Out of the one film I’ve seen so far in 2014, THE LEGO MOVIE is my favorite. Yeah, it’s as good as you’ve heard.
Everything is awesome / Everything is cool when you’re part of a team / Everything is awesome / When we’re living our dream!
When I was a kid, my brother and I were — like many of you, I’m sure — super into LEGOs. Star Wars sets, pirates, castles, Wild West, we loved them all. This one, part of the Indiana Jones-esque “Johnny Thunder” series, is still my all-time favorite (I was a budding Egyptologist back then too, among other things). But my brother and I had very different modes of “playing.” While we would often play together, making up little stories as kids do, if left to my own devices I was perfectly happy to just build the sets exactly according to the instructions. And then, simply sit back and gaze upon my handiwork for a few minutes. Then take it apart. Then build it again.
My brother, by contrast, liked to — you know — actually use his imagination, and combine the different genres of LEGO sets (a laser gun here, a ship’s sail here, a Native American here) into an unholy amalgam, a battleship or sprawling mansion that was a riot of themes and colors. Bags of blocks that I had painstakingly organized were mixed together, and — unsurprisingly — my OCD prepubescent self often had a hard time handling that. Why would they provide the instructions at all, if you weren’t supposed to make the cool thing on the box? What I didn’t realize for a while was that the box is supposed to be just the starting point. True inspiring creativity comes after you understand “the rules,” and then proceed to break them. That’s what I later learned in art school, and what I teach my film students today.
It’s my old by-the-book, “please-leave-it-on-the-shelf-as-it-is-thanks” attitude that The LEGO Movie offers a stinging rebuke to, and it even makes me feel like I missed out on a key piece of my straight-laced childhood: that unexpected magic that comes from willfully abandoning the instructions, and letting your inner Awesome out. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is the most generic, run-of-the-mill dude in the LEGO multiverse. He’s an earnest construction worker who effortlessly slips into his daily routine: exercise, get dressed, enjoy a little “Where Are My Pants?” on TV (which, despite consisting of the same joke every episode, never fails to crack up Emmet or the other residents of Bricksburg), buy an overpriced coffee, listen to the same insidiously catchy song on the radio, and have a day at work when nothing too out of the ordinary ever happens. He lives by his set of instructions –“How to fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy!” — but is so dimwittedly bland, he doesn’t understand how invisible he is to the people he thinks are his friends.
It is only when coming in contact with the punky, Trinity-esque Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and accidentally discovering the “Piece of Resistance” — part of a fabled prophecy from the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) — that Emmet gets thrown into a world of infinite possibility, one in which he is the chosen “Master Builder” who will save the universe from the malevolent Lord Business (Will Ferrell). With Vitruvius, Wyldstyle, Batman (Will Arnett), and a whole host of other licensed LEGO characters suddenly looking to him for leadership, the very un-special Emmet has to pretend to be quite special indeed. But being as dumb as a brick, without a single original thought in his head (except an idea for a double-decker couch, which is just the worst), may give him an unexpected advantage.
In some ways, The LEGO Movie runs as a corollary to Pixar’s brilliant The Incredibles, which memorably taught that “if everybody’s super, no one will be.” Incredibles raged against a culture that celebrated mediocrity and awards children trophies just for showing up, even though some clearly have special gifts that others do not. LEGO writer-directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) make a similar argument from the opposite direction: we’re all different, but we all also have the same potential. To paraphrase another Pixar classic, a Master Builder — someone who can create and invent without benefit of an instruction book — can come from anywhere.
But more than a clever deconstruction (ha!) of the “Hero’s Journey” monomyth, LEGO is a deliriously creative, blindingly fast visual marvel. Utilizing a mix of old-fashioned stop-motion and lifelike CGI, Lord and Miller place us firmly in the LEGO world, giving the animation an endearing herky-jerky motion that just adds another layer of silliness to the already very silly script. Background gags are stacked upon each other tenfold — it’ll take multiple viewings to appreciate all the craft and wit on display. The dialogue is razor sharp and gut-bustingly great, and the entire voice cast sounds like they’re having a blast — no one more than Pratt. Reliably funny for six years (and counting) on Parks and Recreation, Pratt is poised to break out in a big way — as the lead in this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy and next year’s Jurassic World — and his effortlessly lunkheaded line readings here are a total delight.
Freeman, Banks, Arnett (whose gravel-scraping voice work here is a hilarious but loving send-up of the Nolan films), Liam Neeson (bringing his Irish brogue to the dual roles of “Good Cop”/”Bad Cop”), and Ferrell are all cast perfectly — the last also pulling double duty, posing as “President Business” to the proletariats of Bricksburg. His fanatically evil plan is to use krazy glue (or “kragle”) to freeze everyone in place, forever keeping the disparate LEGO realms from intermingling. But the why is actually the film’s biggest surprise, a third-act reveal that throws the wacky antics of the previous hour-plus into stark relief, and sends the parents in the audience out with a lot more to think about than their kids will have. Musings on creativity, maturity, even religion — it’s all here, and it’s all brilliant.
And because LEGO has basically licensed everything — from superheroes, to Lord of the Rings, to Harry Potter, to NBA players — there are infinite possibilities for getting the film’s remarkably deep messages across. Smaller appearances from Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, and many many more enliven the proceedings, as the film builds toward its euphoric, anything-goes action climax, and just when the film’s relentless pacing is about to swing toward exhaustion, Lord & Miller hit you with the unexpected emotional sledgehammer. Sure, everything about this is a hodgepodge — you’ll probably recall similar story beats from not just Toy Story, but Wreck-it Ralph and Kung-fu Panda, to start — but that’s part of the fun. The archetypical hero’s quest is almost a sacred tract to a child just testing out his imagination, and LEGO’s giddy subversion of it just works in ways few others films have been able to accomplish.
This, like other entries in the recent glut of toy-based filmmaking, could have been a disaster. A 100-minute commercial. But fortunately, it’s neither — and of course, it helps that it’s just freaking funny. Like, non-stop funny. So if you have children, or ever were a child, treat yourself to the first can’t-miss movie of 2014. Then go build something. Everything is awesome.