Bionicle: Mask of Light was released in 2003, the height of Bionicle as a franchise for young boys and about a year prior to Xbox Live popularizing easy-to-access internet console gaming, kicking into gear video games’ replacement of toys as pre-teen boys’ primary form of entertainment.
It was a victory lap for LEGO’s crown jewel: Despite gaining the Star Wars license in 1999, LEGO was close to financial insolvency before Bionicle — an in-house, mythology-centered line of buildable action figures — hit big in 2001. A feature-length CGI action-adventure movie was a major flex of muscle.
I fucking loved Bionicle for the entire 10-year original run, between 2001 and 2010. The story’s massive fantasy-adventure world reflected the post-Lord of the Rings 2000s with epic quests and secret items. It mixed in aspects of Power Rangers, Transformers and American comics. Each year presented roughly 30 new building kits, six of which were $10 heroes, six $10 villains and a whole bunch of larger and smaller sets. Each played a role in a storyline that unfolded through chapter books, comics (one artist living in Central Indiana, coincidentally) and in Mask of Light and its three sequel films.
American culture is littered with toyvline mythologies. Endless numbers of plastic characters from Mattel, Hasbro, LEGO … the ’80s in particular had a boom of franchises with corresponding animated shows (Transformers, He-Man, G.I. Joe). The story was used to sell newer models to kids who wanted to keep acting out their imaginative adventures. Hell, Bumblebee is the sixth and newest entry in a revived Transformers franchise. Bionicle was the last of the great toy-based story franchises.
And it’s a death mythos. There hasn’t been a new story told in this universe since 2011, when the text-based serials went dead on Lego.com. For a while the writer of the series, Greg Farshtey, was planning on keeping new stories with the characters going indefinitely. And then it ended, abruptly. Farshtey continued engaging with fans as late as 2017 on official forums, answering questions and helping create new pieces of canon. But the story? It’s dead.
Watching Mask of Light now, when none of these toys are available on the market and the purpose for the movie is completely dead, definitely removes some of the context. But it’s still pretty enjoyable. The basic tenets of the story are not hard to understand: It’s a paradise island full of little robot people called Matoran, who are protected by six larger guardians named Toa. They worship a god named Mata Nui, who was put into a coma by his dark brother Makuta. Makuta is literally made of shadow. Toa wear mystical masks that bestow upon them great gifts. This story starts when the titular “Mask of Light” is found by a Matoran named Takua. He sets off on a quest to find the mythical seventh Toa, who can control light. Spoiler: The power was inside him all along!
Shit, I know more about Bionicle than I do the Bible.
At just over 60 minutes, Mask of Light moves at a quick pace. The animation blows, but this is direct-to-DVD CGI stuff from the early 2000s. We get to meet all six Toa (Kopaka, Lewa, Tahu, Pohatu, Onua, Gali). They have a parallel journey to Takua. There are real, shocking consequences with implied death (they’re just robots with souls). An entire city falls (shadows of Helm’s Deep for sure). The story is more or less trying to emphasize the three values of Matoran culture, which are “Unity, Duty, Destiny,” aka “Don’t be a selfish dick, kid.” So as far as kid-focused toy entertainment goes, it’s pretty fun as an action movie. No, really.
But maybe it’s the nostalgia talking.
It does make me sad that Bionicle ended in 2010 (a short-lived reboot in 2015 brought changes to the mythology — simplifications that felt more YouTube than LOTR). I have two crates of various sets and their parts that I sometimes take out of the garage to build and put back together and bask in the nostalgia. It’s the same fondness for superhero shit that keeps a wall of my house covered in comic books; it’s the same pining for serial storytelling that leaves me watching so many movies.