I’m probably overselling it, but at one point during The LEGO Movie, I found myself thinking, “This is it. This is the one. This is the film that our entire shared experience of pop culture has been building towards.” I think it was around the time we saw a council of heroes (called “Master Builders”) made up of, among others, Gandalf, Wonder Woman, Milhouse from The Simpsons, Michelangelo, the Statue of Liberty, and the 2001 NBA All-Stars. Or maybe it was when a LEGO Batman played us his own death-metal composition (“Darkness …No parents …”) and everybody nodded along to the song’s edginess.
The LEGO Movie is the kind of animated free-for-all that comes around very rarely, if ever: A kids’ movie that matches shameless fun with razor-sharp wit, that offers up a spectacle of pure, freewheeling joy even as it tackles the thorniest of issues. It’s part South Park, part Lord of the Rings; part The Matrix, part Idiocracy. It’s a superhero team-up movie, a toy-strewn dystopian vision, and a Bergman-esque inquiry into the mind of God. And it’s somehow still also fall-off-your-seat funny.
The film’s irreverence is partly just a physical fact: It takes place in a world made up almost entirely of LEGOs. The characters eat LEGO drumsticks, they shower with LEGO water, their guns shoot LEGO lasers, and their ships roll on LEGO waves. In that context, it’s hard not to think of everything as parody. But writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who also gave us Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street) have also designed the story to comment on its own LEGO-ness. Our hero is mild-mannered, smiley-faced construction-worker Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a totally anonymous worker drone who happens upon a rare, non-LEGO object, called “The Piece of Resistance.” An ancient (and, as evidenced by the opening scene, totally made up) prophecy declares that the person who finds this object will be The Special, “the most important, most interesting, greatest person of all time.”
Emmet is clearly not said person. But before he knows it, he’s whisked along by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful, Trinity-like member of a resistance movement determined to end the rule of President Business (Will Ferrell). Formerly Lord Business, this seemingly fun-loving leader of LEGO Land is, in reality, a despot who can’t bear to see anything out of place. He’s protected by Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), a seemingly indestructible, two-faced policeman, as well as an army of giant, tentacled “micro managers” who enforce his deadly vision of making sure nothing ever changes – that nothing ever gets built that wasn’t pre-determined and packaged with specific instructions.
What can be particularly tiresome about movies based on established toys (as opposed to movies that merely launch toys) is an overwhelming sense of brand management. You know a bunch of people up and down the corporate chain at the toy company approved and oversaw what is supposed to be, even in its most debased form, an artistic vision. (Every time the Hasbro logo comes on at the beginning of a G.I. Joe or Transformers movie, I die a little.) The LEGO Movie turns that whole concept on its ear. Much of the humor in the film, as well as some of its social commentary, comes from the toys’ very limitations – from that hilariously regimented anonymity that these toys can sometimes have. Everybody in the film listens to the same radio station – “Rock FM.” Everybody buys overpriced coffee at the same place. It’s a very LEGO wasteland. Seriously, either LEGO executives were asleep at the wheel, or they’re the coolest executives ever. At any rate, they’ve done all of us a service, and I suspect their product is about to become bigger than ever.
That Lord and Miller’s skewering manages to be so cutting without being mean-spirited feels like a kind of magic act. But none of that quite prepared me for some third-act plot developments that sent the film spinning in new, surprisingly profound directions. For what starts off as a lighthearted, ten-gags-a-second send-up eventually begins to ask some poignant questions: What is the nature of creation? And is God a vengeful hard-ass who asks that everything always remain the same, or a benevolent dictator who wants his creations to realize their full potential? Yes, I’m reading too much into it, but it’s all in the spirit of the film. This is a movie that takes LEGO’s true ethos to heart. Take the blocks and build something new. Find your own meaning.