Considering I do these weekly lists of movies to watch in order to highlight new releases as gateways to older works, it’s particularly fun to focus on something geared toward children. Young people aren’t as familiar with a lot of movies, so they’re more in need of such recommendations. A lot of time, though, the allusions they should subsequently become familiar with are for an older audience. At least one movie included in this week’s list inspired by The LEGO Movie, for instance, is definitely not suitable for children at all. Others won’t be of much interest to them.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of obvious, explicit movie references in The LEGO Movie that I didn’t feel necessary to spotlight, such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lincoln and any of the many DC superhero movies featuring some of the characters represented in LEGO minifig form. There are some fairly obvious titles included, though; the first half of the list is mainly movies that many critics have mentioned in comparison. And then there is the second half, which is filled with pretty obscure films, most documentaries, tied to LEGO in some way.
As always, name any movies this one reminded you of as well as any you think we ought to check out next. Also as always, beware that there are spoilers for this week’s movie, so if you haven’t yet seen The LEGO Movie, you need to do so right now and then come back to continue.
Many a critic has written of the plot to The LEGO Movie by likening it to the first Matrix movie. To put it into detail, there’s a hero who is unknowingly “the one,” and he is recruited by a visionary black man and a punk-styled female, who becomes the hero’s love interest, and there’s a villainous agent who can change his face. And the special power that “the one” must find within him is the ability to alter the physical makeup of their world. There enough perfect parallels that it’s almost indistinguishable from what a LEGO remake of The Matrix would look like (and yes, of course, there have been LEGO Matrix fan films, or brickfilms). I’d say LEGO should now be obligated to make a Matrix playset, but you could probably just consider the LEGO Movie playsets that very thing.
I include this first Pixar animate feature not just because it’s a movie in which toys come to life. It certainly was not the first to have such a premise. No, it’s specifically the kinds of toys hat come to life in Toy Story that makes it relevant. They were real, familiar brands and products, and Pixar managed to do right with its licensing of certain toys in order to make the ensemble believable as any kid’s box of playthings. LEGO is benefited in its own licenses so that there’s similarly a healthy mix of pop culture references. Sure, it all really comes down to them being LEGO toys and many of them are from Warner Bros. properties, making it easy on he studio, but the result is still the same.
Team America: World Police
I know I’m not the only person who thought of this 10-year-old movie from South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone while becoming immersed in the LEGO Movie world. They’re both hilarious satires of our own world as depicted through the use of toys (if we may label marionette puppets toys) in fantastical worlds that serve as host to those inanimate objects, were they alive. I come close to considering them both stop-motion animation even though neither is. One big difference is that the puppets of Team America have graphic sex scenes while the minifigs of The LEGO Movie weren’t even permitted to kiss.
Cloak & Dagger
The end of The LEGO Movie comes down to a bond between a real boy and his real father, whose relationship has been strained and has been cause for the boy’s wild imagination and disobedience. In this increasingly forgotten 30-year-old family film starring E.T.‘s Henry Thomas and Dabney Coleman, the boy has an imaginary friend who is a spy and the spitting image of his dad. And if you want to go back further, Cloak & Dagger is a basically a remake of Ted Tetzlaff’s 1949 film The Window, only that version doesn’t have the fantasy element.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
If you really want to get to know the work of LEGO Movie writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, you should watch their animated series Clone High. But the significance of their feature film debut is that, like The LEGO Movie, we all expected it to suck. I especially dreaded Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs because the source material is probably my favorite children’s book of all time, from youth on, and it was clear the adaptation was straying far away from that beloved classic. Its looseness turned out to be a good thing, because I hardly see it as being based on the book outside of sharing a title, though the real point of favor was that on its own it is a hilarious and clever movie. The same is true for Lord and Miller’s 21 Jump Street movie, which we all similarly expected to be bad, and now again with The LEGO Movie. I wonder if there’s any property these guys couldn’t turn into something great.
Available to rent on iTunes.
This short film by Patrick Jean that went viral a few years ago involves video game pixels, not LEGOs, but those pixels really reminded me of LEGO bricks, and in particular the way water is rendered here is similar to what Lord and Miller do for water in their LEGO movie. The LEGO Movie also reminded me a lot of Wreck-It Ralph with its ensemble of various trademark characters and portals to different worlds, and of course that Disney feature can be linked to the video game inspiration of Pixels. The rights to a feature version of Pixels was picked up by Adam Sandler back when the short was all the rage, so we’ll see how that goes. Probably not as well as The LEGO Movie turned out.
