To get the controversy off my chest: Yes, The LEGO Movie carries a brand name right in the title. Yes, it could easily be accused of being a 90 minute commercial for a toy product. There was a time in this country (namely, the 1980s) when toy manufacturers would produce TV shows, mixing up entertainment with advertising in the tender minds of their youth demographic, essentially ruining us forever; There’s a reason that the Transformers movies have made any money at all. We seem to be in a new age of that same ethos of ultra-marketing, only with an Internet to exacerbate the matter. Not a single kid-friendly mainstream studio film can pass these days without the stink of branding wafting from it.
That said, The LEGO Movie is perhaps one of the cleverest, funniest, and perhaps most creative films I’ve seen in a long while. It’s fresh, enjoyable, and seems to celebrate the joyous chaos of childhood play over the blind consumption of product. LEGO, in addition to being the ubiquitous plastic building blocks of many a generations’ youth, has, over the course of the last 15 years or so, been building a bizarre video game empire wherein they re-purpose famous film franchises (Batman, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, etc.) as Lego versions of themselves, complete with C-shaped hands and noseless yellow faces. These video games – as I have discovered in my very limited exposure to them – have a cutesy, self-aware, almost self-deprecating tone, lending them a comforting anarchic humor.
And it’s that comforting anarchic humor that defines The LEGO Movie. The film takes place in a world made of LEGOs, and the characters all have snap-off hair and can merrily disassemble the world around them into whatever their little plastic minds desire. And while it’s not filmed in stop-motion animation (it’s entirely CGI), the characters have the pleasantly stiff and jerky movement that marks the form. It’s a film with the rules of a young boy at play, breathlessly making things up as he goes along.
Even the story feels like it was cribbed from a child’s playbook. A boring-yet-energetic everyman named Emmet (Chris Pratt) finds himself unexpectedly enlisted into an underground resistance of freedom fighters and “master builders” when he stumbles upon the legendary Piece of Resistance, the only force in the world that can undo The Kragl, a secret mystery weapon in the employ of Lord Business – also President Business (Will Ferrell), who seeks to destroy the world on Taco Tuesday. Emmet, a blissfully naïve weirdo, may not have the building chops, however, to impress the other master builders, a team that includes a bouillabaisse of recognizable characters from Batman (Will Arnett) to Abraham Lincoln, to Michelangelo the sculptor, to Michelangelo the ninja turtle, to Shaquille O’Neal (playing himself), to a scratched up LEGO astronaut from the 1980s. Also mixed up in this mass are Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), a pair of free agents.
Most children’s films in the CGI era tend to skew toward a pace that hummingbirds would find to be too fast, chucking hundreds of unfunny gags at the camera in the frantic hopes of distracting the audience. The LEGO Movie is frantic, to be sure, but it feels like frantic-ness with a point; There is a direction where all this weird wild silliness is headed. It was made by the same team that made Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, if that gives you any sort of indication.
And while The LEGO Movie would be fine were it just a frantic and clever children’s comedy, it additionally bothers to reach beyond its bounds and address its own artificiality in a plot twist far cleverer, more daring, and more meaningful than anything seen in most adult thrillers. Since we know that we’re looking at little plastic LEGO men who merrily attach plastic parts to their own bodies and occasionally wield giant Q-tips, it makes sense that the filmmakers address that.
The LEGO Movie is broad, breathless fun, and a joyous celebration of childhood chaos.