I was cynical as all hell about this movie. Even as the esteemed critics I follow heaped praises upon it, I was not onboard the idea of a LEGO MOVIE that was anything other than a corporate shill to get the audience to buy some toys after the credits rolled. Call it franchise fatigue. Also, I am not as big of a fan of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s last two films, CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS and 21 JUMP STREET, as a lot of my friends and colleagues, so it was easy to write off their enthusiasm as just having a particular affection for their sugar-rush, kinetic visual style. Well, fuck me and that wall of cycnism, because last night, it got crashed through by a clever, fun, and wildly imaginative animated film that knew what it was, what the audience thought it would be, and what it could ultimately become.
THE LEGO MOVIE is about Emmet, who drives around his megalopolis city in utterly subservient glee, building skyscrapers and eating up propoganda and vacuous pop culture while singing that annoying “Everything is Awesome” song ad nauseam. One day, he finds himself attached to the “Piece of Resistance”, and all of a sudden, the crazies come in through the woodwork, proclaiming him to be “special”. Because one of the crazies is a super-hot “Master Builder” (with the ability to reconfigure her surroundings to build anything she wants) named WyldStyle (“What are you, a DJ?”), Emmet happily goes along with it. He joins WyldStyle, a wise wizard with the voice of Morgan Freeman, a My Little Pony knockoff with deeply repressed anger issues, and Batman (yes, Batman) as they attempt to stop the evil Lord Business from using his “Kraggle” to stop the Master Builders, and to freeze the world into a configuration that meets his liking. And now, we cue the music.
I’m sitting there for maybe five minutes before I get where THE LEGO MOVIE, and like a snap, my skeptical shell melts away and a grin gets plastered across my face that doesn’t leave until well after I leave the theater. You see, Lord and Miller have proven themselves to be something of a genius team of subversives, taking properties like 21 JUMP STREET and LEGO and turning them against themselves the same way the increasingly-hardened John Q. Public does on their own. Where the self-referential humor seemed to be the only reason for 21 JUMP STREET’s existence, here, the two have done maybe the complete opposite of what I expected. Instead of an ode to consumer culture, the film is an unabashed criticism of modern life, a portrayal of a world threatened by uniformity and cultural and mental enslavement. In short, it’s not trying to get you to buy toys, although it certainly has that effect; it’s trying to get you to ask why you WANT to buy toys so badly in the first place. Creativity and thinking outside-the-box is what this film is trying to promote, not a bunch of colorful plastic toys that your infant could very easily suffocate on.
There’s a highbrow sensibility to this thing that is almost completely absent from most contemporary family films, and I really can’t believe it’s THE LEGO MOVIE that dared to go where this film goes. It’s not that veiled at all that the urban metropolis Emmet lives in is supposed to represent a modern American city, and that his life is meant to be ours, complete with an ignorance toward the fine print in political ads and a taste for heinously overpriced coffee beverages. His quest to be “special” after being rendered indistinguishable by his environment is a deeply relatable one, and Emmet is just funny enough that his schmucky everyman-ness doesn’t become nerve-grating. I give all the props in the world not only to Lord and Miller, but to the Lego company themselves for having the gall to make this their big, theatrical feature-film debut. There was nothing in their brand that hinted at the level of depth and positivity that we see here, and it really does seem like their main goal was to create an engaging, intelligent piece of entertainment, not pushing their product on even more susceptible children.
There’s a third-act twist which I wouldn’t dare to even allude to here (although some of my less scrupulous peers may do so anyway) that is mindblowing from conception to execution. And I don’t mean mindblowing like “OMG that was so freakin’ awesome!” I mean literally MIND BLOWN, acid-filtered narrative twists that completely change your notion of what you’re watching, and elevate the film from mere entertainment to genuine work of art. I’m not kidding. My number one question walking out of this film was, “How the hell are children going to handle this?” It’s like throwing in a “Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time” into SHREK or something. Sheer blindsiding move, and I’m FASCINATED with how the kiddies-and-puppies handle what is basically this movie’s “Leonard IS Sammy Jenkis” this weekend. Lest you think this is some stunt-y Miller/Lord move like the Depp cameo in 21 JUMP STREET (which added nothing to the narrative except “CHECK IT OUT WE GOT JOHNNY DEPP!”), this was the section of the movie that finally got to me on an emotional level. I think about getting older, and the effects of time and experience on my childish notions of fun and fantasy, all the time, and there’s a beat here that hit me somewhere really deep and personal in a way that I (nor anybody who hasn’t seen the movie or been made privy to its secrets) couldn’t have possibly expected. The parents may be more affected by this film than the kids they have in tow. No joke.
