It doesn’t seem like too long ago now that the idea of major motion pictures based on fairly abstract toys and games seemed like the next big cannonball poised to sink the good ship SS My Last Remaining Faith in Hollywood. Battleship was speeding towards us, looking just as unimaginably awful as it turned out to be, Adam Sandler was set to star in a Candyland movie, and sinister rumblings were being heard about a LEGO movie. Not a movie based on a previous property like Indiana Jones or Star Wars as filtered through LEGO, mind you, a movie about LEGO the construction toy as a whole.
“How the fuck do you make a movie just about LEGO?” asked I, and everyone with enough sense not to get their dick caught in their shoelaces every morning. Now, several years later, and having seen the film, I can safely point to it and say “That. That is how you make a movie about LEGO. And what’s more, that’s how you make it amazing”.
But really, once you subtract the admittedly easy cynicism that comes when considering a film based solely on a construction system, it isn’t hard to see why The LEGO Movie turned out as well as it did. It’s directed and co-written by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo who made 21 Jump Street also surprisingly enjoyable, and features a ton of talented actors lending voices, including Chris Pratt in the lead, supported by Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrel, Will Arnett, Morgan Freeman, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, and a ton of smaller cameos. There’s talent behind this one, and while that doesn’t always guarantee success, it can often foreshadow it.
Pratt voices Emmett, an ordinary construction worker and affable idiot who is told he’s the legendary “Special”, the one destined to overthrow the evil Lord Business (voiced by Ferrell), the only problem being the whole affable idiot thing. But with help from Freeman’s sage Vitruvius, Banks’ action girl Wyldstyle and Arnett’s Goddamn Batman, Emmett embarks on the usual epic quest to discover his true potential and defeat Lord Business.
Practically from frame one, The LEGO Movie has a pace that can only be described as hyperactive, rushing from exposition to character introductions to action scenes and back again with enough speed that most of the audience will probably have whiplash before the half hour mark. This is really the one bad mark I can level against the film, that most of its first half is delivered in a breathless staccato that almost had me begging for it to take a breath and slow down for a Goddamn minute. Of course, I can’t totally hold this against the movie, for reasons I’ll explain later.
As fans of Lord and Miller have come to expect, the jokes come fast and hard, mixing pop cultural references, sly meta-humor and absurdity in equal measure, and rarely giving us enough time to get a chuckle out before moving on to the next gag.
A ton of the humor though comes from the film’s creativity, which is so staggering as to be occasionally overwhelming. It’s clear that Lord, Miller and their co-writers thought long and hard about the possibilities of a world made entirely of LEGO bricks, and that care shows. The eventual reveal of the true nature of Lord Business’ all-powerful mcguffin and the equally important one stuck to Emmett’s back is a work of demented genius, and one that foreshadows later revelations in the film in the best ways. And for every obvious clever sight gag or bit of writing, odds are there’s two or three you missed. This is the kind of movie where years from now people will still be spotting tiny sight gags and clever touches.
The film also makes thorough use of LEGO’s countless tie-in properties, with DC comic heroes, Ninja Turtles, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter characters, and even a damn Bionicle reference, though it literally lasts half a second. Part of me has to wonder at what kind of legal nightmare wrangling all the appearances was, given that many of the characters appearing are owned by Warner Bros’ direct competitors, and visions of a room of lawyers fighting it out like wolverines in heat probably aren’t far from the truth.
There’s really nothing that elevates The LEGO Movie that far beyond the status of “above average kids movie”. The gags are clever and the visuals are stunning, sure, but it isn’t on the level of something by Pixar or Laika……until the twist.
Yes, as you have heard, there is a twist, one some internet critics have been spoiling, a crime for a public flogging should really be the only acceptable punishment. The twist in The LEGO Movie is what all movie twists should be, one that suddenly changes the entire dynamic of the movie into something you didn’t expect, and forces you to re-evaluate everything you’ve seen before the moment of the reveal with new eyes and even greater appreciation. Hell, it even makes the manic tone of much of the movie not only make perfect sense but be totally and completely excusable.
The twist doesn’t make the movie, the talents of the actors, writers, visual designers and directors is what makes it, what keeps it entertaining and fun; but the twist is what makes it great. What gives it more emotional resonance and depth than I think any single human going in expected from a movie based around interlocking plastic bricks.
The LEGO Movie is a perfect example of the idea that you can make a good movie, even a great movie, out of anything. Granted, the hope that movie producers will take a cue from Lord, Miller and co and approach their big budget adaptations of toylines and games (a trend whose longevity the film’s success will only prolong, for better or worse) with more care and insight is probably futile. But if nothing else, The LEGO Movie shows us that there is always hope, that a movie based on a toy line, and subsequently as up to its neck in commercialism, can still actually -mean- something beyond “buy our shit”, and have actual artistic merit and emotional depth.
Also that a LEGO Charlie Day screaming “SPACESHIP!” the funniest thing ever.