Mounting a cinematic outing on a corporate brand is an ill-advised, but inevitable development for any major property. Transformers has reaped fortunes for its aggressively ugly appropriations of the nifty Hasbro toys. Battleship was a less nifty, narratively regressive and nearly unrecognizable spin on its board game. Even Google spun onto cinemas last year with The Internship which, had I the misfortune of seeing it, might’ve ranked alongside Jobs amongst the most soulless films of last year. From square one, The Lego Movie boldly defies the norm quite simply by addressing the spirit of the product itself, rather than betraying it with a hollow, predictable narrative.
I mean, The Lego Movie does have a simple, predictable narrative, relying on the traditional heroes journey as though it knows no other kind of journey, which it doesn’t. Emmet Brickowsky (Chris Pratt) is your normal, everyday lego construction worker, only more normal than his fellow rule-following figures. Naturally, the most uninspiringly normal person in the universe is mistaken for the most important, special person in the universe, fated to stop the evil lord business (Will Ferrell) before he ends the entire universe as they know it. It’s the kind of story you’d expect an 8-year-old playing with these toys to devise, and it unfolds with the manic, inconsistent attention span one should expect of such a storyteller.
The movie jumps furiously across legolands, from the traditional (and frankly uninteresting) old west to the bustling, literally overjoyed Cloud Cuckoo Land, introducing handily fictionalized characters like Morgan Freeman’s empty but unfailingly well spoken prophet Vitruvius and Elizabeth Banks’ spunky, yet self-doubting Wyldstyle. In even more enthusiastic fashion does it incorporate lego versions of pop culture figures like Batman (Will Arnett), or rather an amusingly brooding riff on Batman and… other DC superhero cameos (those privy to voice talent will recognized Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill reigniting their 21 Jump Street chemistry to amusing effect).
Even busier than the character-surplussed story are the overstimulating, but infectious visuals, constructing every basic element from CG lego bricks, from the clouds to the explosions to the turbulent lego ocean. It’s all astonishingly realized and more admirably ambitious than any animated film in some time. As the film’s lovably irritating earworm song would say, everything is awesome, but it’s also everything, making it tough to adjust to the style when it’s in overdrive. Directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) readily know how to inject an exciting bit of energetic humor out of left field, prompting many wild laughs to help keep us devoted past a surprising number of butt jokes. An eye-popping action gesture with Shaquille O’Neal is a prime example of everything enthusiastic about The Lego Movie. A surprisingly well-felt subplot involving Liam Neeson’s Bad Cop, meanwhile, is one of many occasions in which it proves disarmingly human.
Behind the bracing insanity and fussiness of the visuals and story is both an obvious social allegory and an emerging personal one. The film blatantly comments on giddy homogenization of culture and the dangers and virtues of group think, but the third act brings a less expected formal reach that ought to demolish the validity of its artificial world, but ends up further validating not only that artifice, but the social act of artifice. It becomes about constructing narratives to help inspire us emotionally and creatively, rather than maintaining a flat, familiar, but safe construct of what we think the world should be. Even the film’s animation form, so akin to stop-motion, reflects a certain do-it-yourself eagerness for creativity, likely of the sort that propelled Miller and Lord into this brand of self-referential storytelling.
It all sounds incredibly nuanced, but these themes do come across with the obviousness of a run-on sentence. That may transfer across to some as heavy-handed or muddled, but if anything the blunt way it addresses its most glaring themes is more winning than wincing. When a film is so eager to please, you can’t help but be even partially endeared by its overt enthusiasm. You may leave the theater with the desire to rush to the toy store and buy the product this film is unabashedly promoting by the bucket load, but at least the filmmakers are attempting to instill messages about how and why these products should be used.
Bottom Line: The Lego Movie is a stunning, silly and manic cartoon adventure, transforming its corporate branding into a spastic rebellion of unhinged creativity.