Let’s put this discussion in context: although it’s a different sort of film than Pixar usually produces in terms of the balance between narrative and comic elements, The LEGO Movie is definitely in the same echelon as some classic Pixar fare. This is a very good movie, one that had my theater of predominantly grown men laughing like little kids for the vast majority of the film.
The film I was most strongly reminded of, however, wasn’t a Pixar offering at all, but rather Disney’s ode to arcades, Wreck-It Ralph. Like Ralph, The LEGO Movie leverages its property in a way that’s going to be appealing to almost anyone, but is roughly five times more awesome to anyone with a good working knowledge of LEGOs. Those of you who were playing in the ‘80s and ‘90s and are now attending the movie with your own children, fear not: there is plenty for you here if you’re watching for it. And if you don’t have kids “dragging” you to see it, drag yourself.
The LEGO Movie commits 100% to its plastic brick aesthetic, and it looks positively gorgeous as it does. The world is literally made of little plastic bricks, right down to the smoke puffing out a steam engine and the waves cresting on the ocean. You’d be forgiven for thinking most of the movie was an incredibly elaborate stop motion picture created with actual LEGO bricks rather than computer generated imagery. It’s an illusion created not only by the art style, but by the stunning animation. The detail here, down to nicks and dings in well-worn figurines like Benny the ‘80s Astronaut (Charlie Day), shows just how much love went into making this movie. The lighting in particular is a standout, looking just like real-world lights on actual LEGOs. Needless to say, it sells the illusion.
But all that would be for nothing if there weren’t more to this movie, and there’s certainly a lot more to The LEGO Movie than some fancy animation. This is not just an hour and forty minute advertisement. As I alluded to already, The LEGO Movie is ostensibly a comedy, and a very funny one at that. The script does its part with some really enjoyable wordplay and character humor (particularly with Batman, voiced by Will Arnett), but most of the humor is visual, and comes directly from the fact that the characters are LEGO people existing in a LEGO world. Liam Neeson, for example, voices Bad Cop, whose head not infrequently spins 180 degrees to reveal alter-ego Good Cop.
The story here is exceptionally simplistic, mixing together elements of well-worn story tropes like the One myth (i.e. The Matrix, Harry Potter, etc. wherein a prophecy names a singular protagonist of destiny) with over the top pulp action film elements and other recognizable, usually self-serious pieces. This turns out to be something of a double edged sword, and is simultaneously the source of my biggest issue with the movie and part of the reason I think it’s brilliant anyways.
Bad news first: as the plot leaps headlong from action piece to action piece and joke to joke – the two are pretty well inseparable, which is one of the movie’s great strengths – it never deigns to spend much time developing complexity to the plotline. We care about the characters, sure, but it’s more because they’re fun to watch and we want more of them than it is any deep dramatic connection. For the record, the story centers on Emmitt (Chris Pratt), a (LEGO) guy who is so much the everyman that he struggles to make friends because he has no remarkable characteristics. He is literally a blank slate, but by chance becomes the lynchpin for overthrowing the evil President Business (Will Ferrell), who wants everything in the universe to move forward with exact precision, adhering to the expected instructions and…you know what, it doesn’t really matter. Or at least, what does matter from the plot is hard to talk about without veering closer to spoiler territory than I’m prepared to go in this review. Just take my word that it pays off in some pretty spectacular, if not wholly unforeseen ways.
The issue is that in the moments where the constant barrage of action and laughs let up, the movie has a tendency to lose some of its momentum. It is perhaps only in the relief of the euphoria induced by so much of the rest of the movie that this is glaring, but I did notice myself – more than once – stopping to think, You know, it’s been a while since I laughed last. Thankfully, this isn’t an issue where, for instance, the first half of the movie is a hoot and the second half dreadful, but rather there are lulls in the action which go lower and blander than you’d like before the movie comes back with its next volley of excellence.
The positive edge of this plot, on the other hand, is that because it uses so many recognizable, and in many cases tired, narrative tropes, the movie ends up being a commentary on those tropes and is all the more funny for it. They add to the comedy while simultaneously saying, “Come on, Hollywood. You can do better.” The mere fact that these overused elements constitute the intrigue in a movie that is about children’s toys – takes place in a universe created by children’s toys! – suggests their pandering simplicity, but the movie is smart enough to have fun with them anyways! There’s a thematic focus on the difference between always doing exactly what’s expected of you and behaving well in a manner that’s true to yourself, and the plot is essentially a giant riff on that idea. They’re LEGOs, so the movie takes the pieces it’s given, and rather than building them in the same old boring way, recombines them into a fresh and poignant satire that’s thankfully never mired in any sense of its own importance. LEGOs are supposed to be fun, and the movie is nothing if not mountains of fun.
The Verdict: 5 out of 5
Appropriately, nearly everything in The LEGO Movie just seems to fit together. The showstoppers here are the almost constant stream of laugh-out-loud visual jokes and character humor along with animation of a quality I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, but the quality doesn’t stop there. The sound design is positively top notch, as is the voice cast that includes Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Allison Brie, Liam Neeson, and Nick Offerman, along with a host of cameos with everyone from Anthony Daniels to Shaquille O’Neal. The plot lets a little of the air out of this giant LEGO balloon from time to time, but all the rest of this movie is so delightful, particularly to someone like me who grew up playing with shelves full of LEGOs, that it’s an easy flaw to overlook.