In the late 90’s, Lego was floundering, its patent long since run out and its grasp on the small plastic toys market starting to fall to its competitors when it discovered the secret that has been the core to its success ever since. In 1999, the Danish building block company licensed the story rights to Star Wars, and started a long line of licensed stories—Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, various DC Comics superheroes, and more—translating already familiar narratives into the world of interactive, customizable building blocks. In brief, they discovered that no matter how cleverly designed their pieces—and they are ingenious: small, versatile, nearly indestructible, and extremely cheap to produce in large quantities—they could never compare to the power of narrative and character on children’s minds. Today’s Lego world is a fully immersive media experience, from toys and video games to Saturday morning cartoons and feature films. At some point along the way, Lego realized they could simply cut out the middleman and create the narratives and characters themselves, writing cartoons and movies around their toys the way Mattel did in the 80’s with Transformers. While The Lego Movie is the highest profile and most ambitious, it is joining a score of other Lego-produced movies, some adaptations of pre-existing films (like the six Lego Star Wars installments) and some in-house productions.
Directors: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Producers: Roy Lee, Dan Lin
Writers: Dan Hegeman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Cinematographers: Barry Peterson, Pablo Plaisted
Editors: David Burrows, Chris McKay
Cast: Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson
Premiere: February 1, 2014 — Copenhagen
US Theatrical Release: February 7, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
But as nefarious as its creation is, as much as we can see the gears of The Lego Movie turning to sell the empire of toys surrounding it, the movie is terrific. The film follows Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), an everyman and construction worker who lives happily and mindlessly in the city of Bricksburg. He delights in chain restaurants, popular music, (his favorite song is the film’s cloying pop refrain “Everything Is Awesome”) and being exactly like everyone else by following an instruction book he carries with him, all prescribed by instruction-book loving President Business (Will Ferrell), who rules Bricksburg with an iron fist. Of course, Emmet’s happy ignorance collapses when he meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) a butt-kicking dark haired vixen who accidentally leads him to the “Piece of Resistance” and his destiny as “The Special” who will stand up against the autocratic rule of President Business, under the tutelage of the sardonic wizard/seer, Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). Their adventures take them through various realms and introduce them to a cast of characters that draw from all of Lego’s licensed plots—Wyldstyle is dating Batman, and the crew go on to meet characters from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Star Wars (Billy Dee Williams even voices Lando!) as well as historical figures from Shakespeare to Abraham Lincoln all while being pursued by Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), President Business’s two-faced enforcer whose bad side wears the same reflective aviators as No Eyes from Cool Hand Luke (1967). The film’s final moral, that creativity and story are more important than order and design, feels like it could be telling the story of Lego Corporation itself.
The performances are impressive, though Freeman steals the show with his best performance since Shawshank Redemption (1994), nearly making us forget the dozens of ho-hum narrations he’s provided for nature films in the last decade. The writing is playful and quite clever, with plenty of jokes for children, their parents, and everyone in between. There is a crossover humor to rival even The Simpsons in its ability to entertain everyone and drop pop-culture references that serve as educational markers for the uninitiated—like Wyldstyle’s throwaway, “Come with me if you want to not die,” a playful and unnecessary The Terminator (1984) reference that adds depth and relevance to the already rich script. And the visual style is unmatched. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo behind both the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009 and 2013) films and the clever 21 Jumpstreet reboot (2012), have decided to build this world entirely out of Legos. Every set, from the flowing, shifting sea waves to the Old West town and floating cloud world, are made of those knobby bricks. This is the most striking in the action sequences—fire takes the form of little Lego flame pieces, explosions result in clouds of small pieces shooting every which way, and the characters are constantly rebuilding the world around them in new, creative ways. The rules of this universe (in which the world is made up of indestructible and infinitely recombinant pieces) lead to an imaginative plot with no real limits beyond those of imagination.
While the film is clearly a commercial production (one can only imagine how many of the creations we see on screen will be for sale as pre-fabricated, instruction-bearing Lego sets) its world is so exciting and its script and characters so charming that it still thrills and entertains. It could use some more female characters; while Wyldstyle is a cool, tough, and fully fleshed out figure, she is also the romantic foil to Emmet’s lead. But overall, the script is lively and fun, and the film’s story of standing up for creativity and heart in the face of authority and autocracy is good and compelling. It has drawn comparisons to both The Matrix and Toy Story in many of the hundreds of positive reviews it has received, but for this generation of kids, The Lego Movie will be the gold standard to which those old movies are compared. As the Lego obsessed six-year-old who accompanied me to the screening informed me, The Lego Move unseated all of the Harry Potter films as his favorite movie of all time, and he wanted to see it three more times.