But that subversive, anarchic narrative isn’t all that’s going on here. No, what Miller and Lord have done, visually, is nothing short of astounding. Through CGI, they’ve created a world entirely made up of Lego pieces. I know, you’ve seen the trailers, and the novelty of all the people, buildings, and machines being made of Legos already seems pretty cool, but you haven’t seen the half of it. Smoke, water, explosions, magic beams, and freaking lasers are all depicted in Lego form, sometimes only for the briefest of seconds, and the level of detail pouring out of some of these set-pieces boggles the mind. In terms of aesthetic, it’s literally like someone’s experimental DIY stop-motion project stretched out for the length of a feature film, and feels as removed from CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS as WALLACE AND GROMIT.
The last brilliant move on Lord and Miller’s part was to really utilize their corporate sponsor to its fullest potential, and to use the licensed characters they had access to in a savvy and consistently funny manner. Batman gets the biggest part, and is maybe the fourth lead of the movie, but there are a ton of walk-ons by characters as varied as Albus Dumbledore, Michelangelo (both the painter and the Ninja Turtle), and, of course, several of Batman’s fellow Justice Leaguers. There’s a later cameo appearance by an entity so legendary and iconic that you’ll be like, “Wait, how the fuck did they get the rights to THAT!”, and my audience ate that shit up like Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Aside from the cutesy banter between Superman and Green Lantern (who, as voiced by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, feel more like the 21 JUMP STREET characters than anything resembling their comic counterparts), every appearance is awesome, fits in nicely with the story, and will give both parents and kids something to smile about as the narrative propels forward toward the climax. Both how far they went and how restrained they were in their use of these characters are testaments to Lord and Miller’s adept handling of this assignment, and how they took something that could’ve easily been a corporate for-hire gig into something really giddy and original.
Another notch in their belt: the voice casting. Getting Chris Pratt to play Emmet was a masterstroke; there’s a lot of beats in the movie where Emmet’s either a liar, a loser, or just plain dorky, but Pratt has that optimistic charm that supersedes all of that. He does effortlessly likable as good as anyone in the biz right now, and that keeps Emmet’s story front and center while the other characters are making in-jokes and engaging in laser battles with Lord Business’ minions. Elizabeth Banks is spunky and does that flustered sarcasm thing she does so well as WyldStyle, Alison Brie is wonderfully Alison Brie-y as the My Little Pony surrogate, Morgan Freeman pokes fun at his own magisterial image as the mentor figure Vitruvius, and Will Arnett has a grand ol’ time making fun of Christian Bale’s growl as Batman. Nick Offerman and Charlie Day are funny, but disposable as a helpful pirate and Blue Spaceman, respectively. On the villain side, Liam Neeson has a killer role as Good-Cop/Bad-Cop, whose voice switches from TAKEN-level intensity to a more high-pitched, girly voice depending on what side of his head-piece is showing through his helmet. Will Ferrell, who I thought would be a minor character in the film, nearly walks away with the flick as Lord Business, especially when the true motivations behind his character come forward. He has to do more than any of the other name actors here, and he makes a cutting impression without making the whole show into a “Will Ferrell movie”.
There’s so much stuff going on here, I couldn’t possibly reveal it all (I haven’t even gotten into how real world products like Band-Aids and X-ACTO knives play into the Lego-verse), but I can say this; this flick is mighty impressive. Not in that, “Oh, this is actually kinda funny!” way that 21 JUMP STREET was impressive. I’m talking that TOY STORY, A SCANNER DARKLY impressive where you’re like, “Wow, you can do all that with animation nowadays?!” I don’t have really high hopes for the sequel; this film was written and directed by Lord and Miller, and the sequel has two new writers, plus it’d be really difficult to extend this film’s plotline into another feature-length narrative. But this flick is MORE than good enough to warrant a franchise, especially if any of the future installments are even half as clever, fun, and engaging as this one. Can’t believe they pulled this off as well as they did. I really can’t.