Towards the end of 2022, Lego announced that the 10th year of the Lego Friends range would be the last for the characters that children had loved for a decade and that there would be a new generation introduced for Year 11. This is even harsher than Leonardo DiCaprio’s 25-year-old age limit.
At first, some people were upset by the reboot that seemingly came out of nowhere, but I am fully on board for this. Lego has cited the reason for the change as being that 3 in 4 children feel that there aren’t enough toys that represent them. Given that kids use play to understand themselves, their emotions, and the world around them, that’s pretty serious. It’s for this reason that the new Lego Friends characters are more diverse, with a range of ethnicities, neurodivergences, limb differences, and even a dog in a wheelchair (not as exciting as a person in a wheelchair, but a start, I guess). There’s a character with down syndrome, one with anxiety, and an adventurous, sports-mad kid with one hand. There’s also some talk of being inclusive of gender, but there’s no word whether this means there will be characters that go beyond the binary or just that there will be more male mini-dolls now.
To get a sense of the new Lego Friends range, I got sent a review copy of the Heartlake International School (985 pieces for $159.99), which proved itself an interesting build but is visually the least interesting set across the entire new range.
The outside of the building is boxy and bland compared to previous Friends schools, like Andrea’s Theatre School or Emma’s Art School (which, incidentally, is only 100 pieces smaller but $50 cheaper). Both the artsy schools were more sculptural in their shapes and embellishments. Granted, Friends sets are for play, so they don’t need to have the display value of, say, a modular building. But kids are more likely to display and play with something they like the look of, and I fear the International School went too boring with the exterior design, which also means a slightly more boring build. This is particularly stark when compared to the new Downtown Flower and Design Stores set ($249.99), which is more interesting to look at, appears to be more interesting to build and has more play and narrative elements. Or Autumn’s House ($109.99), which is also visually much more appealing and offers more play opportunities.
That’s not to say that the whole school exterior is without interesting techniques or out-of-the-box ideas. The unusual window placement creates a great effect, and the open stairs leading to an OH&S violation of a terrace garden look bright and colourful.
While the outside and shell of the school are a bit boring, there are lots of fun little elements inside. I love the details in the science labs, like the Bunsen burner and skeleton. The media lab is an interesting insight into how two of the characters are wannabe influencers/content creators (going off the descriptions, Nova’s main character trait is that she has 3 million followers, and Olly wants to be famous). There are so many little props for play, and little things kids can use to spruce up their schools when they decide they could build it better. After all, Lego instructions are just suggestions, and kids are great at this stuff.
Plus, the character of Autumn is included, and she’s built with a basketball in her hand, first introducing her to kids not through her disability but through her interests, which will be important for kids with limb differences to see themselves in the toys they play with.
But the sticking point on this whole build is the school part, which is admittedly most of the parts in a school set. The construction looks and feels haphazard and for play purposes, it would have been nice if there had been hallways or doorways connecting the classrooms. As a child, most of the grizzly murders that happened in my school and hospital playsets happened in the hallways so there were fewer witnesses, and to make the travel of the stretcher of my Playmobil ambulance more interesting. In teen and tween TV dramas, most of the big conversations between characters happen in hallways and locker rooms. Where are these kids going to orchestrate the walk and talks as they build exposition between the mini dolls?
All up, the Heartlake International School is a slight disappointment in a range that otherwise appears to be kicking absolute goals. Almost all the other sets launched in this wave look really fun and interesting. There is some cool stuff in the school, but compared to other Friends school sets, it just doesn’t have the same wow factor. However, the school has done a good job to set up the interests and priorities for these new kids. There are solar panels, trees, sporting facilities, and a nod towards STEAM subjects. I’m really looking forward to seeing where this Friends range takes these characters, and how they manage to express neurodiversity through toys.
The Lego Friends Heartlake International School is available in stores now.