I can easily explain what The Lego Movie is at the most basic level. Its fundamental building blocks have all been culled from countless other movies about heroes, shadowy tyrants, and underdogs. In Bricksburg, an anonymous Lego city in a Lego universe, a construction worker named Emmett carries on his life with cheerful conformity. He is also a Lego, as is just about every character in the film. Unbeknownst to him, the city’s scheming Lego mayor, President Business, is planning to attack the city with a superweapon that will ensure conformity on an even wider scale, creating a world devoid of all idiosyncrasy. While exploring his construction site, Emmett stumbles upon a powerful, lost artifact, which brings him to the attention of both the city’s dystopian authority figures and the guerilla movement that is resisting them. The movement against conformity is headed up by a society of innovators who refer to themselves as the Master Builders. They are led by Vetruvius, voiced by a deliciously senile Morgan Freeman. Like Neo from The Matrix, Emmett joins up with the resistance and gradually comes to realize he has a larger role to play in repelling the sinister social forces he took for granted. He eventually leads the counter-culture in throwing off the shackles of lockstep thinking. Along the way, Emmett also stumbles into a portal to an alternate universe, which seems to guide events in the Lego universe. In the end, he learns to value creativity, while teaching his new friends the value of being organized and working as a team. If this synopsis is anything to go on, then it seems I am no better at detailing why The Lego Movie is special than your average publicity team would be. But The Lego Movie is certainly special.
The Lego Movie is a difficult film to expound upon, but not for any reason that could be considered a failing on its part. It is not muddled in what it communicates, nor is it a film whose insights are buried so deep as to require significant unpacking. The Lego Movie may just be something completely new: a deep blockbuster animated comedy whose depth can be found right there on its energetic, glossy surface. Perhaps that makes it sound like the film is a bit didactic, presenting its insights directly and without fuss, but at the expense of subtlety. But The Lego Movie resists that charge, as it resists every other trap that a high-energy, child-friendly, innately brand-centric film about a line of toys could possibly fall into. While it occasionally slows down for old-fashioned sentimentality, the film is mostly too caught up in being breathlessly funny and playful to ever climb up on its own soap box (or soap blocks, as it were). The Lego Movie offers valuable, earnest lessons to children and adults on the importance of imagination, the benefits of organization and mental discipline, and how the two should walk hand in hand. But almost all of these lessons are delivered with the same high-wire, machine gun gusto and spry comedic timing as the barrage of consistently uproarious jokes. More often than not, the valuable messages are jokes. The pearls of wisdom are hilarious! The jokes are insightful! The schnozzberries taste like schnozzberries!
No, the difficulty with reviewing The Lego Movie is that it frankly does not need my review. It is a madcap social satire that charges forward with utmost ideological clarity. Any reflections I can make on its sweet, healthy ideas are nothing that the movie itself does not state more succinctly. This is the honor it earns by being a movie for both children and adults, in the most open and honest way. The messages are forthright enough for a child to understand, and thought-provoking enough for all but the most cynical adult to appreciate. I imagine the impact of this is doubled if you are an adult who now has a child in your life. But, as difficult as it is to speak on a movie that speaks so eloquently for itself, I have had just as much trouble explaining to people why it is such a phenomenal jolt of pure comedy. It is a genuine shame that this film missed out on a Best Animated Feature Film nomination, while the likes of Big Hero 6 and How To Train Your Dragon 2 were recognized, but those movies are not its true contemporaries. While The Lego Movie is an engaging and inventive piece of animation, its peers are not be found among most animated films, even the very good ones. At the risk of hyperbole, its peers are Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Harold Ramis. This speaks to just how confidently directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (2012’s unexpectedly funny 21 Jump Street) announce their comedic voices.
On the numerous occasions I urged people to seek out The Lego Movie, I found myself at a loss to adequately explain why it was one of year’s best and most exuberant films. I struggled to convey the simplicity of its humor and poignant grace. Its joys are so unexpected and counter-intuitive to its commercial packaging that I was reduced to impotent stammering. Yes, it is that 3-D animated movie based on a perennial children’s toy, and the film is an impeccable piece of salesmanship for the Lego brand. In the next breath, I would add that it was also the best honest-to-God comedy of the year, but I think the first part, the pitch meeting synopsis, is what tended to reverberate most loudly. I could intone with all the conviction in the world that it was really, really funny, but it was hard to explain why, short of rattling off a laundry list of context-free one-liners. Perhaps the best thing I can say for a film that had so many mercenary stumbling blocks set in its path, is that one just needs to watch it to understand how deftly it sidesteps them. The Lego Movie just deserves to be seen and enjoyed, plain and simple.
The Lego Movie is a giddy valentine to the act of playing with things, and by extension the creative process. It is a reminder that, even as adults, we should value spontaneous creation first and then seek to mold it with our great gifts for rational thought. While the movie supports these themes through its dialogue and story beats, the greatest embodiment of its worldview is to be found in the margins, which teem with funny, clever details. In planting the flag for our inner children, the movie strives, first and foremost, to lead by example. Rather than simply sermonizing that we should engage with our sense of play, the movie plays with us. The gleeful energy on display is the movie’s theme in action. And every single cast member, from Chris Pratt’s Emmett, to Nick Offerman’s bellowing bionic pirate, to Will Arnett’s loving takedown of Batman, seems to be having the time of their lives. For the definitive proof of this, look no further than Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson. These two talented veterans have tended a bit toward rote self-parody lately, with Freeman leaning on his sonorous voice to play carbon-copy wise men, and Neeson using his dignified gruffness in the service of no-nonsense authority figures who play by their own rules. After a time, even actors of great intelligence and imagination can start to go through the motions. Who can blame them for ossifying a bit when studios give them the same old routines and personas to repeat? The Lego Movie even tempts fate, casting Freeman as the wise mystic and Neeson as the gruff authority figure. But, once again, the movie pivots around formula and something unexpected and altogether magical happens. Instead of playing these archetypes in the same tired key, both deliver performances that are alive, gloriously self-winking and endlessly funny. To give Lord and Miller their full credit, maybe the best thing a couple of young directors can do is invite some awesome actors over and let them play with their toys again.