Some of you are probably old enough to remember the presidential campaign of 1996, in which the principal rhetorical device in play was whether or not we voters wished to build a hypothetical bridge to the past, or a bridge to the future. It’s now 2014, and we don’t have to choose, because The Lego Movie does both – all while building a bridge to your heart at the same time.
Yep, you’d best get your umbrellas and rain gear ready, because I’m about to gush.
Above and beyond what The Lego Movie gets right on its own terms, we can start with the fact that it does other people’s franchises better than they can, with a Batman (Will Arnett) who’s more fun than Ben Affleck has ever been, a Green Lantern and Superman who contain more joy than their respective cinematic counterparts, a Star Wars tribute more relevant than anything JJ Abrams will likely manage, and in Princess Unikitty, a character who demonstrates that these filmmakers understand the My Little Pony fanbase way better than anybody who had a hand in making Equestria Girls (and we hardly need mention the Ninja Turtles, right?). This is a toy story worthy to stand alongside Toy Story, and a guaranteed future classic that establishes the Lego brand as being in the elite company of the likes of Pixar and the Muppets as something you can usually trust to please young and old. Beyond that, it’s actually a really well-made film too, with Fellini references and genuinely risky narrative and aesthetic choices.
It’s hard to say that anything you watch in February is likely to be one of the year’s best, but if I see better, let’s just say it’ll be a very good year indeed, and if I see a better animated movie in 2014, it’ll be a mind-blower. I hate to judge people based on their opinions, but if you’re a reader of this site and you don’t like this, let it be known that I will be instantly suspicious of you as a human being. It’s a movie made for you, by people who actually seem to respect you. And it isn’t all gags – The Lego Movie has a strong heart, but it also has the sense not to milk the sentimentality, and to leaven it with anarchic humor wherever possible.
Like in the Toy Story sequels, the plot here revolves around the metaphorical conflict between playing with your toys and preserving them as collectibles, though this being Lego, there’s the added dimension of following instructions versus creating new things on your own. (Minor spoiler: these movies are never going to come down on the side of pristine collectors, so long as children are part of the intended audience.) In the world of Lego – or to be more precise, Lego City – there are instruction booklets not just for building, but for everything, and our main character Emmet (Chris Pratt) is ridiculously, idiotically happy to be a total conformist to every rule in the books. He is, naturally, a builder by profession, but one who always makes the sets exactly as they are supposed to be, demolishing other constructs that deviate from included instructions.
Everything changes one night when he follows a trespasser – the enigmatic, beautiful Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) – and winds up falling down through deep, brick-studded tunnels to find the mysterious, glowing “piece of resistance,” a red block that instantly bonds itself to his back, designating him the Chosen One. He immediately becomes a target of the police, led by the split-personality-having Good Cop/Bad Cop (a hilariously deadpan Liam Neeson), and during a brief period of capture, learns that the seemingly benevolent President Business (Will Ferrell) intends to destroy the world in a couple of days. Breaking out with Wyldstyle’s help, he will discover many Lego worlds beyond his own, and must find a way to thwart the evil plan – which involves freezing all the buildings and people of Lego City in one permanent display pose.
It’s funny that part of President Business’ resume of evil deeds includes the segregating of Lego worlds into distinct areas (the fantasy realm is called “Middle-Zealand”) with no intermingling – that’s not just the sort of thing an older brother insists upon, but also what the Legoland park actually does. In effect, however, it’s short lived, as Emmet and Wyldstyle bust through universes with sci-fi police on their tail – the result is not unlike the fantasy train sequence at the beginning of Toy Story 3. The difference is that this movie is ALL about the imagined scenario that would be enacted by kids, rather than the reality of the toys when left alone. Though the writing is much, much better than most seven year-olds could manage, it’s as epic as something they could imagine, with a third-act turn of events that will floor most parents in the house.
The writer-director team of Chris Miller and Phil Lord have done it again – from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs to 21 Jump Street and now this, they have earned my automatic goodwill for whatever their future endeavors may be (presumably a Lego sequel – though I’m not sure how they can top it with a followup, and you’ll understand what I mean when you see it). Their casting as usual is spot-on, with Will Arnett’s naturally raspy voice proving perfect for a Bale-meets-West take on Batman, and Will Ferrell’s humorous mispronunciations serving him well as the evil President/Lord Business – he accumulates various weaponized non-Lego items you might find on a living room floor, including the paint-removing “Poh-lish of Nai’il.” Pratt and Banks have more to work with than you’d think, both playing characters who aren’t exactly what you’d expect from first appearances. We’ve mentioned Neeson’s self-parody, but it’s be neglectful not to also mention Morgan Freeman as wise old Vitruvius, who’s ultimately not nearly as wise as he makes himself out to be. And Alison Brie sounds exactly the way you’d expect Unikitty to sound.
The only significant objection I can imagine someone having to The Lego Movie is that it is basically a big, expensive toy commercial, though one admittedly for a toy that most children automatically own at some point anyway. (From a collector’s standpoint, the fact that the movie is literally made out of its own toys makes the tie-in sets the most accurate movie playsets ever mass-produced.) Yes, parents (and toy nerds), you will probably cave and end up buying much of what you see onscreen. I’ll put it to you this way – better that for Christmas than 50 more variants of Mattel’s Batman in absurd colors. With almost every movie nowadays having ancillary merchandise anyway (including Lego sets in many cases), wouldn’t you rather it be something that encourages imagination?
If that’s not an issue for you, then, as the incessant and catchy theme song states over and over, “everything is awesome.” Be sure to sit through the end credits to hear the faux-grunge “unplugged” version of the song, along with Batman’s new signature tune – a thumping bass line over which he yells things like “Darkness! No parents! Super rich!”
Playtime’s not over, folks. And a movie like this reminds us that it need never be.