Note: This article contains substantial spoilers regarding the ending of The Lego Movie. Proceed at your own risk.
Genevieve: The Lego Movie could have gone either way. Released in the dregs of movie-dumping-ground season, featuring product placement so ingrained it constitutes the title of the movie, and utilizing an animation style that’s blocky and stilted by design, it certainly looks like it has the potential to be little more than crass movie product, particularly to those with little nostalgic attachment to Lego. But on the other hand, the involvement of writing-directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller—responsible for Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, two films generally considered to be way better than they could/should have been, as well as the cult-favorite TV series Clone High—plus a voice cast featuring many actors of the “always likable” variety, earned The Lego Movie a place on a lot of “most-anticipated” lists, including ours. (A curiosity-stoking trailer didn’t hurt, either.) But even with those credentials, it seemed like a movie with the potential to be a pleasant diversion at best, a blocky boondoggle at worst. But The Lego Movie turns out to be something even better than a pleasant diversion—it’s a genuine delight, and a much-needed happy, colorful surprise in the gloomy winter movie season.
Given that The Lego Movie’s de facto theme song is titled “Everything Is Awesome,” it’s tempting to use that as a blanket qualitative statement for the film—particularly because it’s so apt. I was genuinely awed at several points during the film: by its unexpected scope and ambition, both narratively and emotionally speaking, and by its stop-motion-inspired CGI, so unlike anything I’ve seen on the big screen before. (And, for the record, unlike the many previous Lego TV/videogame productions, which are basically rough-draft versions of what ends up on screen here.) This was the first time in many, many years that I’ve blown away by the look of computer-generated water, which has long been the hallmark of ambitious CG animation, and which is rendered so unusually yet beautifully in this film. That water is a small detail in the grand scheme of The Lego Movie, but this movie is nothing if not a collection of wonderful small details building up to a somewhat astonishing whole—not unlike the ambitious Lego tableaux created by adult Lego enthusiasts (one of which was constructed outside the theater where I saw the film).
Matt, Keith, I think we’re all on roughly the same page regarding the everything-is-awesomeness of The Lego Movie, but I’m curious at what specific point the film won you over. Which of those small details sticks with you? And what did you think about the big message the film builds from them?
Matt: I liked the movie from its first moments, but I admit to feeling a little bit worn down by its relentless pace by the end of the second act. The specific point that brought me back into the film and really won me over was the one where the movie breaks from its Lego-based reality and shows us the real world, where a small child is messing with his father’s beloved toys, and gets in trouble for disturbing their carefully orchestrated arrangement. The father—or The Man Upstairs, as he’s referred to—is played by Will Ferrell (who also voices the movie’s main Lego villain, Lord/President Business), who tries to impress upon the boy the importance of maintaining order and playing with Legos the “right” way (i.e. building them according to the instructions and then admiring them from a safe distance where you can’t break them).
The sequence is a great surprise and a welcome break from the chaos, and it nicely underscores what Lord and Miller get right about the film: It feels like the sort of freewheeling, silly, borderline nonsensical adventure a child would create playing with a big mixed-up pile of different Legos, where Batman might show up out of nowhere to rescue Unikitty, or Abraham Lincoln might zoom off on his rocket-powered chair. On the one hand, it does get a little tiresome how frequently The Lego Movie deus-ex-machinas its conflicts by having the characters build magical Lego contraptions. On the other hand, those crazy, unmotivated plot twists make The Lego Movie feel authentically kid-like in a way that few children’s films do. Just as Chris Pratt’s Emmet Brickowoski learns that sometimes it’s better to throw away the instructions and go your own way, the movie brazenly flouts Hollywood’s rigid storytelling conventions—with very positive results.
Similarly, I really liked the Ferrell reveal because it emphasizes who the real bad guy is in this scenario: toy collectors who obsess over the “mint condition” of their prized possessions and miss the entire point of owning Lego bricks (building things with them). That’s just one of the subversive messages that Genevieve alluded to earlier. Keith, as the only parent in this discussion, I wonder what you thought of The Lego Movie’s anarchic subtext.
Keith: I think the obsessive collector is a pretty narrow target, and one we’ve seen before in Toy Story 2. But I think what makes the character work here is that obsession can stand-in for any number of ways parents get in the way of their kids’ imagination and development. It helps that Ferrell doesn’t play the dad too broadly, and that his disappointment in himself seemed genuine when he put the Krazy Glue away for good. And I loved the way the film, subtly but unmistakably, connected the dad’s fun-killing insistence on following the rules with President Business’ attempts to homogenize culture in the Lego world, turning it into a place filled with chain restaurants, inane sitcoms, and that damn song I cannot think of without it getting stuck in my head!
