicle and be expanded upon in subsequent sets.
Launch and success
The first wave of Bionicle sets were initially launched in December 2000 in Europe and Australasia as a "test market" to predict how well the series would sell in North America. The official website, explaining the premise of Bionicle, also debuted around the same time. After a positive reception, Bionicle premiered in North America in mid-2001, where it generated massive success and earned the Lego Group £100 million in its first year. New sets were released every six months, ranging from buildable action figures to play sets and vehicles, and would gradually increase in size and flexibility with every new wave. Collectibles such as weapon ammo and the "Kanohi" masks that certain characters wore were also sold; some became rare and valuable and withheld secret codes that when entered onto the official Bionicle website, provided the user with "Kanoka Points" that enabled them to access exclusive membership material.
As Bionicle's popularity rose, it became one of Lego's most successful properties, accounting for nearly all of it financial turnover from the previous decade. It was named as the #1 Lego theme in 2003 and 2006 in terms of sales and popularity, with other Lego themes at the time failing to match profits generated by Bionicle. Its popularity led to high web traffic on its official website, averaging more than one million page views per month, and further kinds of merchandise such as clothes, toiletries and fast-food restaurant collectibles.
On November 24, 2009, Lego announced that production on new Bionicle sets would cease after a final wave was released in 2010. The decision was made due to recent low sales and a lack of new interest in the theme, possibly brought on by its decade-long backstory and lore. A successor theme, Hero Factory, launched in mid-2010. It continued to utilize the building system introduced in Bionicle before evolving into the Character and Creature Building System (CCBS) that would later be carried over into other Lego sets and eventually Bionicle's 2015 reintroduction.
At his request, long-term Bionicle comic book writer and story contributor Greg Farshtey was given permission to continue the Bionicle storyline, with chapters for new serials arranged to be posted regularly on the website BionicleStory.com. However, Farshtey stopped posting new content in 2011 due to other commitments and the website was shut down in 2013, leaving a number of serials incomplete. Farshtey continues to play an active role in the Bionicle community and regularly contributes new story details via online forums and message boards.
Work on a reboot to Bionicle began in 2012. Matt Betteker, who was a junior designer on Hero Factory, was promoted to senior designer for the project. The theme's comeback was announced on September 19, 2014, with the first wave of sets and story details revealed at New York Comic Con on October 9. Dubbed "Generation 2" by fans, the new storyline features the same premise as the original, albeit with simplified lore and a smaller media platform.
The reboot launched in January 2015 to a mixed reception from toy critics and fans of the original Bionicle franchise, with the playability of the new sets and the inspiration taken from the theme's first toy wave being praised, but the simplified story and undeveloped characters receiving negative feedback. Despite plans to release new Bionicle sets through to at least 2017, Lego discontinued the reboot in 2016 due to low sales.
Generation 1 (2000–10)
Set in a science fantasy universe featuring a diversity of cyborgs during a time period predating recorded history. The main narrative details the exploits of the Toa, heroic beings with elemental powers whose duty is to maintain peace by protecting the Matoran – the prime populace of their world – and their mission to reawaken the Great Spirit Mata Nui, their god-like figure who has fallen into a coma-like state by the actions of the evil Makuta. Typically, characters such as the Toa and Matoran are divided into tribes based on six elements: Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Stone and Ice. Other elements are later introduced.
The story was recorded on a multimedia platform developed by a team of Lego employees led by Bob Thompson. The narrative spans comic books, novels, online and console games, animated shorts, and a series of direct-to-DVD films – Bionicle: Mask of Light (2003), Bionicle 2: Legends of Metru Nui (2004), Bionicle 3: Web of Shadows (2005) and Bionicle: The Legend Reborn (2009). Seven story arcs were initially planned, but only four were carried out prior to Lego discontinuing Bionicle. The majority of comics and novels were written by Greg Farshtey, who also published a number of serials and podcasts that expanded the Bionicle lore.
Generation 2 (2015–16)
A reboot of the original story, the revival chronicles the adventures of six elemental heroes, the Toa, who protect the bio-mechanical inhabitants of the tropical island of Okoto from Makuta and his minions. Again, characters are divided into six elemental tribes: Fire, Water, Jungle (changed from Air due to creative reasons), Earth, Stone and Ice.
