A couple of months back I wrote here of my disappointment that LEGO had decided to abandon its much-loved minifigure in the 2012 girl-focused Friends theme in favour of a new, doll-like creation.
Since I posted my initial impressions, LEGO have launched the new Friends sets amid a blaze of publicity and explained the reasons for the decision not to use standard minifigures in the theme. It seems to boil down to a belief that girls "hate" (LEGO's word, not mine) the standard minifig and want a more realistic character that they can identify with and project themselves into. So there you go. Those looking for more background on the extensive market research that underpins the new figures and the design of the sets can click here to read an interesting article about this in Bloomburg Businessweek.
Sceptical or not, I'm loathe to dismiss anything LEGO-related without first experiencing it for myself, so following the launch I visited my local John Lewis store and picked up one of the small Friends starter sets from the shelf for the purposes of my own, homespun market research....
Set 3931 Emma's Splash Pool (above) cost me £4.99 and contains 43 pieces. Other than the predictable pastel shades adorning the box, you can see an interesting purple scalloped effect on the sides of the box. For this and the other smallest sets in the Friends theme, these purple crescents are just printed on the front of box, but in the bigger sets the purple areas are literally scooped away and the front of the box bows outwards, leading to a distinctive sculpted appearance. I actually found this sculpting quite agreeable when I inspected the bigger sets on the retail shelves BUT it's going to cause problems with respect to stacking and storing the boxes, so any points for aesthetics are unfortunately lost when one considers the practicalities.
The box contains a set of folded instructions (above) consisting of 12 pages of building steps, an inventory of parts and pictures of a selection of other Friends sets complete with check boxes so you can tick them off as you buy them. There's also a single sealed polybag containing the pieces (below).
The first thing you notice on inspecting the bag of pieces is the riot of colour, particularly the garish preponderance of bright pink, lime and medium azure on show. Medium azure is a brand new colour for 2012, a lighter shade of blue compared with the dark azure last seen sported by Alien Defence Unit soldiers in the Alien Conquest sets. I'm a sucker for new colours, and it's this in addition to my curiosity about the new figures which was my main motivation for buying the set. While bright pink isn't a new colour for 2012, it might as well be from my perspective given the almost complete absence of any pieces in this colour within my existing sets.
So then - on to the build. As usual, the first step is to assemble the minifigure(s), or in this case, the "mini doll" as LEGO is calling them. She's called Emma, and you can see her below.
Emma is slightly taller than a regular minifigure, with a distinctly curvier, slimmer, daintier appearance. In contrast to regular minifigures, her legs don't articulate separately, although they do both bend together at the waist, and her hands are fixed, although they're otherwise similar to those of a regular minifig meaning that whatever a regular minifigure can hold, Emma can hold too. Including a lightsaber (and yes, I've checked - rude not to....). Helpfully, Emma can also swap hair and headgear with regular minifigures; the hole in the back of her hairpiece (below) accommodates standard accessories such as the feathers which come with a couple of the Collectible Minifigures, although no such accessories are included with this set.
Building the set itself, which consists of a sun lounger plus parasol, splash pool and plant pot, is predictably a 2-minute job, although unless you've invested in one of LEGO's Pink Brick Boxes it still probably contains more bright pink pieces than you've ever seen in one place before. There's really not much else to say about these little models (below; click to enlarge) beyond the colour selection, and more specifically the medium azure macaronis which form the curved walls of the splash pool and are at present at least unique to this set.
So what's the verdict ? Well, only time will tell whether LEGO have finally cracked their target market with these sets, although early anecdotal reports do seem encouraging. Like many other AFOLs, I'm certainly enthusiastic about the huge number of new parts and interesting new colours that the Friends theme has brought with it. Furthermore, I can't deny that Emma is cute and appealing, with an almost anime-like quality. I've still not seen anything to change my mind that trying to integrate her into a diorama alongside regular minifigures would look ridiculous, however, which was my principal complaint when images of the Friends sets first hit the internet.
And so to the million-dollar question : having now had a chance to sample one of the sets myself, not to mention enjoying a number of reviews over at Eurobricks and elsewhere, will this be my only foray into the Friends theme ? In a word, no. While I won't be rushing out and snapping up all of the sets as a matter of urgency, I can certainly see myself picking up a few of the sets such as the City Park Cafe. Like I said - I'm a sucker for new colours. Plus I can hardly leave Emma all alone without her Friends....