It's understandable to be apprehensive about seeing a film like The Lego Movie. It gets to follow in the footsteps of such cinematic luminaries as Battleship and the Transformers series, and other high profile movies based on children's toys, video games and board games. There is quite a helping of cynicism and not too much creativity in what amounts to a feature-length advertizement for the property in question. Such concepts as strong dialogue or good acting or coherent scripting are low on the priority scale. It's a funny system, considering that making an excellent movie would by just as effective marketing for the product, if not more so than simply focusing on the subject matter as nothing more than a gateway to toy stores and parental credit cards. Enter Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writing/directing duo who brought us Clone High and features Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street. Both of their features have been surprisingly enjoyable affairs, filled with laughs and a nice dollop of heart without becoming overly maudlin. On paper, it would seem to be the case that these two would be just the sort of creative team that could inject some vitality into a project like this one.
Miller and Lord approach the subject through the eyes of Emmett, a young nondescript Lego construction worker mini-fig voiced by Chris Pratt. Emmett hails from Bricksburg, a bustling city within a universe composed entirely of Legos. The city thrives on conformist tendencies, though Emmett has to constantly remind himself to stick with the crowd by following the city's instructions (basically How to Win Friends and Influence People in the form of a Lego pictogram brochure). Doing so keeps the citizenry happy under the watchful eye of President Business (Will Ferrell), who lords over the city with a friendly face and sinister hidden intentions, bolstered by his right hand man/enforcer, Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson). The plot gets moving when Emmett stumbles across a free spirit mini-fig with a bright streak of pink hair named WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), and in his lovelorn distraction accidentally finds The Piece of Resistance, an ancient artifact she is seeking out as part of the prophecy foretold by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), a wise wizardly mini-fig leading the underground resistance against President Business.
The Lego Movie is stuffed to the gills with characters and settings, so it's a good thing that the plot is kept pretty simple and straightforward. On a surface level, it essentially represents a children's version of The Matrix, thought much lighter on the Christian allegory. A giant cast of characters joins in on the mayhem, from Batman (Will Arnett in a delightfully bro-ish performance, Christian Bale cum frat boy) to an 80's spaceman (Charlie Day, as unhinged as you would expect) to a take on Hello Kitty, the Unikitty (Alison Brie) to Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill bringing back that 21 Jump Street chemistry as Superman and Green Latern, respectively. And that's just scratching the surface. They're all brought to life by a wonderfully designed animation style, representing a sort of stop motion as CG. It's all done within computers, but you can tell that Lord, Miller and animation co-director Chris McKay (a veteran of stop motion animation himself from his time at Robot Chicken) deliberately took the time to figure out exactly how this would actually look using real Legos and successfully recreated it digitally. The characters move in a jerky, awkward manner, and little visual gags abound (when Wyldstyle is introduced, her “hair” blows in the breeze by rotating back and forth as one molded object). The characters overflow with kinetic energy and life. It looks like nothing you have seen before and exactly what you would expect at the same time.
Miller and Lord fill this alternate Lego world with tons of pop culture references and sight gags, as well as a healthy dose of absurdist non sequitur humor and refreshing wit (the Piece of Resistance, a take on the piéce de résistance, is a perfect example). In many ways, it is reminiscent of Rich Moore's Wreck-it Ralph, which took place in a similar sort of world replacing Legos with video games. It's difficult to describe the difference (at least prior to a pretty significant plot movement I'll get to shortly), but it feels like the references work better in The Lego Movie, possibly because Lord and Miller have a wider palette from which to paint, and possibly because they are simply better writers. Regardless, these cameos and references, normally a simple gambit to throw a bone at the adults in the audience, becomes a manic orgy of creativity that barely stops to catch its breath in its wild 100 minutes. This approach could easily fall into the marketing trap that comes from a film like this, as all of the places they visit are either previously established Lego sets, or soon to be available ones. But the exuberance of the characters and story carries you through.
Indeed, The Lego Movie could have simply been another Wreck-it Ralph or Shrek, a film with a bunch of pop culture references to engage the adults bringing their kids to these movies, trading lasting joy for immediate chuckles. Miller and Lord have greater aspirations, and throw out a pretty significant twist in its third act that casts both the movement of the plot and the directorial and writing style of the film into an entirely different light. It's a risky move that easily could have become a canard (I won't go into detail; it needs to be experienced cold) but successfully creates a new and wholly satisfying emotional core that reinforces its central conflict of creativity versus conformity and grounds it in a beautifully subtle and satisfying way.
As a result of Miller and Lord's decision, The Lego Movie blossoms into a thematically rich deconstruction of big budget action movies and conformist consumer culture that takes full subversive advantage of its position in the film market as a “product” movie. It is just as intellectually stimulating to the older audience as many of the Disney mainstays (as well as mid- to high-tier Pixar films like Finding Nemo or Ratatouille) and that success likely makes it an even more successful marketing machine for Legos than a lesser film would have represented. There is so much to talk about regarding this film, but one thing is for sure. With Phil Lord and Chris Miller, we get to have our cake and eat it too thanks to a film that ignites the imagination of child and adult alike.