Movie: The Lego Movie
Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Writers: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Release date: February 7, 2014
U.S. box office: $257,760,692
Worldwide box office: $468,760,692
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 210
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 96
Metacritic score: 83
Letterboxd average grade: 3.9/5
“Those inclined to reduce films to loglines could easily boil The Lego Movie down to “Toy Story meets The Matrix,” but that description fails to capture how much the film plays by rules it seems to be making up as it goes along. For a film that clearly required a small army to make, it often feels thrillingly off-the-cuff, which keeps with The Lego Movie’s themes of creativity and weirdness: Nobody’s following an instruction book with this one. The Lego Movie comes from the team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who previously helmed the animated adaptation ofCloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and the live-action adaptation of 21 Jump Street, both clever, warmhearted films whose central premises didn’t seem capable of being stretched to feature-length. Neither, for that matter, does a movie based around Danish building blocks that have been providing entertainment for kids, and foot injuries for adults, since 1949. But here Lord and Miller tap into why Lego has remained so popular for so long: With enough bricks and inspiration, kids can make little worlds all their own—then take them apart and rearrange them on a whim.” —Keith Phipps
“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.” —Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
“Beautifully shot, impeccably paced, and with a voice cast that nails it in every role, large or small, The Lego Movie is a genuine delight, and it makes me suspect that there’s nothing Lord and Miller are incapable of as directors. At this point, they have earned the benefit of the doubt from me. They could announce that their next film was a snuff movie and I was the star, and I’d still be excited to see it. If you’re a parent, you can genuinely look forward to taking your kids to this and to the conversations you'll have afterwards, and if you're just a comedy fan, prepare for 100 minutes of consistent joy.” —Drew McWeeny, Hitfix
“Binding The Lego Movie together is a Matrix-like conceit that turns the whole thing into an allegory about the nature of creativity and the meaning of amusement. As such, it encounters an obvious contradiction, one that bothered the 10-year-old Lego maven who accompanied me to the press screening. The overt message is that you should throw out the manuals and follow the lead of your own ingenuity, improvising new combinations for the building blocks in front of you. But the movie itself follows a fairly strict and careful formula, thwarting its inventive potential in favor of the expected and familiar.” —A.O. Scott, The New York Times
Prior to early screenings of The Lego Movie, the general attitude toward the project seemed to be curious skepticism: Having a well-known toy brand built into both the title and premise of a movie directed at kids invited suspicions that the resulting film would be little more than a feature-length commercial. (Heightening these suspicions: the film’s early-February release date, smack in the middle of the theatrical dead zone between the awards-season and summer-blockbuster breeding grounds.) Mitigating these concerns only somewhat was the presence of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as co-directors and co-writers: By 2013, the pair had received good notices for their resuscitation of 21 Jump Street and adaptation of Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, and they had a cult fan base stretching back to their TV show Clone High. But they weren’t yet considered the world-beaters with the golden touch they are today.
That started to change as soon as people began to actually see The Lego Movie, and the film proved surprising in all the right ways. Early reviews were almost universally positive, establishing and entrenching the current notion of Lord and Miller as can-do-no-wrong magic-makers. The movie debuted at No. 1 and stayed there for three weeks, making it 2014’s first big movie success story. None of that took away from the fact that the movie was—and continues to be—a marketing machine, with all the McDonald’s tie-ins and special-edition minifigures that entails. But it all seemed less alarming and more forgivable in the reflected glow of The Lego Movie’s critical and commercial success.
Revisiting The Lego Movie on the heels of it being more or less ignored by this year’s Oscars (one deserved but not exactly inspiring Best Original Song nomination for “Everything Is Awesome” aside), it becomes even more apparent how deserving the film was of the Best Animated Feature nomination it was denied. On a purely visual level, it’s a remarkable achievement, creating a new style of animation that’s informed by brickfilm, but beefed up considerably via CGI. From the way the characters move—choppy, frenetic, toy-like—to the subtle use of texture that gives depth to the film’s plastic environs, the world of The Lego Movie is built from the ground up, using the characteristics of its central toy as a guiding light. It’s almost a shame to leave Lego-land for the real world in the film’s third act, which diffuses a lot of the visual magic.
But while it does effectively break the spell the film spends an hour weaving, the real-world reveal in The Lego Movie’s last 15 minutes is the Kragle that holds the film together, so to speak. Watching the film with the presence of young Finn (Jadon Sand) and his dad, a.k.a. The Man Upstairs (Will Ferrell), in mind, it’s hard not to appreciate the work Lord and Miller’s script does fortifying the foundation for the reality-shift to come. From the way Ferrell’s Lego-world analogue, President/Lord Business speaks—full of the sort of business-y mumbo-jumbo a kid might overhear his dad yelling on the phone, or griping about over dinner—to the smart incorporation of non-Lego elements into the otherwise completely brick-ified universe, to the childlike simplicity—and absurdity—of much of the dialogue, The Lego Movie is pretty clearly built as a world within a world. Zooming out to that bigger world creates a bit of a tonal problem (see below), but structurally, it’s sound.
