Movie Review | ‘The Lego Movie’ refreshing, whimsical
Published: Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 08:02
Movies have been used to sell toys since “Star Wars: Episode IV” (1977) hit movie theatres. Making movies about toys in order to sell more toys has been increasingly popular with the releases of “Toy Story” (1995) and “Transformers” (2007). The result of this trend has been corporate, forgettable and bland summer blockbusters, and “The Lego Movie” sounds like it ought to be the ultimate embodiment of that. But instead, in an early February release, “The Lego Movie” is a surprisingly funny, poignant and entertainingly nostalgic kids’ film.
The film adaptation of the legendary Danish toy franchise follows everyman Emmet (Chris Pratt) — the most boring inhabitant of the Lego universe. Emmet accidentally stumbles on a strange red brick which turns out to be the infamous Piece of Resistance. The evil President Business (Will Ferrell) and his right-hand man Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) — mistaking his dullness for a disguise — think that Emmet, by finding the brick, is the prophesized “Special.” They try to take him into custody but he is rescued by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a core member of the resistance movement who believes the Piece of Resistance is key to ending President Business’ plan to glue the entire Lego world in place. This, of course, would end creativity forever. Emmet and Wyldstyle’s gang includes an egotistical Batman (Will Arnett), a wizard-mentor-figure (Morgan Freeman) and that generic space guy that every Lego kid remembers (Charlie Day).
The film is written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller — their third feature after “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” (2009) and “21 Jump Street” (2012). They stock the film with their characteristic pop culture references and self-aware humor, fused with a kids-fantasy style of inventing random names and seguing from genre to genre in a manner that befits the Lego world. While their humor is as sprightly as ever, the film sometimes uses references that fly over kids’ heads and fail to amuse their parents. But by the second half, Lord and Miller establish their characters — even Batman — strongly enough to create a compelling story in their own right.
A Lego movie is probably the only setting where Gandalf, Batman and Shaquille O’Neal will share witty banter — and Miller and Lord skillfully exploit those opportunities without letting the interactions take over the plot of the film. The tongue-in-cheek style gives the film a sense that Miller, Lord and the audience are sitting in front of a giant Lego set, playing to our heart’s delight.
The only rules that apply in the film are the physical rules of the Lego universe — even waves in the ocean are constructed out of Lego pieces — albeit 3D digital ones. The film’s remarkable success lies in the ability to blend this style with genuine storytelling — all the more surprising in a film whose official title actually includes the registered trademark logo.
Thankfully, Lord and Miller actively defy the idea that Legos are collectors’ items. This is a film that insists on the original purpose of Legos: to let children build — and play in — their own worlds. As its story unfolds and pop culture references fade, we’re left with a film that really is about toys. Like a wackier, but more forgettable cousin to “Toy Story,” “The Lego Movie” urges us to remember that toys were made to play, to imagine and to break rules.
Miller and Lord stop short of being radical in their storytelling. The villain might be called President Business and the story might be surprisingly anti-corporate, but ultimately there are still plenty of instances of unambiguous product placement. Delving into the spirit of Lego, the film also perpetuates gendered stereotypes about toys. There is an offending moment of misogyny at the very end of the film that almost ruins the heart of message of “The Lego Movie.” We should let kids’ imaginations run wild with their toys, the film says, but it sadly doesn’t dare to suggest that boys and girls might play with the same toys in the similar ways.
For all the roughness around the edges, “The Lego Movie” is a refreshing and welcome film. It is rare to see such a huge franchise film defy its trappings and produce something worthy of its beloved source material, but Lord and Miller come through with a poignant story that captures why so many of us fell in love with Legos in the first place.