Speaking as a parent, it most immediately made me look forward to the day my kid is old enough for real Lego toys and not mere Duplo toys (which are referenced hilariously). That means the movie worked brilliantly as a commercial, I suppose, but it never felt like a commercial. Like the Toy Story films, it shows how toys stoke kids’ imaginations and lets those imaginations travel to places beyond the apparent limits of the toys themselves. The way the story keeps changing on the fly give it a kid logic. (The closest point of comparison I can think of is French/Belgian/Luxembourgian stop-motion movie A Town Called Panic. Ever seen that one?) It’s thrilling to watch and, yeah, a little exhausting, too. But so is playing with kids. There’s a weird sort of verisimilitude to the experience of watching The Lego Movie.
Genevieve and Matt: I went into this without any great nostalgic affection for Lego. I had a lot of toys, but the closest I got to Lego was a tub of knock-off blocks from J.C. Penney. Did your past Lego experience color the way you responded to the film? And does any other toy line have the accumulated goodwill to get away with a feature-length film without it feeling gross?
Genevieve: It’s funny, I never had Lego toys of my own as a kid—though I have memories of playing with my Lego-obsessed cousins’ collection—but I recently found myself helping another grown adult assemble the Fallingwater set from Lego’s Architecture line, a fun experience that nonetheless was not entirely unlike assembling Ikea furniture. And that’s exactly the type of experience, and final product, treasured by Lord Business/Dad: regimented, well-defined, and resulting in a realistic-looking final product. I think that’s how a lot of us experience Lego as adults these days; rarely does a week go by without a fly-by Internet post about some crazy-ambitious Lego project made by a builder who probably has a basement full of organized and labeled boxes of bricks not unlike The Man Upstairs’.
(Quick anecdotal aside: I watched this movie seated in front a couple of members of the Northern Illinois Lego Train Club, which had constructed the aforementioned Lego scene set up in the theater’s lobby. During the scene where The Man Upstairs sits down at his workbench to fix something, I could hear them discussing how awesome his organizational setup was. I have to wonder how adult Lego enthusiasts like them processed the film’s central message. For what it’s worth, they seemed to enjoy the film a lot.)
This evolution of Lego into a medium, rather than a toy, aided in no small part by the Internet’s love of all things awesome and nostalgia-based, has made it easy to forget that most of us experience Lego for the first time as a simple conduit for our own imagination. That The Lego Movie reminds us of that while still existing as a feature-length commercial for those branded sets, with their instruction booklets and just-so construction, might seem a little have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too. (Hello, Lego, I would like to order one Unikitty and her Cloud Cuckoo Palace, please.) But it works because most adults’ relationship with Lego, if they have one, has probably followed a similar trajectory from toy to tool. The whole idea of the kids’ movie with “something for the parents too” is a cliche, but the divide between how adults process something vs. how kids process it is built into this movie’s foundation. I mused to Keith after the movie that I wonder how actual small children will process this movie, because its central message seems so squarely aimed at the inner child of the adults in the theater seats. Then he reminded me that kids generally like things that are brightly colored and loud and make funny noises, all of which also describes The Lego Movie, so, mystery solved, I guess.
As to your second question, Keith, I look forward to The Rubik’s Cube Movie, which I’m only 80 percent sure isn’t already in development. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a good, real suggestion for a desirable toy-based movie, especially since the Toy Story films have pretty much cornered the market on toys-that-are-actually-toys movies, and the less said about reality-based “adaptations” like Battleship et. al., the better. Help me out here, Matt.
Matt: Huh? Oh sorry, I got distracted there for a second; I followed Genevieve’s Unikitty link down a rabbit hole of Lego products. (Did you guys know they’re making a Lego Simpsons’ house? And it comes with minifigs of all The Simpsons? Do either of you have a bag I can breathe into until I calm down?!?)
Lego bricks were never my favorite toy as a kid, but I definitely had a bucket full of them; the one I remember most vividly is the blue-jumpsuited spaceman who shows up to play a key supporting role in the film (voiced by Charlie Day in an exuberant performance that is the sonic equivalent of a Mentos-and-Diet Coke geyser). Tellingly, Day’s Benny is one of the few figures in The Lego Movie that shows any sign of wear or tear; his helmet is cracked and his yellow-and-red chest insignia is worn and splotchy from years of use. The choice to use that particular Lego figure, and to make him look as faded as my childhood hopes and dreams, is a rather brilliant appeal to the nostalgia of viewers my age. When he first showed up in the movie, I turned to my wife and giddily whispered “I had that Lego!” like a 5-year-old. So to answer your question, Keith: Yes, I suspect my past Lego experience did color the way I responded to the film. This movie played me like a Trash Chomper that converts from garbage truck into flying robot with Micro Manager accessory (another great choice of names by Lord and Miller, by the way).
