Low expectations totally help The Lego Movie. We’ve seen other examples of films based on a specific brand name toy before with mixed results. At least Transformers and G.I. Joe were box office successes if not critical ones, while Battleship was a failure by anyone’s measure. It’s hard not to be cynical at the title and greet this animated film as nothing more than a feature length commercial. While the production will undoubtedly sell a boatload of Lego, it’s surprising that there is a lot of creativity behind the marketing. The Lego Movie works on a meta level. We’re watching an advertisement for toys that warns us about a nefarious corporation that tries to sell us products: these include the TV show Where Are My Pants?, the ubiquitous hit song, “Everything is Awesome“, and designer coffee for $37.
The evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) wants to unleash the Kragle (a tube of Krazy Glue with some letters missing). It’s a superweapon that will leave the many various Lego worlds immobilized in perfect constructed harmony forever. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is completely average in every way. Nothing special. He helps build skyscrapers for the Octan Corporation. He’s one of the faceless Lego denizens at the construction site. One day after everyone has gone home, he accidentally stumbles into a pit and a red relic – “the Piece of Resistance” becomes fused to his back. Wyldstyle a tough fighter chick, and Vitruvius a blind wizard, now believe him to be the “Special” – the one the prophecy foretold would be sent to stop Lord Business.
The story is pure formula. Yes the plot admittedly bears more than a passing resemblance to The Matrix. However that implies The Matrix was an exclusively original concept. It wasn’t. These ordinary heroes thrust in extraordinary circumstances have been an archetype dating back to ancient myths. Even side characters suggest earlier works. Lord Business’ lieutenant, the split personality Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), is reminiscent of the Mayor of Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Where the saga takes off is the utter senselessness of it all. Lego owns the rights to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, DC superheroes, so each of these figures can and do pop up. Some making only a very brief appearance. The action moves at a speedy clip through different lands rarely stopping to take a breath. The Old West, Middle Zealand, Cloud Cuckoo Land are represented. It combines these disparate inspirations and solidifies them into an entertaining amalgamation. It’s mostly computer animated, although the animation is purposefully done in a herky jerky style to resemble the way Lego bricks actually move. There are rapid fire bullets, frantic chases, and flying machines – all rendered in a kaleidoscopic spectacle bursting with colors. Sometimes it’s so chaotic it verges on distracting, but it’s impressive as well. I loved seeing Lego bricks forming puffs of smoke as they’re billowing out of a train stack or an explosion rendered as a series of colorful bricks.
This is pretty manic stuff. For better or worse, the narrative is all over the place. Writers-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) are the minds behind all this lunacy. They manipulate the conventions of children’s entertainment and turn them right on their ear. They imbue the proceedings with a subversive bent. The importance of a coherent story is ridiculed. The prophecy of wizard Vitruvius (brilliantly voiced by Morgan Freeman) is not taken from some venerable sacred text. It’s something he just makes up on the spot. Emmet zones out when listening to Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) give exposition and all he (and the audience) hears is, “blah blah blah proper name place name back-story stuff.“ Wyldstyle desperately wants to be the “Special”. And why not? She’s infinitely more qualified because she is creative and brilliant, unlike Emmet who just follows the rules. The hero is in fact a zero. But believe in yourself and you can achieve anything, right? The message is superficially cloying but there is a twist. Without revealing anything important, the underlying recommendation is to NOT follow instructions. The “good guys encourage the workers to rise up against Lord Business. Imagination is a powerful thing. Freedom is better than conformity. However the script’s greatest inspiration lies in its ability to explicitly decry business while indirectly celebrating it. This is after all, an advertisement for Lego toys, right?