It’s not really clear why “toys as mult-million dollar blockbusters” is a strong trend right now. A lack of ideas? Easy corporate synergy? Whatever the case, the end result of this movement towards “movie versions of plastic stuff” has given us three (coming on four) Transformers films, two G.I. Joe adventures, one totally inexplicable sci-fi Battleship movie and, now, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie. Unlike the rest of its officially licensed brethren and against all odds, The Lego Movie is a no-kidding, honest-to-God great animated film that’s easily on par with Pixar’s Toy Story films.
The story of The Lego Movie is appropriately straightforward: unremarkable LEGO construction worker Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) finds The Piece of Resistance, a mysterious artifact critical to stopping the villainous master plan of incredibly tall bad guy Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his henchman Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson). Along the way, Emmet befriends other “Master Builders” (the Jedi-esque term for LEGO mini-figures who can build great things without instructions) including Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett, expertly applying his tried and true douchebag-boyfriend persona to the Dark Knight), Princess Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie) and wizened sage Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, clearly having the time of his life in this).
First off, The Lego Movie is gorgeous. The pseudo-stop motion animation from Australian digital effects house Animal Logic would have you believe that you’re looking at real, physical moving objects. Every single thing in the movie (with the exception of some real world objects) is made of LEGO; when a car explodes, a burst of circular orange and grey LEGO pieces shoot up in the air or “plastic” flame effects appear. When the candy-colored sky paradise of Cloud Cuckooland is destroyed by Bad Cop’s forces, there’s something strangely painful about watching these elaborate, candy-colored LEGO creations sink smoldering into a vast ocean of blue blocks. Every digital setpiece in the film, from the impossibly intricate LEGO city of Bricksville to the giant black 2 x 2 brick that is Lord Business’ flying base to the piecemeal design of giant mecha-pirate Metalbeard, shows a loving and careful attention to detail.
The other immediately obvious thing about The Lego Movie is that it’s genuinely funny in a way most animated movies just aren’t. While they mine some great humor from familiar pop culture icons (Shaq’s brief but memorable cameo is only eclipsed by Vitruvius’ off-the-cuff namedropping of a Simpsons cast member in one scene), it’s there to add color rather than do the Family Guy thing where references stand in for actual jokes. Really, most of the humor comes from the film’s original characters: gags like the inherent ridiculousness of Wyldstyle’s name, Emmet’s total cluelessness with building, and 80’s spaceman Benny’s obsession with building spaceships. More importantly, the three examples I just listed aren’t one-off jokes, they come back repeatedly and are integral to the plot. Lord and Miller established that they’re at great at “brick jokes” like this in their super-underrated movie version of 21 Jump Street, and here they take it to the next level.
But what puts The LEGO Movie in the company of animated films like Toy Story or The Incredibles is the message it espouses, or more specifically, the path it takes to finally reach that message. In the film, Emmet becomes revered as “The Special” after finding The Piece of Resistance. “The Special” is a chosen one who, according to Vitruvius’ it-has-to-be-true-because-it-rhymes prophecy, “is the most special, most important, most interesting person of all time.” The LEGO Movie is clearly riffing on, among other things, The Matrix. Vitruvius is Morpheus, Emmet is Neo, and Wyldstyle (as his story-obligated wise female companion/liberator) gets stuck as Trinity.
SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT
While many movies have used this watered-down Joseph Campbell setup before (Tron: Legacy immediately springs to mind), The Lego Movie actively uses it so they can dismantle it. While Emmet does learn to become “The Special” through coaching from Vitruvius and the support of his new friends, the prophecy is revealed as total nonsense. Emmet learns, instead, that we’re all “The Special”; each of us has the potential for greatness if we only reach out and try. It’s this message that inspires the seemingly ordinary city dwellers, cowboys, superheroes, and knights to cast aside their assigned roles and creatively fight back. This is even central to the film’s final confrontation between Emmet and Lord Business, where our hero saves the day by convincing a seemingly irredeemable villain that he has true greatness and value within him just waiting to be realized.
While the philosophy of “believe in yourself” isn’t exactly groundbreaking (“I know that sounds like a cat poster,” says Freeman’s Vitruvius, “but it’s true”), Lord and Miller make the very cogent point that this isn’t wisdom solely reserved for the Neos or Luke Skywalkers of the world, it’s for all of us. While the catchy Tegan and Sara theme song may be “Everything Is Awesome!!!”, the song The Lego Movie plays from its heart to you, me, and (especially) millions of children is “Everyone is Awesome!!!”.