Movies based on toys don’t have the best reputation when it comes to quality. Especially when, like the recent Battleship film, the source material doesn’t have a lot of meat on the bone. So a movie based on an even simpler toy concept — Lego bricks — could be a disaster waiting to happen. On the other hand, perhaps the nature of that toy, which unlike a board game with rigid rules allows for endless creativity, is exactly the kind of toy ripe for a jump to the big screen.

lm1Emmet’s life is, like everyone else, regimented by a set of strict instructions that keep everyone happy and working hard to make their society a better place. But even in a world so strictly organized and bland, Emmet stands out even less than average. That changes one day when he finds the Piece of Resistance and a prophesy declares he is the most special person in the world. His monotonous life is turned upside down as the creative Master Builders race to protect him from the dictatorial Lord Business.

For a silly movie ostensibly about toys, the story in The Lego Movie is surprisingly weighty. Among the themes touched on: Is the happiness derived from conformity and blind adherence to authority real or a delusional attempt to justify an existence not much more than a de facto form of slavery? Does destiny play any role in determining our future? Is our confidence (or lack thereof) in our own abilities the limiting factor in how far we can potentially go in life? Is creativity a talent you’re born with, a skill to be honed, or something within everyone waiting to be nurtured before it can blossom? What happens to a person if instead of that creativity being nurtured it is stifled and beaten down? Most animated movies with a message utterly fail usually by being too heavy handed with the moral. In The Lego Movie they strike just the right balance: it’s there if you want to look or you can easily enjoy the film without it.

While the last paragraph makes the film sound like a bore, it is anything but! In fact, the biggest complaint I would make about the movie is that sometimes the action and jokes come too fast and too often. The breakneck pace of the plot is so frenetic that it can be hard to catch everything. That said, too much of a good thing in a film isn’t something I’m going to complain about! Besides the popular toy the film is based on, the humor is the big selling point here. The jokes are almost non-stop and there are hardly any duds. And they’re not just “kids jokes” or “adult jokes that will go over kids’ heads”. More surprisingly, the film is action-packed as well. But I guess with all the different Lego sets based on playing in settings like space, medieval times, the old west, and more, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the movie version of the toy would have so many different exciting ideas to draw from. One great way this manifested was by having characters from different “properties” (like Ninja Turtles, Wonder Woman, Harry Potter, etc) crossing over, just like how real kids play with Legos. With action and humor so front and center (not to mention subtext underneath), you would think the plot is almost required to take a back seat. While it does get a little muddled (and is overall fairly convoluted!), the writers have kept it from being buried completely — though the whole thing probably could have been a few minutes shorter. But what do you cut?

There’s also a plot line I can’t discuss without spoiling a big chunk of the movie. But I can’t review the film without mentioning it! So I’ll just have to cryptically say the hero’s journey takes an unexpected turn that I thought was very well done, and added exactly what the film had been missing up to that point — some much needed heart and emotional depth.

lm2If I can go on a bit of a tangent, one issue I did have with the writing was with the villain. Hollywood in general has a certain undeniable political bent that permeates their films directly and indirectly. And movies aimed at kids are no exception. The military, the religious, and anybody that has anything to do with capitalism have long been the go-to antagonists in what can almost be called a propaganda campaign from those in charge of movie-making in America. So when I first heard the name of the bad guy in The Lego Movie — “Lord Business” — I was not surprised. After seeing the movie what did surprise me was how completely unconnected from the film his name actually is. While technically he ran a company, the business was rarely mentioned and really had nothing to do with the plot at all. There wasn’t any profit-making in any of his scheming. If anything, he was more like an over-the-top authoritarian statist. In other words, closer to the Hollywood-left thinking than the business-right. Maybe “Lord Government” might have been more appropriate. By the way, my issue isn’t with the politics behind the name — it’s that the name doesn’t make sense in the context of the film and felt more like an unnecessary partisan dig. If he’d been a money-grubbing business tycoon, fine. But calling him Lord Business with this story is as out of place as keeping everything the same in Aladdin but changing Jafar’s name to “Reverend Marijuana”!

The animation in the film had a unique computer generated stop-motion look, and the effect was fantastic, especially since the “medium” was Lego bricks. While a lot of the design of the characters and the world they inhabit was limited by the product itself, where the artists really were able to play with the animation were in the effects. How would things like water, fire, smoke, clouds, and the like look in a world made of Legos? The direction taken by the animators was not only fun and unique, but pretty stunning to see as well. I also loved the facial expressions on the minifigures — very in line with the toys, but brought wonderfully to life in film.

The voice actors were all top-notch. Chris Pratt, especially, did an outstanding job as the dark horse hero. Will Ferrell made for a great villain. Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson were both uncharacteristically hilarious as Vitruvius and Good Cop/Bad Cop. Elizabeth Banks did a very good job as the tough but torn Wyldstyle. Will Arnett has made a case as the best animated Batman voice. And the rest of the voice cast including the cameos were just all fun and well done.

The Lego Movie is an unexpectedly good film. While the plot gets occasionally muddled, it’s more than made up for with the movie’s wonderful underlying story, humor, action, animation, voice acting, and heart. Like Legos themselves you’ll have a good time whether you prefer to stick to what’s on the box and enjoy the story at face value, or if you prefer to go beyond the box and come up with your own ideas about what the story means. And most importantly, like the toy itself, it’s something that boys and girls, no matter their age, can all enjoy together.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

The Lego Movie
Warner Bros./Animal Logic
February 7, 2014
100 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller