Here is something I didn’t see coming: The freshest, most unique animated family film from any Hollywood studio in well over a year is … based on a line of brightly colored plastic construction blocks and assorted accessories. I’m not kidding!
In fact, I’m tempted to say that, prior to The Lego Movie — from writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs fame — the last Hollywood-distributed animated film to attain comparable levels of goofy invention, freewheeling creative weirdness and sheer visual novelty was, um, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. But 2011 saw DreamWorks’ surreal Puss in Boots, as well as Gore Verbinski’s Rango, which isn’t my thing, but you have to admit it’s one of a kind.
Writing this is, I confess, an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Last year, when someone on Twitter linked to the trailer for The Lego Movie with the caustic aside, “This is a real movie — not a joke,” I cracked, “Depends how you define ‘real movie’ and ‘joke.’” Earlier this week, riffing on growing critical and popular enthusiasm over the film, another wag on Twitter joked, “I eagerly await the Chutes & Ladders movie now that the Rubik’s Cube 3-D rom-com is in turnaround.”
Yeah. A movie world of big-screen tie-in movies based on toys and games is so not a world I want to live in. Does anyone really look forward to the next Transformers, Battleship or Prince of Persia? Looking ahead, Angry Birds is coming in 2016. Right now, as far as I know, somewhere out there, Adam Sandler is working on Candy Land. If that doesn’t fill you with ennui, what would?
Yet here we are, and The Lego Movie is the rebuttal of all my arguments. I don’t want to oversell it. It’s not the second coming of Toy Story, although it does echo Toy Story in notable ways.
Perhaps I can put it this way: The Lego Movie does everything you expect a movie like this to do, but it also does a great deal you don’t expect, subverting clichés, taking roads less traveled and even tiptoeing into theological wonder. Still not kidding!
That might seem like more than any movie should be doing, and maybe it is. It’s a little too frantic and overstuffed. But after a year in which one animated film after another — The Croods, Turbo, Planes, Epic and even Monsters University and Frozen — didn’t do enough, I would rather have a movie offer too much than too little.
You expect The Lego Movie to riff on everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Matrix, and it does. You don’t expect the chosen hero to turn out to be more Frodo than Neo — that is, special not so much because he is special as because he isn’t, if you follow me. The prophecy tells of a chosen one (yes, yet again) called “The Special” who will be “the brightest, most talented, most interesting person in the universe.” Yet the unfolding plot takes this cliché in unexpected directions.
Emmet (Chris Pratt) doesn’t seem special. He just wants to be like everybody else and fit in, which is remarkably easy for a Lego mini-figure construction worker that actually is just like everybody else and is literally made to literally fit in.
In Emmet’s world, fitting in means everyone drinks the same overpriced coffee, watches the same favorite TV show (a stupid sitcom) and listens to the same favorite song (a catchy earbug of a dance anthem your kids will be singing for days). It also means being a cog in the machine at work. Come to think of it, Emmet’s world isn’t all that different from ours.
You might or might not be surprised to find a Wall-E-esque satire of consumerism and conformity in a movie like this. (Compare also the opening song Thneedville in Blue Sky’s The Lorax — the best part of that movie.) More surprising is the notion that unbridled, anything-goes personal creativity and self-expression may not always be the best solution to every problem.
Lacking either originality or leadership qualities, Emmet initially makes for a disappointing messianic hero. When someone warns him, “Don’t get any ideas,” he confidently responds, “I never have any ideas,” and he means it.
Yet Emmet’s first decisive act of leadership draws on an unexpected strength. His solution in a key moment of crisis is not the triumphant table-turning a proper chosen one would exhibit. The final battle is not all about him. And the climactic showdown with the villain takes a remarkable, gratifying turn.
The story pits Emmet and his allies — including a Gandalf-like wizard (Morgan Freeman), a Matrix-inspired Trinity stand-in (Elizabeth Banks) and a super-sweet Hello Kitty / My Little Pony hybrid (Alison Brie) — against an evil dark lord (Will Ferrell) whose penchant for mispronunciation and overused genitive constructions riffs on Ferrell’s own Megamind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and fantasy writing generally. Still not kidding!
On one level, The Lego Movie feels less like Toy Story than Wreck-It Ralph (to me, a more successful stab at what Wreck-It Ralph was aiming at). The characters belong not to a shared plaything culture revolving all around the human players, but to an alternative multiverse of worlds in which radically different environments and sensibilities jostle with one another hugger-mugger.
The Lego empire has roots far and wide in the pop-culture landscape: Marvel and DC superheroes, Indiana Jones and Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lord of the Rings all have Lego incarnations. Whether for licensing or other reasons, The Lego Movie limits the franchises it draws on, but it makes shrewd choices.
Fans of a certain team franchise that may or may not ever get a movie sort of get to see their favorite characters together on the big screen for the first time. One brief incursion of a mega-franchise includes brilliant cameo voice-overs. (Do yourself a favor and don’t spoil it by reading the cast list beforehand … or by reading other reviews.) The Lego Movie is practically a geek must-see for this short scene alone.
The look of the film warrants mention. Though clearly a work of computer animation, it’s tied enough to the plastic media it honors to stick pretty much frame for frame to what you could actually build with Lego, even emulating the jerky look of a stop-motion movie made with the plastic blocks. The high-tech retro look is a big part of the pleasure of watching the film.
In a day when many family films push the envelope with language, sometimes resorting to coy semi-homophones (“That’s Bolshevik!”; “Yippee-kayay, coffeemaker!”), this one treads lightly with the mildest phrases. (At one point, a character even spells “Oh my g-o-s-h!”; another explodes, “Darny-darn-darn!”)
Toward the end, there’s an intriguing twist that pays off scattered references to “the Man Upstairs.” One of the characters has a transcendent experience of a larger world of powers and principalities he can hardly fathom, a bit like the painted characters in the intriguing French animated film The Painting (an honorable mention film from my 2013 top-films list).
I’m not saying The Lego Movie is as theologically fraught as The Painting — though even inviting the comparison is achievement enough. Rather, as Jeff Overstreet notes in his review, The Lego Movie resonates with J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation.” How many of the recent crop of Hollywood animated movies could you say that about?
Caveat Spectator: Much highly stylized action violence; very mild language and brief mild rude humor. Fine family viewing.