As a child of the 1980s, almost all of my favorite television shows were either based on toys or created with the express purpose of spinning off toys. Between He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, Transformers, ThunderCats, G.I. Joe, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the line between entertainment and commercial on Saturday mornings was pretty damn thin. All of those franchises except ThunderCats have been turned into movies at least once (and in ThunderCats’ case, it’s not for lack of trying), and while most of the films they’ve produced have been absolutely abysmal, there’s no reason in my mind that they couldn’t work, given the right caliber of creator. Likewise, The Lego Movie could have been dreadful, if not for the inventiveness and endless energy of Lord and Miller.
It doesn’t take a Ouija board to know that this movie is going to be a massive success, both in theaters and in toy stores, and when it is, there’s going to be lots more toy adaptations like it. (Like Ouija, currently in development at Universal!) That, I guess, raises another question. If more toy franchises are inevitable, are there any other directors out there you’d actually want to see on this kind of material? Who else could elevate a toy commercial to the status of art?
Keith: It didn’t surprise me to learn the 1980s Space Guy came from one of Miller’s own childhood sets, and if any other directors are going to take on similar projects it would probably help if they had a similar affection for the material. So if someone were to take on, say, a movie based on my beloved Capsela toys, they’d better capture the appeal of wiring up those interlocking parts into things that actually moved.
But honestly, I don’t want to see a flood of toy-inspired movies. In fact, I suspect there might be something unique about Lego that lends itself to this treatment. It’s worth mentioning that, as great as The Lego Movie is, it’s also part of a tradition of “brickfilms” that predate even the videogames mentioned above. These use Lego as the tools for stop-motion animation. The earliest I’m aware of comes from 1973 and looks pretty crude, but there are whole communities dedicated to it, and they’ve gotten pretty creative. (The White Stripes and Michel Gondry even went brickfilm for the great “Fell In Love With A Girl” video.) That no other toys have inspired this level of creativity suggests to me that there’s something special about Lego. Maybe Lincoln Logs: An Adventure In Wood will prove me wrong, though.
Genevieve: Well, despite your reservations, Keith, we’re definitely going to see at least one other film inspired by The Lego Movie: the Lego Movie sequel, which was announced before the first film even hit theaters. That news is unsurprising for several reasons, including the enduring popularity of brickfilm that you mention. My gut tells me that a Lego Movie sequel will inevitably offer diminished returns, since it will no longer have the delightful surprise of the meatspace framing device—and might not have the participation of Lord and Miller, either, if early reports prove correct. But if I can get a little philosophical for a moment, to keep The Lego Movie a perfect, unimpeachable, stand-alone object flies in the face of the movie’s message, as well as the values that have made Lego such an enduring and beloved brand. Even if there weren’t an official sequel, there will surely be countless fan-made films and spinoffs of this movie, especially with minifigs of the main characters being available for purchase. (Seriously, Lego, I would like a Unikitty/Business Kitty minifig right now, please.) Does that mean I want to see this franchise go the Shrek route? God, no. (Though I am wildly curious what a Lego Movie stage musical would look like.) But at a time when “franchise” feels more and more like a dirty word when applied to films, The Lego Movie seems better equipped than most to sustain itself well beyond the first movie.
To return to Matt’s question, though, in a roundabout way, I have no idea what directors outside of Lord and Miller would be capable of doing that satisfactorily, outside of someone from the Pixar stable, which ain’t gonna happen for a variety of reasons. This movie required a very delicate balance between brand extension and art that those two have proved themselves capable of doing well before, but there aren’t a lot of directors out there who can ride that fine line between auteur and hired gun, and with the right blockbuster flair to boot. Maybe J.J. Abrams? That seems like a reach, though. Matt, where do you see Lego’s film fortunes going from here?
Matt: Theoretically, I’d be all for another film starring Emmet, Wyldstyle, Unikitty, and the rest of the minifigs. But I must admit I’m not particularly enthused by the prospect of a Lego Movie 2 written by Jared Stern, co-author of one of last year’s worst movies—not to mention one of the least successful attempts to merge movie and marketing—The Internship. The Lego Movie is a commercial that feels like a film; The Internship was a film that felt like a commercial.
I’m much more excited for the future of Lord and Miller’s partnership, starting with this year’s 21 Jump Street sequel, and continuing from there anywhere else they want to go. They have a real knack for taking conventional-sounding material and enlivening it with self-referential humor and tons of visual and narrative energy. They work equally well in live-action and animation, and they can make wholesome kids’ movies and raunchy adult comedies. They’re definitely filmmakers on the rise.
Keith: So, what you’re saying is that in the right hands and with enough imagination, what looks like a chaotic and uninspiring raw material can be turned into something great? Sounds like you’ve been watching The Lego Movie.