Sometimes the most accessible and pleasurable antidote to midwinter cabin fever is a movie that’s really lightweight, silly and fun. Hollywood studios usually seem to assume that the time when we most want to see such movies is midsummer. But the runaway success of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s The Lego Movie – released in February, the traditional dumping ground for film projects deemed stillborn – may be giving them some pause. In fact, it seems to be just what the doctor ordered for an American audience grown weary of an epic-scale, old-fashioned cold, snowy winter.
Aside from lots of positive prerelease buzz, a large part of the instant success of The Lego Movie must be attributed to its strong cross-generational appeal. Little kids will be dazzled by it, of course; but young adults of the generations who grew up on the plastic construction toys will also be in it for the nostalgia value; while older folks still shell-shocked by the harsh, cynical lewdness of The Wolf of Wall Street may seek in The Lego Movie a comforting respite.
You definitely don’t have to be a kid to enjoy this animated extravaganza set almost entirely in a toy-built universe. In fact, lots of the jokes – which come at the viewer in as rapid-fire succession as the breakneck chase scenes – will go way over the heads of the littl’uns. They won’t get what’s funny about calling some magical MacGuffin the Piece of Resistance, or naming a wizardly mentor character Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman). They won’t realize (nor will most adult viewers, probably) that Cloud Cuckoo Land – one of the many parallel Lego worlds visited by the movie’s heroes in their quest to save their universe from permanent gluing – is actually a time-honored allegorical term for an overoptimistic dreamworld that originated in Aristophanes’ play The Birds. No matter. Kids will have fun anyway, while the grownups find plenty of satirical meat to chew on and opportunities to play pop-culture spot-the-meme to keep them from getting bored or choking on saccharine cuteness. (Not just pop culture, actually; Shakespeare, Lincoln, Michelangelo and Leonardo all have cameo appearances as well.)
Many adults, of course, will be resistant to the notion of patronizing a movie that could reasonably be characterized as an hour-and-a-half-long toy commercial. It is, and the spinoff merchandising associated with the film’s release will be ten times worse. But the odd thing is that the narrative and attitude of The Lego Movie are in many ways subversive of the product for which they are the placement, and toss some bricks at consumerist capitalism in general. It’s no coincidence that the villain of the story is named President/Lord Business (Will Ferrell). The avowed mission of Business is to make the denizens of the Lego universe work in lockstep, follow the instructions at all times, never do anything truly creative or mess up his preconceived notions of a perfect conformist society. People who try to make something quirky, different, outside-the-Lego-box will be crushed along with their creations.
But the movie’s message is not quite so simple as that. Refreshingly, this is not a story of exceptionalist leaders triumphing. Those leaders are there, yes: the Master Builders, who can and do make anything if enough Lego blocks are handy. But the other side to the story is the balancing importance of teamwork. The protagonist is Emmet (Chris Pratt), a bland construction drone without a creative idea in his head, who is President Business’ ideal Lego citizen – that is, until he blunders into the Piece of Resistance and is acclaimed as the prophesied “Special” piece who will defeat the evil superweapon known as the Kragle. The Master Builders’ hopes in him are swiftly deflated by Emmet’s incapacity for original thinking; but without him their cause is sunk, because they are a bunch of prima donnas who just can’t work together. Only when every citizen’s imagination is freed can the rebellion against Business succeed.
On a meta-level, the broader theme of The Lego Movie is about the dangers of playing God. Anyone can do that in a roomful of Lego toys, it says; but whether one chooses to be a creative, benevolent deity or a repressive, tyrannical one is another matter. There’s a message about the responsibilities of parenthood as well; but here we stray too close to the edge of spoiler territory to pontificate further.
As an example of the cutting edge of the craft of computer animation, The Lego Movie is being compared to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph in its innovative exploration of different environments. Since the newer movie is constrained to some degree by its dependence on every one of its alternate “worlds” being made from plastic bricks, I’d give the edge in the visuals department to Ralph, whose settings and characters are as wildly varied in design as the computer-game scenarios that they represent. But The Lego Movie certainly pushes the envelope of what can be done onscreen with computer-generated visuals, and positively begs to be seen in 3-D.
Breezy, funny and smarter than it looks, The Lego Movie will wow you – although if you’re not fond of hyperkinetic action onscreen, without an occasional slower scene thrown in to allow the viewer to catch up with what’s going on, you may find yourself quite exhausted by the end. Do hang in through the closing credits, though: That’s when the funniest of the Master Builder characters, the exaggeratedly dark and brooding Batman (Will Arnett), gets a chance to perform a full-length version of the gloomy autobiographical song that he has been tinkering with earlier in the film, “Untitled Self-Portrait.” It’s a goof, and well-worth the wait. After this, movie Batmen will never be quite the same.