In 2019, I started the self-imposed tradition of reviewing one of the Bionicle films each year on January 1. There are two reasons. The first is a clickbait scheme: I thought posting my reviews on Rotten Tomatoes would help ride the millennial nostalgia wave for this franchise. The second is that starting each year with a review of something I genuinely like, but nobody else cares about, feels like a really great way to ground myself going into another 12 months of reviewing god knows what. And I genuinely like Bionicle.
No, I genuinely love Bionicle. The franchise combined all the hobbies I’ve carried into adulthood, built on the foundation of cool, collectible toys with interesting deep lore explored via comics, movies and weird video games. My Serial Consumer column, which has lasted far longer than I’d intended, is basically just an expression of the habits I formed in the early 2000s.
I remember the first day at my first job, thinking about spending some of my newfound income on Axxon, one of the new 2006 Titan Sets. I still look at side hustles that way. Hell, I have a list of new comics and other silly shit I’d like to buy in the new year should my hobby budget allow it. When it comes to collecting silly things, nothing has notably changed about me since my preteen years besides owning a place to store all of it and a son who is already sharing the same disposition for gathering up things he enjoys just for the sake of it. Oops.
Bionicle: The Legend Reborn is the fourth and final direct-to-video Bionicle film in the toy line’s first generation. There was a second generation that ran in 2015 and 2016, but it changed the lore and the set builds in ways that didn’t particularly interest me. I was hoping we would see an anniversary set for the series’ 20th anniversary this year. It was not to be. In all likelihood, this is also my final New Year’s Day Bionicle article unless I start reviewing the little serials that occasionally aired online. But I’m not particularly interested in doing so right now. We’ll see what January 1, 2023 brings.
Of the four films, this is probably the weakest but it is not a piece of shit, which is what I had remembered from my first watch-through a few years back. It has a few disadvantages that mostly boil down to the fact that the ongoing Bionicle story, told in three sagas between 2001 and 2008, had come to an “end,” setting the stage for The Legend Reborn to act as a soft reboot of sorts for the aging series. Emphasis on soft rather than “reboot.” So much of this is completely incoherent if you aren’t already aware of the broader Bionicle saga. But if you’re a fan, it’s also much less epic and interesting than what came before. Serviceable is the adequate descriptor.
The plot? The Great Spirit Mata Nui is cast out of his giant robot body, trapped within the Mask of Life and jettisoned through space to the desert planet of Bara Magna. He quickly gives himself an anthropomorphic body and befriends the local inhabitants, the Agori, and their Warrior Class, the Glatorian. Glatorian culture is split into six color-coded villages strewn across the landscape that solve internecine conflicts with pitched battles. However, dark forces have aligned outside the walls of civilization that threaten to take down the Agori and their friends. It’s up to Mata Nui to help bring the good guys together in time to protect what they’ve built and, perhaps, discover a way to reclaim his giant robot body.
None of this makes much sense to anyone who hasn’t followed the ongoing story thus far. In fact, none of it aligns with what happens in Bionicle: The Mask of Light, Bionicle 2: Legends of Metru Nui or Bionicle 3: Web of Shadows. The last of those was released in 2005; The Legend Reborn follows the 2009 storyline. In between was the Ignition Trilogy, by far the high point of Bionicle lore, that introduced the Mask of Life and brought the ongoing conflicts within Mata Nui’s giant robot body to a close. The Ignition Trilogy was told solely through young-reader novels, comic books and web-based serials. Although a brief prologue in this movie tries to tldr everything, it would probably bewilder casual audiences (who probably aren’t watching this anyway).
Background aside, however, it’s a less interesting plot than the other films. Where the other stories dealt primarily with small beings fighting to become a part of a larger world around them (these are for kids, after all), Mata Nui (voiced by Michael Dorn) arrives in this film’s barren planet without much to learn about life. He’s a fallen god who fully remembers his divine origins. His role as a protagonist is to inspire the Glatorian, who align with him and to whom he gifts incredible elemental powers. Ackar (Jim Cummings) is noble and teaches Mata Nui combat; Kiina (Marla Sokoloff) is a well-meaning, exuberant youngster; Gresh (Mark Famiglietti) is a novice warrior who just wants to help. Mata Nui gives them the powers to take on the evil Tuma (Fred Tatasciore) and his armies of darkness.
Serviceable, but not all that interesting. The animation is nice, with the sets looking proportional and alive. It’s certainly the best looking of the four movies because it avoids trying to make the LEGO sets appear overly organic. Their bodies are filled with rotating gears and sound mechanical. Of course, lore-wise, this is all wrong because in fact, the Glatorian are organic, living beings unlike the Toa, who starred in the previous eight years of canon, but … that’s picking nits, isn’t it?
Sadly, the Glatorian quasi-reboot was never meant to last. LEGO had already decided to shutter the line in 2010 due to flagging sales and competition with video-game consoles for its target audiences’ affections. The Legend Reborn ends on a note that sets up a sequel, which was planned to delve further into the connection between the Bara Magna stuff and the larger storyline. A lot of that material ended up published via serial on the website, in comics and in a Polish novel translated by American fans hungry to know how everything turned out.
Although not especially great as a story year, 2009 was actually a notably good year for the set design. Bionicle always released 12 main “canister” figures per year, a winter wave and a summer wave. Each wave had a red, blue, green, white and black set, with a sixth color that, after 2006, alternated between brown, orange and yellow. In most years, the winter and summer waves were split into heroes or villains, but that changed in 2008 and 2009 when LEGO decided kids would want to have a hero and a villain to duke it out without a six-month gap.
In the Glatorian year, we got six characters whose allegiances were much less deterministic. They represented their clans in battle, and who they would ultimately side with when the chips came down was revealed in The Legend Reborn. Some of the early-year sets were important in the movie, too, which was nice.
I was in college at the time but still treated myself to the occasional Bionicle. I only bought three of the winter sets (green, blue, red) and three of the summer sets (yellow, red, black). I had to buy yellow: It was Mata Nui himself! The others I chose because they looked cool or because their new armor pieces could fit the custom Toa I’d build on occasion. I neither purchased any of the small Agori sets nor invested in any of the pretty awesome vehicles they released that year. To this day, I regret not clearance-hunting the large four-legged walker that appears in the movie, whose legs could fold into treads for a tank-like battle mode. That shit was pretty cool.
Bionicle: The Legend Reborn made me nostalgic and that’s really all it can be expected to do in 2022. There’s no reason to watch the movie unless you’re deeply invested in Bionicle lore (most of which is available for free online these days), and even then, the comics and novels do an adequate job of telling this story better than the movie actually does. Unfortunately, the wave of nostalgia for old Bionicle has made it increasingly expensive and difficult to actually partake in the most fun part of the whole thing — buying, building, and playing with the sets. The average Glatorian set, used and open, runs $30 nowadays. Given the quality of the plastic used by LEGO circa 2008-2010, their joins are probably prone to breaking if not already broken. Sometimes I get curious and look up sets I wish I had purchased — heck, why didn’t I buy either white set in 2009? — but even my dumb ass doesn’t have the money to drop on this kind of stuff.
I love Bionicle, sure, but not more than I love my wife respecting me.