There’s something brazen about titling a movie “The Lego Movie.” No one involved in making this film thought it was necessary to hide the fact that this film is effectively a feature-length advertisement for Legos. It’s as if someone noticed how the “Toy Story” films play on audience nostalgia and decided to swap in Legos.
Luckily, whoever made that decision also learned from “Toy Story” that high-quality filmmaking is just as important as that nostalgia, and as a result “The Lego Movie” is one of the best animated films in recent memory. Much of the credit for that success has to go to writer-director combo Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who recently managed to turn a similarly difficult concept into something special with their modern take on “21 Jump Street.” “The Lego Movie” uses traditional CG-animation to create a pseudo-stop-motion style, combining the best of two worlds. While the film certainly follows the “Toy Story” formula, it adds a kinetic style and a brilliant third-act twist to make something fresh and new.
One of the challenges of centering a film around the Lego brand is that it is a product with two distinct identities. On the one side, you have Legos as presented in stores: Each set is a meticulous recreation of some pop culture moment. You have your “Lord of the Rings” Legos, your “Harry Potter” Legos, even Lego versions of “The Simpsons.” Up until now, this is the side most media adaptations have focused on, particularly the very successful video game series which includes titles like Lego “Indiana Jones” and Lego “Star Wars.” This film makes use of that aspect of Legos, peppering its scenes with recognizable characters. In fact, one of the best recurring jokes is the movie’s conception of Batman as a self-centered jerk who is obsessed with looking as cool as possible. But there’s also another side to Legos, one which is probably much more important to anyone with any nostalgia for these little bricks. It’s the side of Legos you see when you give a kid a plastic bin full of multi-colored blocks and watch them turn it into something utterly original. The genius of “The Lego Movie” lies in the way it manages to capture and celebrate that second aspect.
Lord and Miller fit the more abstract, creative side of these toys into the movie by building it right into the premise. The movie follows Emmett, a perfectly ordinary Lego man living in Bricksburg, a city run by the absurdly-named President Business. In Bricksburg, everyone follows the rules all the time, and Emmett fits right in to that world of conformity. That all changes, however, when he stumbles onto President Business’ secret plans to spread his conformity across all of existences, and Emmett joins up with a resistance movement. Admittedly, the main characters are all standard archetypes: we have an everyman hero, an evil super villain, a love interest, and an older mentor. Oh, and there’s also Batman. But what makes this story so effective is the way it celebrates the joys of creativity. There’s always some lesson to be learned shoehorned in animated movies targeted at kids, usually something along the lines of “be a good person!” Here, that lesson is about the importance of imagination, and it fits perfectly in both the story and with the concept of Lego itself.
It helps that the film has an excellent set of voice actors. Chris Pratt, best known as the doofy Andy from “Parks and Recreation,” plays Emmett, and gives him a charming naiveté. Will Ferrell voices President Business in what at first seems like a repeat of his super villain character from 2010’s “Megamind,” but eventually morphs into something more complex. The rest of the cast is equally strong, with Morgan Freeman and Elizabeth Banks playing key roles. There’s even a clever nod to Lord and Miller’s “21 Jump Street” among some of the minor characters. The film’s sense of humor is similarly playful and doesn’t get bogged down in treating references as jokes. Yes, there are quite a few laughs to be had on recognition alone, but they are balanced by more character-based humor. A good chunk of the movie’s laughs are purely visual as well. Characters bound across the screen with quite a lot of energy, and the film’s animators manage to make simple Lego faces surprisingly expressive.
So yes, this film is a giant commercial for Legos, and an extremely effective one. It certainly made me want to dig out my old bins of them next time I’m home.
Perhaps this particular level of commercialism goes too far for some viewers, but to dismiss the film for that reason is to ignore the fact that every animated film directed at children released today is an advertisement of some sort. Even Pixar, usually seen as a bastion of high-quality family films, is susceptible. When they decided to start releasing more sequels to their existing movies, they started with “Cars 2.” The “Cars” films have never been particularly well-received by critics or adult audiences, but the toys attached to those films are enormously successful. So yes, there is something troubling about how closely linked merchandising is to children’s entertainment, but “The Lego Movie” is no more to blame than any other animated movie.
If anything, this film’s advocacy of creativity is a healthy message for kids, and the filmmakers are savvy enough to pack that message into a story that will be entertaining for anyone who sees it.