Let me tell you a story.
This year, amongst other things, we celebrate forty years since the release of the first wave of Fabuland sets. Directed towards children making the transition from DUPLO® to regular system bricks, Fabuland represented the company’s first foray into story telling, and multimedia marketing.
Fabuland started simply in the form of sets: a town, with anthropomorphic animal headed figures, living their lives together. We had the essential services represented: police, fire and hospital, and ice cream. In time it expanded to include school, cafe, local government, transportation and paparazzi.
Fabuland sets were released from 1979 until 1989. Vehicles and buildings embraced the original primary colours that LEGO® parts were released in, while a collection of new colours was used to enhance the palette used for the character’s heads as well as the multitude of accessories, some of which we continue to see today. As well as new colours, we saw a proliferation of accessories for figures, as well as a new modular building system, making construction simple, and quick.
Outside of LEGO Sets, Fabuland expanded in directions never before seen with our favourite interlocking plastic brick: story books, jigsaws, a television series and even an audio drama released on record. A record was a circular pice of vinyl with a long continuous groove encoding sound, which could be listened to by placing a stylus in said groove, while rotating the disc at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. The technology has been largely superseded by the cassette tape, compact disc, minidisc, MP3 player and now Spotify playlist. Except by hipsters, who embrace the retro audio aesthetic of pops, flutter and crackles.
The instructions were unlike any previous instruction sheets: produced as a storybook. As the building progressed, so did the story.
For the first time, the figures in a LEGO sets were given names and character, making it easier to make them the subject of a story. In comparison, the first Minifigures were not going to be named until the release of Pirates sets – ten years later! We looked briefly at the topic of the alliterative names in Fabuland last year.
Fabuland may not have been quite my thing ‘back in the day:’ I was already ten years old and moving on to Technical sets before falling into my dark ages. As I talk to friends slightly younger than myself, it becomes apparent, however, that Fabuland was frequently an important part of their childhood. Figures frequently turn up in bulk lots, in online photos and I find that most shows I attend have at least one Fabuland layout.
Meet Catherine Cat and Mortimer Mouse.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at set 341: Catherine Cat’s House and Mortimer Mouse. In the USA, it had the set number 132. Released in 1979, this set came with 113 elements and two figures. I purchased it second hand and, apart from the original box, it was complete, and the instruction book was in excellent condition.
We meet Catherine Cat and Mortimer Mouse. Catherine is house proud, and very clean and tidy. Morty can be helpful. Sometimes. But he is a little bit lazy.
They set out to build a house, but Morty gets tired, and wants to rest. Catherine want’s to finish the house and furniture first. The two have a falling out over the division of labour, and both go on to build their own houses. But is it is much fun living alone? So they make up, and build another house together. There are sufficient details in the illustrations to see how to build the house from the elements included.
There are two figures included in this set. Catherine Cat and Mortimer Mouse. Unlike Minifigures, Fabuland characters are not designed to pull apart (it can be done, but should it?). This helps them to maintain their identity. Catherine has a white torso and red arms and legs. Her head is white, with black details printed on. Morty has a blue torso, with black limbs. His head is light grey – the old one, with black details. Both figure’s heads are moulded with ears and a fringe. Unlike minifigures, the Fabuland figure’s heads are able to tilt as well as rotate. this can enhance their expressiveness significantly.
As this is what we can safely refer to as a vintage set, no element in this set could be considered as new any longer. So, rather than focus on the new elements, let’s look at those which are no longer in the standard parts palette. Interestingly, these are all elements that first appeared with the first wave of Fabuland sets!
Window panel Measuring 2×6 studs, by seven bricks high, the windows in this set are virtually round. On the inside of these modular panels, there is a shelf to assist with furnishing your cottage.
Room module Measuring 20×10 studs, and nine bricks high, this module was one of the mainstays of Fabuland architecture. – allowing quick and easy building construction, the shape of the door and windows evolved over the years, but remained quintessentially Fabuland.
Fabuland Tree This wonderful tree was an intrinsic element in landscaping the world offabuland. The circular base
Stairs A slightly odd element, the stairs measure 14 x 3 studs, by 9 bricks high (not including the bannister) this element features no studs or tubes. However, the long axis of the base fits snugly between the studs of a plate.
