You’d be right to be cynical about a Hollywood movie based around a bestselling toy with a high price point and a lack of prepackaged story inside the box. The movie business is just that, a business, and when they join forces with toy manufacturers to make “entertainment” for children the results are rarely satisfying or recognizable as anything but crummy, feature-length commercials.
But every rule has an exception, and The LEGO Movie is that gloriously wise, beautifully crafted, and unabashedly fun anomaly.
Emmet (Chris Pratt) is an average guy whose continually optimistic outlook is fueled by his appreciation for, and obedience of, President Business’ (Will Ferrell) instructions for living. They tell him to park within the lines, drink overpriced coffee, root for the local sports team… everything necessary for an orderly, structured, and “perfect” community. That illusory perfection is threatened by a prophecy stating that a lone hero will rise to liberate the people through organized chaos, and as luck would have it, Emmet appears to be that hero.
Introducing Emmet to his adventure are a nimble little minx named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and an old, blind sage named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), and together they bring him up to speed on President Business’ nefarious plans and his weapon of mass destruction, the Kragle. Slowly but surely a team comes together made up of characters as diverse as 1980’s Spaceman Benny (Charlie Day), the pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), and Batman (Will Arnett) and others including a few more recognizable DC Heroes. (Marvel’s superheroes were apparently not invited.)
Numerous other characters pop in and out but are best discovered naturally while you sit in your seat enjoying what is clearly one of the most purely entertaining films, for kids or adults, to hit screens in some time. The joy of it all comes from their appearances as more than simple cameos to help sell more Official LEGO box sets, although yes, they’re meant to do that too, as additionally they serve to enhance the core message of the story.
We’re all familiar with the narrative concept of a normal person realizing they’re the singular hero the world needs. It’s been a staple of entertainment for ages and has quickly become the norm on YA bookshelves too. Writers/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have fun with the idea, both openly with the film’s numerous riffs on The Matrix and more subversively with the path our “hero” eventually comes to discover. It straddles a fine line between calling out individuals as special, acknowledging that the potential to be so is in every one of us, and understanding the value of teamwork. Sure that’s three things and lines are normally walked between two, but did I mention the film’s a bit unconventional?
The script’s playfulness with the idea of “the one” isn’t the only area that goes against the grain here either. Lord and Miller have also taken what could have been a simple and traditionally hollow path to turning a toy product into a moving picture product, and instead delivered something extraordinary. Their first feature, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, hinted at their talent in this area, and their follow-up, the decidedly less kid-friendly 21 Jump Street, confirmed their ability to sidestep disappointment, exceed expectations and imbue their films with unnecessary but much appreciated intelligence. That skill-set continues to evolve here resulting in a film and story that deliver energy, charm, and self-aware laughs.
The pleasantly unexpected continues with a big, beating heart and a surprisingly humanistic soul amid the branded plastic faces, ingratiatingly catchy theme song (“Everything is Awesome!”), and distant ka-chings of toy store cash registers. The third act sincerity trumps the emotion on display in far too many “important” films too meaning you will most likely shed tears for a film about plastic toys from Denmark. I’m not saying I did (I totally did), but you might.
And then there’s the film’s visuals. Reportedly a mix of CGI and stop-motion, the film is an eye-popping stunner. I say “reportedly” because the CGI is so crisp and clear that the tiniest details are visible, from everyone/everything’s connective nubs to the very specific crack on the 1980’s Spaceman’s helmet. I know it’s CGI, but I wouldn’t bet against several scenes involving a bit of the ole’ stop-motion magic too. Beyond simply the quality of sharp visuals there’s a ceaseless burst of energy that by all accounts should grow tiresome quickly, but it never does. Images fill the screen, jammed with detail it will will take multiple viewings to fully enjoy, and their rapid-fire nature forces your eyes and mind to stay focused to minimize missed gags and details.
The LEGO Movie is something of a minor miracle. It’s not that it’s a perfect film, it most definitely isn’t, but it accomplishes the unexpected by turning the crassly commercial endeavor we all expected into an experience of pure joy. Beautifully designed, insanely witty, and positively oozing with personality, this is a film for all ages and dispositions. Now if only my ticket stub got me a discount on some LEGOs…
The Upside: Lively, funny, creative, and surprisingly heartfelt; wisely embraces its commercial intentions and incorporates them into the story; slyly subversive; no fart jokes
The Downside: Charm and humor slows in the second act; it’s still a 100 minute advertisement
On the Side: Will Forte voices Abraham Lincoln, something he last did in Lord/Miller’s animated series Clone High.