The Lego Movie (2014) feels like it burst forth from the imagination of the most manic kid in the class. It is full of energy and attention and its enthusiasm wins you over, smoothing out some of its storytelling malaise and making its spontaneous flightiness part of its charm. I just finished it and couldn’t begin to tell you what the finer points of the plot are, nor can I say I fully understood the movie’s message (the message of the story, mind you— the movie’s overall message was quite clear: buy Legos), but I know I laughed a great deal and that it operates under the same breathless understanding that creative kids who play with Legos know so well: the only limits are in your imagination.
The story takes place in the world of Legos; the characters are little yellow men and women with block legs and thin, crescent-shaped hands. Their apartments and cars are made out of Legos, the streets and buildings are made out of Legos, the fire and water are made out of Legos. The movie is computer-generated but the images are jerky and rough, as if it were made by stop-motion photography. This gives the impression that unseen hands are moving the pieces one tiny frame at a time. This both subtly re-creates the sensation of playing with these toys yet also enriches the movie’s brilliant reveal of its full world in its final act.
Our hero is Emmet Brickowoski (voiced by Chris Pratt), an average construction worker who follows the rules and doesn’t question the status quo. He has few distinguishing features; he has posters on his wall that say “Sports!” and “A Popular Band.” Soon, it will be revealed that he is the only hope to stop a plot by Lord Business (Will Ferrell) to destroy the world using a terrible weapon called the Kragle, which is a tube of Krazy Glue with the letters Z, Y and U smudged out. Emmet is joined by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), an astronaut from the ’80s named Benny (Charlie Day), the wise sage Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), a kitten with a permanent smile and pearly horn on her head named Unikitty (Alison Brie), and, surreally, Batman (Will Arnett), who is dating Wyldstyle and sings a song in which he lets out some of his angst by screaming the word “Darkness!” over hard guitar riffs.
Together they can, just like anyone who has access to a Toy ’R’ Us and $19.95, take the pieces that make up their world and rearrange them into whatever they imagine. This creative freedom infuriates Lord Business, whose uptight conservatism dictates that all the rules be followed, meaning that pieces of buildings shouldn’t be used to make submarines and Batman should not be hanging around with half-kittens half-unicorns. Before it’s over we will also get cameos from Superman, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and much of the Star Wars cast. I would find this more distasteful (all of these pieces are, you know, for sale) if not for the fact that kids don’t care about trademarks and franchise ownership and have been mixing and matching their toys for generations, including mine (rarely did my Lego villages avoid an attack from a Jurassic Park T-Rex).
Why is it that I was struck by the unabashed commercialism ofThe Lego Movie more than other movies aimed at children? True, this is a movie inspired by toys but so often kids movies are simply the inspiration for toys, so what’s the difference? The Lego Movie is always flirting a line of crass materialism but a handful of things keep it on the right side. Its remarkable humor, in which non sequiturs and audacious nonsense are piled upon it at breakneck speed, power the movie’s engine and keep it humming along. The characters move too fast to see their price tags and the filmmakers are sly and unrestrained in their adoration for filmmaking. It may be a 100-minute commercial but it is the first 100-minute commercial I’ve ever seen that has a brief reference to Welles’ The Trial (1962) and Vidor’s The Crowd (1928). It also helps that the tone is matched perfectly with the type of creativity Legos can best inspire, manic imagination in which story is secondary to feeling, structure subservient to energy, logic a slave to fun.
The movie also is able to be subversive without being cynical. The real reason Pixar is the head of the class is because it generates laughter without resorting to a Shrek-like contempt for accepted totems. Here, The Lego Movie, produced by Warner Bros, takes the pop-heavy Dreamworks mold and infuses it with Pixar-like ingenuity. It takes down its targets without asserting that such targets are useless. The brilliant ribbing of the dark, edgy Batman doesn’t ridicule the vigilante, just reminds us that he’s a man in a cape and a hood, after all. Anyone whose logo graces so many of our briefs doesn’t have to be so brooding all the time. I also enjoyed Lord Business’ lead henchman, voiced by Liam Neeson, gently clowning his no-nonsense persona, who is both good and bad cop at the same time.
The drawback to its zaniness is that it has less ground to stand on when it wants to get heartfelt, less still when its commercial aims dictate that the tone of individual creativity has to be abandoned for one of mass marketing. The story’s message is about specialness and concludes that everyone has it (which, then, doesn’t make it special) though what it’s really saying is everyone is special and can buy Legos. These little problems smarted me like stepping barefoot on a rogue Lego brick in the middle of the night, but they weren’t enough to sour my opinion of the movie overall. As a child raised on these little bricks, I made enough movies in my mind with them to know that this one knows what it’s doing.