Review: The LEGO Movie (2014)

The LEGO Movie is far better than it has any reason to be. Directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord have made a career of turning bad ideas into better-than-expected movies (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street). With The LEGO Movie they turn a feature length toy commercial into a discussion of what makes creativity so worthwhile. It may not reinvent the animated feature as we know it, but with its clever visual design, fast laughs, and gently satiric riff on creative rigidity, the film is likely the most fun you’ll have at the multiplex this February.

The plot follows a group of heroes known as the MasterBuilders who hope to stop the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) from imposing rigidity upon the world and freezing each LEGO brick in place. According to prophecy the only person who can save the world is the Special, and it turns out the Special is the untalented, dull, ordinary-in-every-way construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt). Trinity-esque Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) finds Emmet and whisks him off to meet the other MasterBuilders where she hopes he’ll learn to harness his hidden talents and defeat President Business. But things aren’t so simple.

Of course, it’s apparent from the get-go that the plot is meaningless and the prophecy is made-up. In the opening scenes of the film, President Business steals the “Kragle,” a device capable of sealing LEGO pieces together, and in defeat, the MasterBuilder wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) makes up a prophecy about the Special so as to scare President Business with the promise of retribution. This kind of flippancy regarding the hero’s quest at the centre of its narrative should give you a sense of how seriously Miller and Lord take the story. That is, they don’t. The plot is a vehicle for the jokes and the theme—and most obviously, a means to display how cool LEGO is, and don’t you know, you should buy some?

I don’t mean to be cynical regarding the film’s obvious advertising nature, because for a feature length toy commercial, The LEGO Movie gets away with some gentle chiding of its parent company. President Business’s plan is much the same as the actual LEGO company, which in recent years has moved away from the loose thematic building inspired by children’s creativity and now focuses almost exclusively on rigid model-making based off popular franchise properties. From a business standpoint, it’s not ideal if kids buy one set and endlessly rebuild that set. Instead, they should buy a set, build a model, put that model on display and buy another set. We should give LEGO some kudos for letting such a plot slide when it gently chides them for being the villains of their own creation.

And LEGO is a great creation. Miller and Lord take every advantage of the visual design of the bricks and incorporate the limitations of the construction into the film’s look. This choice makes The LEGO Movie the rare animated film that has a unique visual style. Characters aren’t the rounded out, semi-cartoons that dominate the animation industry. They’re bricks. The characters move within their limited motion. Emmet’s morning routine includes jumping jacks, but since he’s a LEGO piece, all he can do is a kind of scissor motion in the air.

There are plenty of jokes along this nature in The LEGO Movie. The humour is the film’s best asset. It’s fast, it’s bizarre, and it relies heavily on the kind of pop culture references the current generation trades in. Because LEGO has incorporated so many franchises into its own bricks, from DC superheroes to Star Wars to The Simpsons, franchise characters can show up whenever a joke requires them to. For example, when the council of MasterBuilders convenes, Wonder Woman and Milhouse Van Houten are two of the members. There’s also Abraham Lincoln (a callback to Miller and Lord’s first creation, Clone High, perhaps) who blasts off on his rocket chair when the going gets tough. Miller and Lord take advantage of the opportunities afforded them by LEGO, and their jokes rarely fall flat.

It’s a testament to the film’s success that it both celebrates creativity and is genuinely creative. Its form and theme reflect each other. Still, I have some misgivings about The LEGO Movie, particularly about viewing itas a satire. For all its clever re-imagining of the hero’s quest, its anti-business sentiments (the villain is called Business, in case you missed it) and its celebration of individual creativity, it’s still a commercial. By allowing their commercial to be self-reflexive, to comment upon its own identity as a commercial while also pushing their product to a mass audience, LEGO is actually making a savvy business decision.

I’m also not sure it’s worth celebrating the fact that the only way a modern, discerning audience will accept a classical hero’s quest is if the quest is shown to be arbitrary—a narrative device to propel the plot forward and deliver the jokes and the theme. It’s certainly a postmodern way of looking at things, but for all it’s self-awareness, The LEGO Movie still shares the same story arc as every other popular animated film.

Despite my misgivings, I should content myself with the fact that The LEGO Movie is a solid film. LEGO was one of my favourite toys growing up, and I still dabble in the bricks on occasion. That The LEGO Movie shares some of the same zeal for creativity and madcap imagination as my 8-year-old self is a fact worth celebrating.

7 out of 10

The LEGO Movie (2014, USA)

Written and directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord; starring voice-work by Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Nick Offerman, Liam Neeson, and Will Ferrell.