The reboot's multimedia spectrum was scaled back in comparison to the first generation's; online animations, a series of books and graphics novels authored by Ryder Windham and the animated Netflix series Lego Bionicle: The Journey to One (2016) detail the narrative. The saga was originally planned to span into at least 2017 prior to Lego discontinuing Bionicle for a second time.
Initially, the idea of Bionicle faced resistance from company traditionalists as the Lego Group had no experience of marketing a story-based brand of their own. The "war-like" appearance of the characters also went against the company's values of creating sets without themes of modern warfare or violence. Lego reconciled on this statement by claiming that the theme was about "Good versus evil; "good hero warriors" designed to combat "evil enemy fighters" in a mythical universe, so children are not encouraged to fight each other".
The Bionicle franchise was well received over its venture and became one of the Lego Group's biggest-selling properties. At the time of its launch, one reviewer described the sets as "A good combination of assembly and action figure". and first-year sales of £100 million. Bionicle later received a Toy of the Year Award for Most Innovative Toy in 2001 from the Toy Industry Association.
Bionicle's rapid success had a major impact on the Lego Company. Stephanie Lawrence, the global director of licensing for Lego, stated "We've created an evergreen franchise to complement the many event-based properties on the children's market. An increasing number of category manufacturers want to tap into the power of the Bionicle universe, and the key for us now is to manage the excitement to stay true to the brand and the lifestyle of our core consumer."
Since its launch, toy critics have said that Bionicle has changed the way children think and play with Lego products by combining "The best of Lego building with the story telling and adventure of an action figure". Toy statistics have revealed that 85% of American boys aged 6–12 have heard of Bionicle while 45% own the sets.
Māori language controversy
In 2002, several Māori iwi (tribes) from New Zealand were angered by Lego's lack of respect for some of their words which were used to name certain characters, locations and objects in the Bionicle storyline. A letter of complaint was written, and the company agreed to change the names of certain story elements (e.g. the villagers originally known as "Tohunga" was changed to "Matoran") and met with an agreement with the Māori people to still use a small minority of their words.
In the story, the reason for certain name changes was dubbed as a Naming Ceremony for certain Matoran after doing heroic deeds (though the pronunciations remain the same), an example being the name change of 'Huki' to 'Hewkii'. Other names such as "Toa" meaning "Warrior", "Kanohi" meaning "Face" and "Kōpaka" meaning "Ice" were not changed.
Composers Paul Hardcastle and Simon Fuller produced the music for the Bionicle commercials used between 2001–04, which also featured in the Mata Nui Online Game released throughout 2001. An official Bionicle album – featuring music from the bands Cold and Woven and singers Rob Zombie and Kenna – from was originally planned for release in 2002, but the project was scrapped when disagreements arose between the Lego Group and the label Interscope Records.
In 2005, the band All Insane Kids released the songs "Hero" and "Caught in a Dream", produced and written by Morten Krog Helgesen. The latter is played in the end credits of Bionicle 3: Web of Shadows. Between 2006 and 2007, artists such as The All-American Rejects, Daughtry and Niels Brinck contributed songs for Bionicle commercials. But the success of the song "Creeping in My Soul" sung by Danish singer Christine Lorentzen for Bionicle's Barraki toy campaign led to the formation of the rock band Cryoshell, who produced music for the theme up until its original discontinuation, and in its wake released their self-titled debut album.
Music for the Bionicle films Mask of Light (2003), Legends of Metru Nui (2004) and Web of Shadows (2005) was composed by Nathan Furst. In 2012, Furst announced plans to release a soundtrack for the music featured in the films. Although the plans were originally scrapped in 2015, a film score to Mask of Light was digitally released in 2017, celebrating the film's fourteenth anniversary. This was followed by soundtracks for Legends of Metru Nui and Web of Shadows later in December of the same year. Music for the fourth Bionicle film The Legend Reborn (2009) was composed by John D'Andrea, while Mike Raznick composed the score for the 2016 television series The Journey to One.
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