|Parent theme||Lego Technic (2000–2003)|
|Licensed from||The Lego Group|
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 late 2000, and in the Americas in 2001. Over the following decade, it became one of Lego's biggest-selling properties; turning 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.
The concept for Bionicle originated in an idea by co-creator Christian Faber that was named Cybots, a line of humanoid action figures with attachable limbs and ball-and-socket joints. He recalled, "I was sitting with LEGO Technic and thought I would love to build a character instead of a car. I thought of this biological thing: The human body is built from small parts into a functional body just like a model. What if you got a box full of spare parts and built a living thing?". He pitched the idea to Lego, but it was initially implemented as Slizer/Throwbots in 1999 and RoboRiders in 2000.
A new project was then conceived that centred on a story-driven theme. The project was originally conceived as "BoneHeads of Voodoo Island" by 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", with reference to the word "bionics"). 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 their financial turnover from the previous decade. Bionicle 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 less positive 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 (2000–2010)
Set in a science fantasy universe featuring a diversity of cyborgs, the main story depicts the exploits of the Toa, heroic beings with elemental powers whose sworn duty is to protect the Matoran, the prime populace of their world, and reawaken the Great Spirit Mata Nui, their god-like guardian who was forced into a coma by the actions of the evil Makuta.
The first story arc (2000–2003) takes place on the tropical island of Mata Nui, named after the Great Spirit, and deals with the arrival of the six Toa Mata (later transformed into the more powerful Toa Nuva) and their adventures in protecting the Matoran villagers from Makuta's minions. A heavy emphasis is placed on the Kanohi masks worn by the Toa, which supplement their elemental powers with abilities such as super-strength and super-speed. The second arc (2004–2005) is set before the events of the first, on an island city called Metru Nui. Following another group of Toa who would go on to become the Matoran's elders, it explains how they all came to settle on Mata Nui island. The culminating third arc (2006–2008) sees a new team of Toa set out on a quest to find the Mask of Life, an artifact that can save the dying Mata Nui's life. A fourth arc (2009), originally envisioned as a soft reboot of the franchise, introduces the desert world of Bara Magna and its inhabitants. However, future storylines were scrapped after Lego cancelled Bionicle later that year and replaced with one that concluded the main narrative in 2010.
Characters such as the Toa and Matoran are typically divided into tribes based on six "primary" elements: fire, water, air, earth, stone, and ice. Less common "secondary" elements, such as light, gravity and lightning, began being introduced in 2003. The 2009 storyline, which features a different society, uses a similar grouping method for its Glatorian and Agori characters.
The whole narrative was developed on a multimedia platform by a team of Lego employees led by Bob Thompson and spans online animations, comic books, novels, console and online games, short stories, 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). The majority of comics and novels were written by Greg Farshtey, who also published a number of in-character blogs, serials, and podcasts that expanded the franchise lore. After the toyline was discontinued, publication of these serials continued through to 2011 before halting abruptly due to Farshtey's other work commitments.
Generation 2 (2015–2016)
A reboot of the original story, the revival chronicles the adventures of six elemental Toa heroes who protect the bio-mechanical inhabitants of the tropical island of Okoto from Makuta and his minions. Characters are again divided into six elemental tribes: Fire, Water, Jungle (changed from Air for 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. Greg Farshtey served as a creative consultant.
Lego discontinued the reboot in 2016. At the time, the saga was planned to span into at least 2017.
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 as of 2009, 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.
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