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Review: 21311 Voltron
Defenders, form Voltron! It was a long road from screen to set, but one of the most impressive sets to come from LEGO in 2018 is 21311 Voltron. Is this mech greater than the sum of its parts, or are these lions more like kitty cats?
Voltron as a set always seemed like a longshot. Licensing issues aside, the sheer complexity alone presented a daunting, if not insurmountable task. But LEGO indicated a willingness to try when it greenlit Voltron from its Ideas review board in 2017, over a year from the project's initial submission to the site. The original concept, brainchild of Lendy Tayag from Malaysia, set records when it reached 10,000 votes in just a few weeks on Ideas. Though Lendy has a number of clever ideas (I'm quite fond of his Megazord), Voltron was a labor of love from a fan of the original 80's cartoon.
Of course, the timing was fortuitous; just a few months after Voltron reached the requisite amount of votes, Netflix released its Voltron: Legendary Defender series, bringing in a whole new audience for the character. Whether or not that factored into LEGO's decision to approve the project may yet remain a mystery; however, Lendy's design was strong enough on its own not to need the boost.
Thus began the waiting game. The official design process was placed in the hands of Niek van Slagmaat (a friend of ours whom you may know from his work on the stellar Journey To One Makuta model). It took quite some time; almost a year from review process to official approval, and then another year to release of the final product. For reference, SIX seasons of Voltron: Legendary Defender premiered in that time. Six!
And here at last we arrive at the set itself. It's a juggernaut of a model and it took a long time to assemble; join us as we walk through some of the ins and outs of this Legendary Defender.
One of my favorite things about LEGO Ideas is the box artistry. Since these sets aren't in a series, the designers can get a little whacky. Voltron sports a sleek retro cyberpunk aesthetic, in case you didn't realize this was based off an 80's cartoon. It's a big sucker too, coming in at about two feet tall.
The back, unlike many LEGO boxes these days, is refreshingly simple; a shot of the lions combining takes up most of the room, along with a few feature panels. If I have one gripe, it's the Voltron artwork they include on the top; even if you didn't understand quite how this set came together, there's no way a System-based figure could pull off that pose without some heavy Constraction shenanigans. It's not quite false advertising, but it does feel like setting expectations too high for the unaware consumer.
So there's... a lot of bits. 16 bags worth! However, I'd be hard pressed to say a lot of them are new. Certainly a fair amount of new colors for some parts, as well as some new printings, but Voltron gets a lot of mileage out of existing parts. One of the more curious part choices is an assortment of gold pieces meant to be swapped out with the primary chest decal. I confess an ignorance with the original Voltron cartoon, so I'm not entirely sure if this is something that happens in the show? There's more pieces than there are Paladins, so maybe indicative of some kind of mode change?
Ideally this is something the instruction booklet might have explained; as is standard with Ideas sets, the instruction booklet (or in this case, booklets, since there are six total) include some extra featurettes on how the whole model came together. What's included is interesting and sheds light on some connections and references, though perhaps not the one I was looking for. Still, for anybody itching for a peek behind the curtain, it makes for some fun facts.
Normally I give near step-by-step reconstructions of sets, but given the sheer size, I've opted to focus on the feature highlights rather than the minutiae.
The yellow lion is up first; the first thing you notice when putting together is that these guys are long. Lots of fusion bricks combined with Technic pins for added stability. One of my favorite things used here is the 3L axle with a stud; when wedged between pin holes in the bricks, it creates a natural friction for the shoulder pads. An alternative could have used more traditional 3L pins or pinaxles, but I think this way allows for more longevity and better utilization of space.
And of course, the yellow lion wouldn't be complete without its cannon attached to the back! A nice shoutout.
If you're paying close attention, you might notice some unused bar clips near the shoulder area. What are those for? We'll get to that in just a minute.
