The Lego Movie practices what it preaches: creativity, imagination, originality, distinctiveness and daring. That it accomplishes such feats while reinvigorating the endlessly profitable Lego brand and providing a showcase for famous actors in uncharacteristically self-deprecating guises and reaffirming that Phil Lord and Chris Miller are two of the most valuable assets to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking is nothing short of a miracle. The Lego Movie appeals directly to our most basic desires for boisterous spectacle without sacrificing intelligence, wit or pure sensational pleasure.
A noisy prologue quickly establishes the movie’s villain, or so it seems. The evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) is hellbent on destroying the world using a tool called the Kragle, but the kindly wizard Vetruvius (Morgan Freeman) prophesies that a “Special” will emerge to save the world from certain destruction using the coveted “Piece of Resistance.” If it all sounds a bit dense, that’s by design. The actual conflict is far more complex and hinges upon a third-act twist that nearly brought me to tears. Needless to say, this movie is a little unconventional.
Our hero is Emmet (Chris Pratt, excellent), an upbeat construction worker who spends his days rigorously following an instruction book that purports to teach him how to fit in with his peers. The trouble is that Emmet – like most animated movies – sticks to the script so thoroughly that everyone forgets he’s there. He’s a serial conformist too wrapped up in vague enthusiasm to realize that he hasn’t distinguished himself in any meaningful way. When he stumbles upon what turns out to be the fated “Piece of Resistance,” the movie kicks into gear, as does Emmet’s existential crisis. By the end, it dawns on Emmet that contorting himself to fit the whims of everyone around him has only hindered his pursuit of happiness.
Emmet meets a colorful cast of characters on his epic journey. Two-faced Officer Goodcop/Badcop (Liam Neeson) and chronically self-absorbed Batman (Will Arnett) are among the highlights, but Lord and Miller have stacked their film with one ingenious setup after another, from the different worlds that make up the Lego Universe to the council of Master Builders that includes everyone from the aforementioned Caped Crusader to Superman (Channing Tatum), Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders), the Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) and even Shaquille O’Neal (Shaq himself). Beyond the constantly whirring plot engine and the seemingly endless array of distinctive characters, the movie even manages to cram in surprisingly pointed critiques of formulaic pop music (epitomized by the movie’s inescapably infectious theme song, Tegan and Sara’s “Everything is Awesome”), creative stagnation (Emmet has never had a good idea in his life, probably because he’s been too busy agreeing to other people’s ideas) and political complacency (Emmet can’t save the universe without awakening the rest of the world to its delusions).
(I was disappointed that The Lego Movie couldn’t find a way to subvert the tropes of burgeoning romance that infect so many “hero’s journey” stories of this kind. Wyldstyle is a fun character, voiced with relish and spunk by Elizabeth Banks, but her character arc feels telegraphed in a way that the rest of the movie doesn’t. A shame, given the movie’s self-awareness when it comes to the inanity of convoluted backstories, among other departures from played-out tropes.)
Oh, and the movie looks beautiful, in exactly the way that Legos should: blocky, tactile and awash in bright colors and surreal landscapes. You won’t find any of the computer-generated hackery of a B-grade Dreamworks feature. Lord and Miller’s team of animators has clearly put thought into animating a world made up of interlocking pieces of cheap plastic. From the glint in Emmet’s eye to the artificial sweep of ocean waves, the movie is visually alive at every moment.
The Lego Movie also features some of the best vocal performances in recent memory. Too often, celebrity casting is a mere marketing tool. Here, the voice actors gracefully complement their characters by embracing or subverting aspects of their real-life personas. Chris Pratt translates the wide-eyed naivete of Parks and Recreation goofball Andy Dwyer into Emmet’s melancholic complacency. Morgan Freeman gleefully sends up his reputation for sagelike fountains of wisdom, while Liam Neeson’s gravitas makes Officer Badcop’s plight both raucous and tragic. The hits keep coming: sunny Alison Brie as the endlessly pleasant Unikitty, Nick Offerman at peak droll as Blackbeard, Will Arnett as the superhero equivalent of Gob from Arrested Development.
Lord and Miller have been on a roll lately, dazzling equally in animation (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and live-action (21 Jump Street). They’ve hit upon an engaging formula, capturing action sequences that progress clearly from one beat to the next and peppering the dialogue with self-aware insights and sincere affection for their characters. I can easily imagine parents and their children enjoying this movie with equal enthusiasm for completely different reasons, and the layers upon layers of jokes must reward repeat viewings.
Art really can come from anywhere: the mind of a child, the ingenuity of Lego constructionists, even the greedy coffers of a corporate brand. Indeed, the year’s best movie so far features an animated Batman complaining about the impracticality of a double-decker couch. Welcome to 2014, everyone.