by Philip Price
Upon initially hearing that there was going to be a movie based solely around the Lego brand and the toys and properties they owned I believed it would turn out to be nothing more than a cash grab, something to build the name (not that it needed it) or possibly expanding the brand may be a better way to approach it. Essentially, I expected this to turn out to be nothing more than one big commercial. There was little reason for it to be more than that, why waste such effort or creative juices on something that would no doubt deliver zero gratification in the end and would only serve as something to further decrease the credibility of Hollywood products and the way in which children's entertainment disparages its audience much of the time allowing itself to get away with body function jokes and funny voices rather than actual, contextual humor? So, why would directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who took something like the beloved 1970's Judi Barrett children's book “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and turned it into a witty, colorful piece of cinema that took some unexpected themes and conveyed them in a manner that allowed the children to enjoy the food falling from the sky while the adults latched onto the insight the story might be re-educating them on, but was at least delivering it to them in a new, almost inspiring light? That these guys went on to direct something like “21 Jump Street,” a reboot of an ‘80s property that no one really put much faith in, and turned it into not only one of the best films of 2012 or one of the better comedies to come out in a good while, but a movie that used its interesting concept to delve into the strange dynamics of male friendships and the actual struggles it takes to maintain those types of friendships as each individual grows up and changes? That film didn't have to be anything more than a re-make slapped together by a board of executives to satisfy humor-hungry teens who move from R-rated comedy to R-rated comedy without a care, but Lord and Miller made it something more, something notable. All of that is to say that the directors have done the same here; they have transformed what could have been that one, massive commercial into something of a reminder, a love letter in ways to the spirit of childhood and how the imagination is just as precious as the adequacy we need to feel as adults. In short, “The LEGO Movie” is magical and reminds us of how simple it is to feel that little something extra.
We meet Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt), an ordinary LEGO mini-figure construction worker, as he is just trying to live his day to day as normally as possible. He lives in a world of order and instruction where he follows the rules that have been laid out for him and all of the citizens that tear apart and re-build their cities day in and day out, going home to watch the same standard sitcoms and eat food from the same chain restaurants without ever giving a thought to doing something a different way or coming up with an original thought. This world is overseen by the tyrannical (though he hides it well) President Business (voice of Will Ferrell) who keeps Bad Cop (voice of Liam Neeson) on staff to do his dirty work. It is on a fateful night when Emmet stumbles upon a stranger at one of his work sites that is looking for what is known as the "Piece of Resistance" that his world is turned upside down. Emmet has no friends, though he'd like to believe his fellow co-workers and neighbors were figurines he could turn to, they serve as no real connection in his life. That is all brought to light as he introduces himself to Wildstyle (voice of Elizabeth Banks), a rebel of sorts and the mysterious figure searching for the "Piece of Resistance" that might ordain her the extraordinary Master Builder as prophesied eight and a half years earlier by Vitruvius (voice of Morgan Freeman). When Emmet is the one who comes across the coveted red piece of resistance though, Wildstyle believes him to be "The Special", the one destined to save them all from President or rather Lord Business from taking over completely and gluing their universe together for good. It is in this mission that Emmet, Wildstyle and Vitruvius team up with all of the remaining master builders Lord Business has failed to capture over the years including Batman (voice of Will Arnett), Unikitty (voice of Alison Brie) and 1980's something Spaceman, Benny (voice of Charlie Day). This ragtag bunch of pros and unintentional heroes hit the road, stumbling through the multiple worlds in which the Lego toys have created and providing a depth to the universe that while not exactly is in line with any kind of cohesive or natural world all comes to make sense in the context of how Lord and Miller bring the film full circle; fleshing out not only the characters and the adventure they look to overcome, but how life and inspiration can be brought to anything with a little vision.
While there is plenty of stuff going on in the film and the numerous characters voiced by hilariously familiar vocal tones is winning it is the style of the animation that really stood out to me here. The attention to detail, as is common with most animated features these days, is astounding. While it doesn't always look like it, “The LEGO Movie” is completely computer-animated, yet Lord and Miller's team of animators have incorporated the style of stop motion not only to imitate the ways in which actual Lego figurines move, but to bring us a sense of the genuine aesthetic of the worlds and others we've seen in these kinds of films before while the difference in style stands to separate this from the average animated feature altogether. There is an inherent charm to the piece (no pun intended) that comes from the familiarity of the little faces on the yellow blocks, the space ships, the themes of the worlds and the mismatching of parts to create something wholly original that gives the film an initial upper hand, but is only made stronger by the charisma of that extensive and talented voice cast. As our hero, Pratt is more than fit for the role as he offers breezy quips at every turn that result in nothing less than a smile and was no doubt odd preparation for playing something very similar later this year in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (something I feel will be closer to this than some of the other Marvel films) while Morgan Freeman plays up his persona with grand results as the all-knowing wizard figure that guides our heroes on their journey. That upper hand, that familiarity accounts for half of the fun as the makers are able to incorporate well-known brands like Batman with the always hysterical Will Arnett doing his best Christian Bale impression while actually sounding like the boozed-up playboy with money to burn Bale's Bruce Wayne always purported to be. When you also have the likes of Charlie Day and Elizabeth Banks, two comedic performers known for the grace of their timing and unique vocal inflections, it is hard to create something not entertaining and even in their supporting roles they are able to give way to some of the more memorable moments (a hard thing to do in a film filled with them). It would be a crime to spoil all of the characters that pop up as anticipating who may show up next is a great added value, but I will say it was a nice preview of things to come this summer when Jonah Hill's Green Lantern played fanboy to Channing Tatum's Superman. It made everything about this film almost completely awesome.
It was about halfway through the film that I began to hope for where the film might take the opportunity it was setting itself up for. What it is setting up I will not reveal here for sake of the insight it brings to the themes and ideas that Lord and Miller have incorporated into their screenplay and what they are trying to get to the heart of. Still, the duo have used the colorful worlds and characters to create a subversive way of delivering the children in the audience that age old message that each and every one of them is special while not reducing the moral of the story to everyone is exceptional. There is a difference between being exceptional and feeling special. Everyone has the right to feel special, to feel treasured at least by the people they surround themselves with and because Emmet never had any true friends or companions, but instead was living life the way he believed he was expected to, also believed that made his existence fulfilling when in reality he needed to learn that it wasn't how well he followed the rules, but how well he exceeded them to actually feel raw, genuine emotion that hinted his life might be fully realized. While I realize that this all sounds a little silly and in-depth for a little animated film based on toys made for the point of pure merchandising that will warrant untold amounts of profit and the likely sequels given this thing is a box office success (and there is no doubt that it will be). It is the point that Lord and Miller were able to transcend those barriers and deliver a complete film rather than just what audiences, namely parents, expected it to be. There are hints of how we as a society don't need to always succumb to the social norms and simply follow trends or do what everyone else is doing to feel normal, that we shouldn't allow ourselves to become so trained in the ways of major companies that they dominate our lives and end up dictating them, but these are all things we've seen done subliminally before and I hoped this wasn't the only point “The LEGO Movie” would be trying to make to its young viewers. What I found surprising was that while it had plenty to say on the subject of the individuality of each person in the audience it also had something to say to the parents or older viewers in the crowd that might be too arrogant to think they have anything to learn. It isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but it was nice to be reminded of how little space there is between childhood wonderment and adult nostalgia and how the two can sometimes be one in the same.