Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
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The opening moments of Pixar’s last great film to date, Toy Story 3, depict an intentionally, increasingly goofy and outlandish fantasy scenario in which all of the toys in Andy’s bedroom play a part. There are the heroic Sheriff Woody and his cowgirl friend Jessie, both riding to the rescue of some helpless critters being held by the nefarious Mr. Potato Head, his wife, and his cronies, the little green men. There’s also Buzz Lightyear, saving the good guys from a train bridge explosion. And there’s Hamm (known here as Evil Dr. Porkchop), his barrel of monkeys, and his spaceship. The payoff to this gag, of course, is that Andy’s essentially playing God with these toys, letting logic vanish in the wind like a trail of dust. It’s not wrong that this world he’s created is as far from reality as possible; that’s the point, to revel in the ridiculous for the sheer fun of playtime.
Reveling in the ridiculous is something that the writing/directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller do very well. Their first feature film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, was a manic, limber, and loose animated feature that didn’t talk down to its family audience, but instead presumed that young and old viewers would appreciate its fast-talking, intelligent sense of humor. Though their next film, 21 Jump Street (with a sequel on the way later this year), was decidedly adult, it was equally light, outrageous, and laugh-out-loud funny, a welcome skewering of modern action films and genre tropes. Thankfully, they’ve continued their winning streak with an equally improbable title, The LEGO Movie, which raucously throws together a vast array of famous preexisting characters with some fresh faces, delivering a delightful and consistently funny result.
Chris Pratt voices Emmet, a construction worker LEGO figure who lives a life of conformity in Bricksburg, alongside other normal LEGOs. He listens to the same music everyone else does, eats the same food, watches the same shows, to the point where his only notable trait is an amiable, if easy to ignore, enthusiasm. One day, though, he (literally) falls upon the Piece of Resistance, a fabled artifact whose wearer is deemed the Special by a hallowed prophecy. Emmet is, thus, swept up in a hectic adventure by the colorful and winsome Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), the wizened Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, natch), as well as familiar faces like Batman (Will Arnett), all while being pursued by the nefarious President Business (Will Ferrell) and his henchman Bad Cop (Liam Neeson).
At this point in modern cinema, the very invocation of a hallowed prophecy and any wisp of mythological backing is enough to make you groan. Enough movies these days overload themselves with unwieldy histories and backstories that are rarely, if ever, entertaining. So it’s a pleasant twist that Lord and Miller are perfectly aware of this inundation, poking holes in the story’s mythology as soon as they introduce it. (Once Wyldstyle absconds with Emmet and is explaining said prophecy to him, he tunes her out, hearing her say only “Blah, blah, blah, I’m so cute.”) Much of The LEGO Movie’s charm is in its commentary on how the grown children of the 1980s and 1990s have chosen to treat comic-book characters and the like more seriously than is necessary; Arnett, as Batman, gets a number of wry throwaway gags about how painfully dour the Caped Crusader tends to be. The LEGO Movie is, in short, smart enough to play fast and loose with its own rules, always on the brink of derailing but never once faltering.
Equally important to the film is the notion of playing God with our inanimate objects. Like the Toy Story trilogy, though in nowhere near as emotional a fashion, The LEGO Movie weaves in the notion of how freeing it can be to play with toys, instead of treating them like museum pieces. If there is a message to take away from the film amidst the wild action and jokes, it’s that you can and still should embrace your childish side at the opportune time. Leaving aside any subtle moralizing, Lord and Miller do wonders with their script, as well as with cramming as many jokes as possible into the background. (A particular favorite is the music-themed poster in Emmet’s apartment reading “Popular Music!”, once more emphasizing his aggressive blandness.) And the cast, from Pratt to Banks to Alison Brie to the film’s standout, Liam Neeson in an uproarious parody of the kinds of action heroes he plays on a near-weekly basis now, is expertly utilized. There are, admittedly, a few moments in the second act where the hectic pacing threatens to destroy the movie entirely, but there’s always another joke to laugh at, a witty visual gag or one-liner.
Arguably, The LEGO Movie is not as dense and emotionally fraught as some of Pixar’s best films (though there is unexpected pathos in a surprising and completely welcome third-act revelation), but it doesn’t have to be. This film is a breath of fresh air in modern animation, both self-aware and uncondescending, whip-smart and indulgently silly. Upon the announcement of its existence, The LEGO Movie appeared to be a naked cash-grab from Warner Bros. Pictures, a way to sell more toys and nothing more. In the hands of other, lazier filmmakers, that might’ve been the case. Thankfully, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller turned a corporate tie-in into something vivid, striking, and buoyant. Like Andy in the Toy Story films, they’re playing God with LEGOs here, bringing us a goofball fantasy with a full embrace of their childish side.
— Josh Spiegel