But first, the blue lion. The blue lion is, disappointingly, near identical in construction to the yellow lion. Obviously it had to be; being the legs, there's only so much individuality they could have. But the primary differences are relegated to small things, like some shaping in the face. Not a knock on the actual construction itself, which is rock solid, but maybe the instructions could have directed you to one of the arms instead to avoid some monotony.
Next, however, they have you move on to the black lion. Again, not necessarily my choice in direction (although I suppose you could just ignore the booklet numbers) but I imagine the idea was to have you building Voltron as it goes along, so legs, then the torso to slot into the legs.
The black lion is a different beast entirely (no pun intended) but one of the most curious things about it is the modular way in which it approaches the individual parts; whereas blue and yellow have long bodies that you slap the legs onto, black has segmented shoulders and hips. As always, there's a reason, but we'll save that for the end.
One of the coolest bits, though, is the black lion's head, which has to double as Voltron's face. The construction is actually pretty simple; just a some hinge clips connecting the face - which then becomes the lower jaw - to the upper cranium. But the whole look is just utterly fantastic; the lion face looks imposing, and then it will later become the whole head of Voltron, with some unique printing to help sell the mighty robot look and iconic jawline.
Up next are red and green! Similar to blue and yellow, red and green are basically the same thing as one another. However, they're markedly different from the two legs. Thanks to a little bit of extra constraction oomph, green and red have some extra points of body articulation on blue and yellow (though they lose a bit of it in their stubby tails and lack of jaws).
Honestly, red and green are probably my favorites of the whole thing. They're a little bit smaller, but they have that litheness that actually makes them seem like the spacefaring cats that they're supposed to be.
But wait, there's more! It wouldn't be Voltron without a sword and shield. The shield is wicked cool, with silver panels sticking out everywhere. The sword, too, has a great look, though it's hampered by the fact that it does have a "backside", so they let the non-photographed side languish without any SNOT techniques to cover it up. The weapons also, unfortunately, do not sit particularly well in the hands of the lions; they always end up skewed to an angle or side, making it hard to photograph.
And at last we reach the finale; combining the lions to form Voltron. It's actually not as simple as attaching the lions; aside from the legs needing to be configured properly, the black lion's aforementioned modular bits need to be swapped around and put into position. One the one hand, the construction iself is brilliant, with all these parts being incredibly easy to configure, but still stable when in place. On the other hand, it's not quite as seamless as I was hoping for, given the lack of poseability in certain parts. I know it was a fool's wish, but thinking back to the source picture on the box, you can't help but wonder when we'll get to that level.
That said, the final set is nothing short of fantastic; tall, imposing, and best of all, solid, and filled to the brim with ingenious techniques. Remember those clips I mentioned? Those are part of a click-hinge system Niek created to transform the legs. On the underside there is a single click hinge, while internally there is one for the clips near the shoulders. It's all well-hidden and cleverly unobtrusive, and makes me excited for future developments.
The Brass Tacks
As may have been apparent, I'm a 90's kid, so I missed the Voltron train by a wide margin. However, I hold an undying love for absurd combining robot animals thanks to Power Rangers, so there's no way I wasn't in the target audience for this. Plus, the most recent Voltron series has been fantastic, and I assume contributed to the ability to license and produce this set.
And, on the whole, it's a great set; each of the lions is ridiculously fun to play with by itself, and the combining aspect, as LEGO's product copy will tell you, is a landmark in terms of buildable mech accomplishments. If I have any complaint at all, it's that the final Voltron isn't as exciting as my (admittedly high) expectations. Which is hardly unsurprising; as a Constraction guy, I look for wildly different things in a LEGO product than the average buyer, and to apply those criteria to System is asking for trouble. But my sense of disappointment, if you can call it that, isn't so much a reflection on the final product as it is an apprehension for what's to come. There are some fantastic building techniques in this product (click hinges, poseable legs on EVERY lion, their individual playability), which makes me believe that these will one day come together in a more perfect union of giant robots and LEGO.
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