Umbrella The Umbrella with its seperate base is able to be angled a little more than those of today. it is around seven bricks tall, and the canopy is eight studs across.
Fence (in blue) This fence is a classic: it first appeared in red in 1967, and then yellow and green in the 70’s. The blue version debuted in this set in 1979, but has not been seen since 1986. Several other colours have been used in the mean time. Most recently, it was seen in reddish brown, black, and white.
The set includes lots of red, yellow and blue bricks, some red and yellow plates, as well as some accessories for the figures: a dark grey shovel and a brown broom.
The Build and Story.
The build is not complicated: while the instructions in the 1970’s did not tend to spoon feed the builder with brick by brick directions, as is often the case today, the construction techniques used here make the primary model a simple enough build. However, as you can see, best practices for stability were not necessarily a priority at the time.
The build also includes some simple chairs, a sofa and table. Once the house is completed, Morty just wants to take a rest, but Catherine keeps pestering him to get more jobs done.
Once we have our initial build, Morty complains about the amount of work that Catherine is asking him to do. and she gets frustrated by just how lazy Morty can be. So he decides to move out, and the characters set about building their own dwellings.
This alternative build, for individual houses is not as clearly defined in the illustrations as the primary build. A great opportunity to start developing some problem solving skills.
Deciding they would be happier living together, our characters work to combine their resources, and build a new house, where living can be a little more enjoyable, as well as less lonely.
As Catherine and Morty come to realise how much happier they are living together, they once again combine their homes. There was a little trial and error involved in confirming the best way to complete this: editorial control with illustrators is not as complete as it might be with computer generated instructions, with brick colours changing between the pages.
This set is in magnificent condition, considering its age. The decals on the window module, as well as the main room were all in good condition, with no sign of peeling. I feel privileged to be able to say I now own this set: it is a great window on the history of Fabuland, as well as the role of storytelling in LEGO sets. Apart from a small crease on the top corner of the instruction manual, it is in near perfect condition. A lot of the bricks exhibited a small amount of age related wear and tear.
While the build is simple, the mixture of traditional elements with some more specific purpose parts was fun to complete, with the three suggested models each having their own character. While the first was probably my favourite, the final one feels more satisfying, due to some of the trial and error which was necessary to put it together.
As far as the story is concerned, I appreciated the way in which the characterisations were made early in the story, and how these were then incorporated in the way the story developed. I felt the way in which the alternative builds were introduced was quite clever. Even though the exact instructions were not available, there were sufficient elements left over at the end of the third building to be able to make it work.
I give this set four point five out of five Arbitrary Praise Units (4.5/5). While construction is simple, it was aimed at young children, and encouraged rebuilding the set in alternative ways, as well as different ways in which play could be incorporated. What do you think of this set? Was Fabuland an important part of your childhood? Do you still play with it? Why lot leave a comment below, and share how Fabuland has been part of your life, either in the past or more recently.
If you have enjoyed this article, why not share it with your friends, and subscribe to the Rambling Brick to keep up to date. You can also follow the Rambling Brick on Instagram for extra photos from the blog, including some previewing upcoming stories and behind the scenes shots. In 2019, we are visiting the theme of story telling in LEGO sets through the years – where will we head next? Come back soon to find out. Until then,
2 thoughts on “Feeling Forty and Fabulous in Fabuland [Review 341/132 Catherine Cat’s House and Morty Mouse]”
This was my first ever Fabuland set. I got it for my 6th birthday in 1981. My instruction book is long gone and I couldn’t remember if Catherine and Morty were meant to be married or not. From reading this it seems then were (or at least boyfriend/girlfriend)!
I can built from memory though. Sadly all the beautiful stickers on mine are gone – except on the big yellow house. This is possibly my favourite of my Fabuland sets. The colours are just perfect. The yellow house was pretty much the main part of any house I built.
Brilliant review. I love it and it’s so nice to see bits from the instructions that I had long forgotten.
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[…] the same time, we saw other themes arrive with an emphasis on story telling: Fabuland instruction manuals were written as story books, and the theme was one of the first to extend into multimedia, […]