Watch Pixels in full below.
Bionicle: Mask of Light
Ever since Warner Bros. announced plans for a LEGO movie, people have been skeptical about it, seeing the idea as just another in a trend of movies based on toys, all of them hardly anything more than feature-length commercials. But a movie based on LEGO toys wasn’t a new idea. Back in 2003, the toy brand teamed up with Miramax and Disney for their first direct-to-video Bionicle animated feature. The Bionicle line isn’t really connected to the general LEGO blocks we primarily associate with the brand. It’s a lot more geared toward a storyline, which made it more logically translated into entertainment of this sort, not unlike Transformers or G.I. Joe or Bratz. It’s not bad, but it’s not as open to the creativity as The LEGO Movie was. We should thank the Bionicle line, too, for saving the LEGO company more than a decade ago. We might not have this awesome new movie if it wasn’t for its help in boosting sales.
Available on DVD.
Moments of Play
Bionicle wasn’t even the first LEGO movie, either, if we count this 1986 documentary by Jorgen Leth (best known as the subject/co-director of Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions), which LEGO financed. It’s an essay film that takes us around the world, including to Bali, Brazil, England, Haiti, Spain, China, the U.S. and of course Denmark, for a look at different kinds of play, with dances, sports and games all represented. Like The LEGO Movie, it also addresses that play and playthings and imagination are not just for kids.
Available to stream or download from Doc Alliance.
Love of the Brick: A Documentary on Adult Fans of LEGO
You can probably discern from the title of this short film that it’s also focused on how toys aren’t just for kids. Director Jay Hanes takes us to the 2008 Brickworld convention in Chicago, where adults and teens present their giant constructions of LEGOs. A lot of the more impressive and elaborate setpieces and scenes look like the “real-life” version of the LEGO world we see at the end of The LEGO Movie. There’s also Jess Gibson’s similar Canadian documentary short AFOL: A Blocumentary. AFOL stands for Adult Fans Of LEGO, and that film focuses on fans from the Pacific Northwest, such as members of the Seattle LEGO Users Group and the Puget Sound LEGO Train Club and attendees of Seattle’s annual BrickCon. You can watch that in full on Vimeo here.
Drugs Are Like That
Anita Bryant narrates this bizarre 1969 educational short meant to teach kids about drugs, which it compares to a baby’s pacifier and innocent habits and other things that drugs are definitely not like. Throughout the film, a couple of kids are putting LEGOs together and wind up with this intricately built machine with rotating gears and other moving parts. Then, to illustrate another thing that drugs are supposedly like, they change one little piece, meaning for the machine to be a metaphor for our bodies with one part not working properly. It all falls apart, of course. It’s kind of the opposite of the idea in The LEGO Movie of altering the construction of things to create other things. I think that means the message of The LEGO Movie is that drugs are awesome?
The original short can be viewed on YouTube, but I recommend watching the RiffTrax version below.
No, this isn’t a LEGO adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, although there is even a brickfilm of that nature on YouTube. Rather this is a 2007 documentary from Sweden about visionary architecture. One of the structures profiled is Moshe Safdie‘s Habitat ’67 housing complex in Montreal, which was inspired by and initially modeled using LEGOs. The strange landmark also recently won an online poll asking people what structure they’d most like to see become a LEGO set. It’s not been determined whether the toy brand will comply.
Available to rent on Vimeo On Demand.
The LEGO Story
Finally, here’s a film about the actual history of LEGO, produced for the toy brand’s 80th anniversary. Kim Pagel’s animated short portrays the origins of the company as founded by Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, as he went from making general wooden toys to the interlocking bricks that made LEGO famous. It’s also, like The LEGO Movie, ultimately, a story of a father and son, as it depicts how Godtfred Kirk Christiansen continued to build the company and eventually the first Legoland theme park.
Watch the 17-minute short in full below.
Bonus: “I Fell In Love With a Girl”
And we can’t ignore this Michel Gondry-directed music video for The White Stripes. It’s not quite a film, but it’s worth revisiting. And now I kinda wish Jack and Meg had cameos in the movie.