The LEGO Movie
A big part of the reason something like “The LEGO Movie” feels more than just a pandering piece of nostalgia for kids who grew up in the late ’70s and ’80s is because of how popular the building toy remains to this day. That can be attributed to savvy marketing on LEGO’s part that results in licensing deals with brands ranging from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Harry Potter,” both DC and Marvel comics, and the biggest of all, “Star Wars.” But that’s not all– LEGO has also developed original specialty lines like City, Castle, Ninjago, and Chima. True, they’ve focused more on boy-centric lines over the years (and were actually called out on it by a young girl recently), but there’s a universality to the toy that has allowed it to remain relevant for everyone.
Tapping into this are co-writers and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and they have delivered a truly original, special movie. This isn’t just about product placement or creating a feature-length toy commercial, but tapping into the imagination and creativity LEGOs inspires in builders both young and old alike (and full disclosure– I’ve become one of those older builders in the past year, thanks in big part to their “Star Wars” line) to tell an adventure story rooted in genre conventions, but also not limited to a specific type of story. What do I mean by that? The film gets very, wonderfully meta in the last 30 minutes, and goes places few other family films have gone before. I’m not gonna lie– I teared up at the end.
The film begins with an ordinary, yellow faced construction figure named Emmet (voiced wonderfully by Chris Pratt), who wakes up in a busy, orderly metropolis where he and his fellow citizens wake up every day; watch the most popular show; listen to the most popular song (“Everything is AWESOME!!!,” which is equally awesome AND annoying in that special “earworm” sort of way); go about their business; and go home at the expected time while President Business (Will Ferrell) goes on TV, telling them what to expect, and to always follow the instructions. But Business isn’t all he claims to be; in a brief prologue, we see him take a mysterious object known as the Kragle from a secret hiding spot guarded by Master Builder Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). The Kragle will give him ultimate power over the world, but Vitruvius speaks of a prophecy where a Master Builder will find the “Piece of Resistance,” which can stop the Kragle, and save the world. One night, Emmet is just leaving the construction site when a woman, Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), shows up looking for the Piece. Dumbstruck with love, Emmet is the one who, inadvertently, comes across the Piece, and gets caught up in the resistance against President Business’s nefarious plans. Is he a Master Builder? Let’s just put it this way– like a bag of LEGOs, Emmet is much more than he looks.
Miller and Lord (who share story credit with Dan and Kevin Hageman) are an interesting pair. As directors, they made a big splash with 2009’s animated hit, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” but they also delivered smart, more adult laughs with 2012’s live-action remix of “21 Jump Street” (the stars of which, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, are back together in this film as Superman and Green Lantern, respectively). How they managed to fuse those two sensibilities into an age-appropriate PG-rated animated comedy that is infectiously entertaining for adults as well as children is something few filmmakers outside of Pixar have really figured out. Here, they make it look easy. The secret, I think, is that they imagine the entire world as a big LEGO set, with different universes that tie into the different lines LEGO has created over the years, and are therefore freed to imagine an ever-changing world. When Wildstyle saves Emmet from the clutches of Business’s chief enforcer, Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), we see what becomes a sort of “Master Builder vision” where she sees the type of parts around her, and is able to create an outrageous cycle on which they can make their escape. That’s just one example of many that made my friend Ron and I really see the film as a kid-friendly riff on “The Matrix,” and while I’m still not a big fan of that Wachowski groundbreaker, that also had a universe where the “reality” (when one was in The Matrix) was flexible, and could be bent to the user’s will. The same is very much true here, as well, except I was able to give myself over completely to this film’s world.
And man, what a world to watch, and get lost in. Miller and Lord achieve the film’s look through a combination of stop-motion, CGI, and real LEGO work that feels very low-tech at times, but pops nontheless. This was the only way to create a LEGO movie visually. Yeah, the aesthetic you see on things like the “LEGO ‘Star Wars'” movies is cute, but Miller and Lord realize that if their movie is going to really tap into something, the audience needs to feel like they could create this for themselves (and with sets ranging for $20 and going up from there, LEGO definitely made sure you can do so 😉 ). This isn’t an amateur effort, though, but something of a fever dream, with an energy and creativity to the storytelling that reminded me of the adventures I created when I was a kid playing with my toys, and how thrilling they were in my head. (Okay, so I’m still creating them now. I’m hardly ashamed of it.) It wasn’t just playing with toys– they became big, epic stories I told, regardless of how crazy things got. It’s only a shame I didn’t have music as exciting and wonderful as Mark Mothersbaugh’s great score going on in my head at the time. For a child, nothing is off-limits if you can imagine it. Thank God for filmmakers like Miller and Lord who still remember that, and share it with us in such an amazing way.