In the final third of The Lego Movie, a father and son argue over whether Legos are “just toys” or a “highly sophisticated interlocking brick system.” While one stumps for following instructions to keep everything in rigid order, the other favors letting imagination run wild. As it turns out, they’re both kind of right. This is a surprisingly emotional zenith for what could have been just a feature-length advertisement or vehicle for product placement. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative team behind Clone High, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, and 21 Jump Street, have created another unexpectedly rousing and poignant adaptation of a beloved, seemingly “unfilmable” property.
Similar to the Lego Star Wars “brickfilm” shorts and Bionicle direct-to-video films, The Lego Movie employs CG animation to mimic the appearance of a world made entirely out of Lego bricks and populated by the traditional yellow mini-figures. This approach lacks the tactile pleasures of stop-motion, but nonetheless creates a slick, vivid aesthetic. In a city that operates like clockwork, cheerful but lonely construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) goes about his days unnoticed by those around him. Soon, however, he stumbles into a big adventure, accidentally fulfilling the prophecy of a wizard (Morgan Freeman) at odds with Lord Business (Will Ferrell, doing a mixture of Mugatu and Megamind), a dystopian overlord determined to maintain the rigid borders between Lego realms and quash creative building. Rescued by the mysterious Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Emmet journeys between worlds that correspond to familiar Lego-set themes, while a class of remaining “Master Builders” unite to destroy the villain’s secret, relic weapon.
Typical of a Lord/Miller project, The Lego Movie is packed to the gills with jokes, from throwaway lines to bits of slapstick to highly referential sight gags. (During POV shots from the perspective of the Master Builders, the filmmakers even provide ID numbers that correspond to actual Lego pieces.) Furthermore, the film is littered with myriad cameos from many of the big-name licensed characters under Lego’s umbrella (Will Arnett as Batman, Channing Tatum as Superman, Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman, etc.), but these familiar figures are always employed in service of the film’s playful and winking humor. It’s the funniest blend of pop-culture icons since Wreck-It Ralph.
Emmet borders on oppressively optimistic, but his companions doubt his ability to even contribute, much less fulfill a savior prophecy. Instead of making Emmet’s generic “believe in yourself” attitude the film’s moral center, The Lego Movie underscores the idea that extraordinary abilities can be found in unlikely places. (One of Anton Ego’s best lines from Ratatouille, “A great artist can come from anywhere,” resonates here as well.) But the meta narrative goes one step further, with a twist that adds another thematic layer concerning how toys should be played with and the negotiation between following instructions and following creative whims. That is, after all, the simple beauty of Legos—designed with a specific architectural purpose, but open to ambitious re-interpretation.
The only real bone to pick with The Lego Movie is that the gender disparity of the toys themselves—a pervasive criticism of the brand—has carried over to the film’s major characters. The secondary conflict is decidedly a father-son story. Wyldstyle, though confident and talented, often exists to play the foil of Batman (her jerk boyfriend) and Emmet (the object of her mild envy, then affection). And the only other major female character, voiced by Alison Brie, isn’t portrayed as a mini-figure, making Wyldstyle the catchall female protagonist.
Still, in creatively approaching a corporate property—one so ubiquitous it has its own network of theme parks—Miller and Lord have gone far beyond the call of duty. Their Lego Movie is effervescent in style, conveying a substantive message without ever devolving into saccharine preachiness. In three consecutive films, Miller and Lord have taken a beloved picture book, a soapy teen police drama, and an iconic toy set, and each time emerged with a final product stronger than the building blocks they were given.