The typical Lego minifigure stands just 4cm tall, though of course, the popular construction toys hold a much bigger place than that in children’s imaginations. “The Lego Movie” understands how fans interact with the brand and answers with a mile-a-minute geekstravaganza that immerses kids — and the adults who only think they outgrew their old playsets — at ground level with the tiny plastic bricks. Just as they did with “21 Jump Street” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” before this most ambitious undertaking, co-helmers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller irreverently deconstruct the state of the modern blockbuster and deliver a smarter, more satisfying experience in its place, emerging with a fresh franchise for others to build upon.
To the enormous credit of these preternaturally clever writer-directors, the above paragraph contains more low-hanging Lego puns than the movie itself, which relies on ingenuity and genuinely inspired twists on what audiences expect from such an experience to deliver a constant stream of engagement and laughs.
Once exclusively the domain of Saturday morning cartoons, where they functioned as feature-length commercials for the brands in question, toy-based entertainments now lead the box office, and an assignment like this — which will massively affect the bottom line of the product in question — could have gone any number of ways. On one hand, “Toy Story” had long since cornered the sincere ode-to-childhood-playthings approach, while the “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” movies went the overkill route, all but obliterating the notion that those bombastic adventures could in any way relate to how kids use the related toy products, and treating them more like the afterthought tie-ins “Star Wars” and other films typically support.
But “The Lego Movie” demonstrates something altogether different. The film functions as a massive homage to a shared childhood experience, amplified and projected on the bigscreen. So, while the result is undoubtedly the single most product-centric film of all time, it’s also just hip and irreverent enough to leave audiences feeling as though its makers managed to pull one over on the business guys. They’ve gotten away with something, upholding and expanding the worldwide Cult of Lego — the plot literally serves to cement the right and wrong way to play with the product — while good-naturedly skewering consumer culture at large.
The experience opens with a bombastic, but not-entirely-serious confrontation between a power-hungry Lego figure named Lord Business (Will Ferrell, back in evil-with-a-wink “Megamind” mode) and good wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, poking fun at every voice-of-authority figure he’s ever played) for a force that gives whoever possesses it control of the entire Lego universe. This powerful entity is trumped only by the “Man Upstairs.”
And so the Lego people live in a state of primitive superstition, torn between their ambitious new leader — who reinvents himself as President Business, issuing an elaborate system of “instructions” that keep his citizens tightly confined to their respective realms — and the mysterious godlike entity whose hand can reach down at any time to rearrange everything according to his own design. As anyone who has played with Legos knows, a strict adherence to the rules makes for relatively mindless play, whereas things can really get fun when one dumps all the bricks onto the bedroom floor and starts freestyling creations from scratch, even if that means blending pieces from pirate, castle, space and city sets (which is precisely the sort of disorder President Business aims to quash).
According to an ancient prophecy repeated by Vitruvius, one day a “Special” will arise to dismantle the rigid conformity that governs the Lego universe — a concept that echoes Warners’ own “The Matrix,” albeit with none of that film’s self-seriousness of tone. Where Trinity did the honors in that film, a sexy goth chick who calls herself Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) inadvertently introduces Emmet (“Parks and Recreation’s” Chris Pratt), an endearingly empty-headed construction worker, to the notion that certain Master Builders have the power to recombine available pieces into anything they can imagine.
This encounter has profound existential implications for Emmet, who had previously been content to follow the rules: buying expensive coffee, watching braindead TV and singing along with an insidiously catchy anthem called “Everything Is Awesome” that keeps the citizens of Bricksburg working, building and buying in lockstep. Now, with his little yellow mind blown, Emmet is pulled into a renegade adventure to help Wyldstyle thwart President Business’ plans to cement his neatly ordered Lego world in place with a substance called Kragle (actually, Krazy Glue, with a few of the letters rubbed off its tube).
With “Robot Chicken’s” Chris McKay in charge of animation and editing (with co-editor David Burrows), the pic clips along with quick, cut-to-the-gag abandon. And much like last year’s “Wreck-It Ralph” (or the more tonally similar “Adventure Time”), “The Lego Movie” anticipates a certain attention-deficit quality in its audience, constantly plunging the action into new and different realms, while poking fun at the various characters and customs that make each sort of silly along the way.
From the outset, Lord and Miller decide to respect the idea of Lego while reserving the right to poke fun at anything and everything the brand encompasses, including (nearly) all the other creative properties that have licensed themselves to Lego in recent years — at least, all those that fall within the expansive Warners universe, plus some of the sillier one-offs (including mermaids and clowns and so on). That means DC superheroes can exist alongside the NBA All-Stars (Shaquille O’Neal even lends his own voice), and the Harry Potter wizards have a chance to bicker with those from “The Lord of the Rings.”
More importantly, given the film’s flip approach, it means that no one is being so protective of the way that, say, Batman (Will Arnett) or the “Star Wars” characters are presented that a team of lawyers was allowed to swoop in and spoil the fun. Instead, everything is subject to the director’s silly-making sensibility, especially the plot itself, which may as well have been borrowed from every other brink-of-disaster epic. So, while Emmet and his minifigure friends go about trying to save the day, the film takes a step back to reveal the live-action world in which their tiny travails are situated, earning not just laughs, but a measure of genuine sentiment in the process.
Lego fans have been making their own Lego movies for years, to the extent that the company even introduced a “Lego Studios” line in the year 2000 that included a Steven Spielberg-lookalike director and a working stop-motion camera. In choosing the look of their big-budget production, Lord and Miller stick to that aesthetic, using computer animation to simulate the surface texture and slightly jerky movement we might expect if someone had orchestrated the entire experience with plastic toys painstakingly repositioned and photographed one frame at a time (according to the press notes, that would have taken no fewer than 15,080,330 bricks).
Such things may not seem important to the casual observer, but the creative team had to make important decisions about how the characters move and behave, committing to a look that mirrors how the plastic pieces appear in real life: They can be taken apart and reconfigured, but they don’t bend (the way they do in Lego videogames). At the end of the day, everything remains molded plastic, complete with visible nicks and scratches. The tiny faces appear “painted” on, but are also interchangeable, which supports Liam Neeson’s hilariously conflicted police officer (whose head rotates to reveal both Bad Cop and Good Cop personalities) and a wide range of crazy, caricatured expressions for everyone else.
As in Lord and Miller’s two previous pics, the directors allow things to swell bigger than the assignment requires, and the story gets away from them a bit in its final third. The difference here, however, is that they’ve built in a separate level on which to watch the entire experience, inviting audiences to enjoy the creativity of the construction itself — which is something the film shares with any child who’s ever invented an unintended use for an existing Lego piece. They have fun representing elements such as fire and water with repurposed plastic, or introducing “relics” (such as Band-Aids and housekeys that somehow got mixed up with the Legos) into the characters’ midst. The wildly creative result — lively and ultimately more than a little overwhelming — embodies precisely what is meant when something amounts to more than the sum of its parts.