Review: “The Lego Movie”

We needed this.

It’s been a cold, depressing winter. As I write this, safe from the current windchill of -8 degrees fahrenheit outside my window, I can’t help but think that The Lego Movie could not come at a better time. With the end of 2013 came an onslaught of depressing adult-oriented movies with main characters that were either oppressed, pathetic, dying, or despicable. Then came January, and while the new releases may not have been as soul-crushing, they were instead just terrible movies. And it isn’t just the movies that have been depressing. It hasn’t even been a week since Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the finest (and most unlikely) actors, passed away at a far too young age under far too discomforting circumstances.

People — and not just kids — want more feel-good entertainment. There is a reason that Frozen has consistently been in the Top 5 at the box office since it released all the way back at Thanksgiving. Clearly adults are willing to see, and indeed are seeing Frozen: the child market alone can’t sustain such an unprecedented streak, which has even beaten Finding Nemo‘s original gross. Disney, together with Pixar, was the first company to successfully engineer movie after movie that didn’t sacrifice quality for humor and awe, and didn’t insult adults by excluding complexity.

The Lego Movie understands this just as well as Disney, if not better. It has come to save all of us from the gloom. From the opening moments, the most cynical hearts will have a hard time denying that the movie seems designed expressly to produce pure happiness, regardless of age. I understand that anyone reading this is likely not a child, and nothing I say can convince those who think animated movies automatically mean “kids movies”. So let me try a different method:

Did you like 21 Jump Street? I don’t know many people who don’t. I think it’s an absolute masterpiece of comedy. This movie was written and directed by the same guys, Chris Miller and Phil Lord. Follow-up question: did you think 21 Jump Street was funny because it had amazing comedic timing, inventive sequences, and subtle blink-and-you’ll-miss them gags? Or did you think it was funny because it had a ton of sex jokes and used the f-word frequently? If you agree with the latter, then I probably can’t sell you on The Lego Movie. If you agree with the former, I might already have.

The Lego Movie is even funnier and more inventive than 21 Jump Street or the duo’s first (and equally amazing) project Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Warner Bros. could not have made a better choice than to hire Lord and Miller, especially when looking at how well their sense of humor translates to the Lego world.  The jokes are fast, furious, and often so subtle that you need to watch the movie multiple times to absorb most of the humor. One gets the feeling Lord and Miller were just spitballing jokes they found hilarious back and forth, and that kind of free-form madness serves the colorful chaos of Legos well. It’s far more laid-back and purposefully rougher than a Disney movie, and shares more in common with the best television cartoons that have appealed to both kids and adults, such as Rocko’s Modern Life or Spongebob.

The most striking thing about the movie is it’s look. Everything is constructed out of Lego blocks (and I mean everything, even mountain ranges, fire, clouds, and water) and it’s all animated to look like stop-motion, giving it a kind of home-made feel. Disney’s Wreck-it Ralph tried for something similar in a few scenes, but The Lego Movie commits to its unique style and then continues to use that style in increasingly bonkers ways. Every frame is a joy to watch, if only to appreciate the utter attention to detail. Adding to this, each Lego character and block looks exactly like its real-life counterpart, including ware like tiny scuff marks or paint that is slightly scratched-off. They even broke the Spaceman guy’s defective helmet in the same way that everyone’s broke! Now that’s commitment.

The movie’s one-of-a-kind appearance perfectly matches the story’s anti-conformist message, which while in itself is not nearly new for an animated movie, is treated with tremendous earnest. For a movie that constantly laughs at itself, the movie never undermines its own message. More importantly, it becomes far more than just about ‘being yourself’. In the end, it’s just as deep and thoughtful than most movies meant only for adults. And the way it uses Legos as an allegory for order vs. chaos or instructions vs. imagination is ultimately what makes it necessary on a thematic level, not on a marketing level, that the movie is made out of and about Legos.

None of the visual wonder or the nuanced lessons would be worth much if there wasn’t stuff happening, and a lot of stuff happens in this movie. ‘Manic’ is likely the best term to describe the breakneck pace the movie moves at. It’s about a prophecy in which the un-extraordinary construction worker Emmet is supposedly the chosen one to defeat an evil President, and while it might not be the most original, it’s really just a way to take audiences on a hilarious adventure. Sometimes that would feel like a cop-out, but The Lego Movie is in on the joke – it knows the story is just an excuse to have fun, and its glaring self-awareness (also a Lord and Miller hallmark) just makes the movie more endearing. 

The amount of sincere character development also helps distract from the plot’s simplicity and arguably its lack of focus. I can’t believe I’m writing a paragraph praising the character development of plastic toys, but I’m happy I am. Every character, even minor ones such as Liam Neeson’s two-faced cop is given an emotional path to follow that ties in to the main struggle faced by Emmet. I doubt the Lego team or the Warner Brothers team specifically asked for this kind of detail. More likely, Lord and Miller included all of this because they simply believe in making good movies.

There are also a ton of fun ‘cameos’ such as Batman (who has a relatively large role), and tons more that come out of nowhere, and the surprise of what Lego sets and characters you might run into next are a large part of the fun. It’s comparable to how Who Framed Roger Rabbit brought Mickey Mouse characters and Looney Tune characters together, and highlights how several usually-competing companies can allow for their characters to share the same stage in the name of imagination and surprise. However, nothing can match the surprise or imagination towards the end, when the movie suddenly turns into the most absurd and ambitious animated film ever made.

Like many, Legos were a vastly important part of my childhood. I remember very clearly getting my first Lego set (one of my earliest memories, no doubt). I remember sitting in front of my TV watching Disney movies on VHS while building intricate sets. I could even argue that it was one of the earliest outlets for my own creativity, a precursor to my writing — in this way I owe Legos a lot, and I’m sure many reading this could say the same.

I would always follow the instructions first, but I would never keep the final set intact for long before breaking it down to build my own creations. The Lego Movie made me consider what that says about me as a person, something I never would have thought about otherwise. The way in which the movie actively makes me interact with my own childhood is something only one other animated movie has ever done – Toy Story 3, often cited as one of the best of the best. In my mind, The Lego Movie is in the same league.

The movie is of such high quality that it could easily have been shoved out in the summer or holiday seasons, when the big money is made. That would have been a good business decision, but The Lego Movie, despite how easy it would have been to make into an overblown advertisement, is so far removed from the realm of business and marketing. There are a hundred ways Warner Bros. could have messed this up and made it a shallow cash-grab, but the decision they ultimately made to bring Lord and Miller on board was seemingly the only right answer.

On the same day as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death, the Super Bowl caused a stir last week with a multi-lingual Coke advertisement which revealed a torrent of racism that seems stuck to this country. Also, perhaps due to the lack of any excitement within the game itself, the Super Bowl was nothing more than boredom punctuated by advertising. At a time when everything and everyone seems to be selling us something — even when we least expect it — it is worth admiration that the obvious choice to use The Lego Movie as a massive marketing tool was rejected, and that instead the movie simply stands as a celebration of the collective imagination that allowed Legos to get so successful in the first place.

Still, the movie is sure to sell a boatload of Legos as an added bonus.

The Lego Movie is one of the most hilarious and well-crafted animated movies I have ever seen. It is not a children’s movie, but a celebration of the childlike imagination we should all probably hold on to.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

-Sam

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