And while Lord and Miller’s script has plenty of great, memorable jokes and comedic voice performances—Charlie Day’s delighted “SPACESHIP!” plays just as well in context as it did coming out of the mouths of everyone you know following the film’s release—the visual humor in particular shines even brighter on subsequent viewings. As with the film’s visual style, the best gags are born of familiarity with and reverence for Lego, like the way pliable everyman Emmet (Chris Pratt) lives his life according to Lego-style instruction manuals, or the way Emmet’s co-workers enjoy eating sausages, turkey legs, croissants, and other Lego-friendly foods that fit easily into minifigs’ C-shaped claw-hands. The Lego Movie could have been wall-to-wall reference humor, especially with all the licensed pop-cultural properties in the mix—and it does indulge in a bit of that, particularly in the Cloud Cuckoo Land sequence (looking at you, Milhouse minifig). But Lord and Miller’s slightly skewed, irreverent take on well-known properties, combined with a deep reverence for the specifics of the Lego universe, successfully treads a very thin comedic line, one that indulges in familiarity without stooping to pandering; call it tempered nostalgia, which might as well be the watchword for The Lego Movie as a whole.
Removed from the initial surge of unexpected delight surrounding The Lego Movie, it becomes more apparent that one of the film’s biggest assets might also be one of its biggest liabilities, at least for viewers over the age of 10: The same ultra-bright, frenetic, energetic visual style that’s so thrilling at first has the potential to tip over into hyperactive clutter quickly. The Lego Movie is paced like a bullet, and while that contributes to a sense of euphoric, madcap fun in the early going, it can get exhausting as the thing grinds on. The story’s purposefully imprecise Chosen One plot exacerbates this unmoored feeling: The vague nature of Emmet’s directive and the so-called prophecy (which turns out to be a MacGuffin) felt like a winking bit of Lord-Miller meta-tomfoolery during the first blush of The Lego Movie’s success, but on subsequent viewings it becomes, well, kind of boring. There’s plenty of other great stuff going on around the main plot to keep viewers engaged, but all the talk about The Special and The Piece Of Resistance fades into background noise in the face of all the much more interesting surface-level stuff that surrounds it—particularly with the knowledge that it doesn’t really amount to anything, because, as Finn (via Emmet) tells his dad (via Lord Business), everyone is special.
Emmet’s journey into the real world and back again provides The Lego Movie with its Big Important Message, which dances around what could double as a mission statement for Lord and Miller: There is no hard-and-fast template for creativity and imagination. When Emmet tells Lord Business to look at and appreciate “people taking what you made and making something new out of it,” it might as well be Lord and Miller telling hardcore fans of Lego (or the original versions of 21 Jump Street, or the book Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs), “We got this.” And that’s a neat message, and one that reconciles nicely with the film’s broader, more kid-friendly “everyone is special, especially you” moral. But to get to that message, The Lego Movie grinds to a halt in order for Emmet to give that speech, cross-cut with a scene of Finn and his dad staring meaningfully at each other as their conversation plays out in Lego-land. Compared to everything that’s come before, its sincerity and deliberateness feels like a little bit of a put-on, a major tonal departure from the wacky self-awareness. With a few tweaks—like keeping the film firmly grounded in one reality or another, not switching between the two over the course of the scene—it might have worked a little better. As is, it’s not egregious enough to be full-on pandering, but it’s as close as The Lego Movie gets to the dreaded “p” word.
And finally, there’s the Wyldstyle problem, which Tasha Robinson already dissected nicely in her piece on characters who fall victim to Trinity Syndrome. The Lego Movie’s main female character, voiced by Elizabeth Banks, gets a strong introduction, but her impact on the film’s story and tone declines steeply as the movie progresses, particularly once her boyfriend, Batman, enters the picture; Wyldstyle’s descent into irrelevance culminates with her more or less asking Batman’s permission to hold hands with Emmet at the film’s end. Will Arnett’s Batman was and is a standout character in The Lego Movie—to the extent that he’s getting his own spin-off movie—but the way his over-the-top assholery and Emmet’s deliberate blandness both overshadow the film’s female lead so completely is problematic. Hopefully a more fleshed-out Wyldstyle is among the so-called “female stuff” Lord and Miller have promised will be in The Lego Movie 2.
The Lego Movie remains awesome, though perhaps not so unequivocally as it seemed in those heady days after its release. Now that the film has gone from unexpected success story to an established franchise-starter—much like the writing-directing team that made it—it merits some increased scrutiny that it doesn’t always fully live up to. The visuals, comedy, and characters are as fresh and delightful as they were a year ago, and the film’s go-for-broke inventiveness remains admirable even at a remove. But The Lego Movie’s creative, fast-paced, brilliantly realized assemblage of ideas doesn’t always snap together quite as tightly as it should, forcing a late-movie Kragle-ing in the form of Emmet’s speech to Lord Business. Still, both in and out of the winter-movie dead zone, Lord and Miller’s movie delivers, and then some. And though not quite everything about The Lego Movie is awesome, “90 percent of it is awesome” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
Next time: Noah