The Lego Movie
dir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Release Date: Feb 07, 14
One of my favorite moviegoing experiences ever was seeing The Fantastic Mr. Fox on Thanksgiving with an audience that contained not a single child. Although the film was ostensibly a kids’ movie, the target demographic was squarely adult; movies like these are less about childhood than our experiences of imagination and play, what it was like to be connected to a great piece of literature or, in the case at hand, brightly colored blocks that stick together. It’s the best of youth, recalling the quiet lessons you learned about teamwork and creativity while you were building a spaceship that looked like a birthday present, and at its most gleeful and inventive, The LEGO Movie is a high-spirited reminder of what it’s like to have the world at your fingertips.
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are quickly developing a reputation for taking hackneyed studio product and turning it into something special (see also: 21 Jump Street), and this is their boldest achievement yet, a dumb-sounding premise whose result is way, way too smart for kids. The LEGO Movie is like the Ulysses of kids movies, so layered with metatextual jokes, references and satire that I wondered what exactly a kid would get from the film. Take, for instance, a recurring joke about micromanagers, a term not on my second-grade vocab list. How would a seven-year-old understand that? They probably wouldn’t, instead diverted by the bright colors and constant mayhem that the script provides as a distraction.
However, the film is layered with political subtext and social themes so far ahead of its age group that I’m tempted to call it the first kids’ movie ever secretly made for their parents. It’s the kind of movie kids will look back on later with awe, realizing there was so much they missed. Even adults will need to see The LEGO Movie more than once to appreciate its grand design. The story follows Emmett (Chris Pratt), an ordinary guy who discovers the “Piece of Resistance” on his construction job. He doesn’t know that a tiny bit of plastic can be worth anything until he meets WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), a woman who informs him that the prophecy foretold of his coming. He’s “The Special,” the most extraordinary being in the universe. Emmett shops at chain stores and watches sitcoms. What does he know about being special? All he wants to do is fit in.
The movie’s Matrix-like conceit is set up as a battle against conformity, represented by President Business. Voiced by Will Ferrell, President Business uses mind control tactics (like the song, “Everything is Awesome,” a spot-on takedown of current pop music) to keep everything in its right place. He hopes to use “The Kragle” to make sure it all stays that way forever, ensuring that no one can deviate from the plan. There’s something a little disingenuous in a film generated by corporate synergy railing against the perils of corporatism, but since the wee ones aren’t into Michael Moore these days, I’ll take what anti-capitalism I can get. The movie itself sporadically gets surprisingly deep about the ways in which social engineering breeds a sense of community, even when we’re at our most alone. We feel like we’re a part of something, even when we haven’t the slightest clue about what we’ve really signed on for.
Lord and Miller’s script loses some of that satirical edge in a gooey third act about a father-son relationship that threatens to destroy the world they’ve so meticulously set up by bringing in the real world. Having worked on TV’s Clone High and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the duo show an incredible attention to detail when it comes to toy world-building, juggling multiple pop-culture narratives at once. Although the film introduces kingdoms inspired by the LEGO universes, the film is heavily influenced by geek scripture as wide-ranging as Star Wars, Batman and the Green Lantern. It’s a lot to tell one story well, let alone navigate the multiple discourses of nerd culture while attempting to create something new.
What they’ve done here is nothing short of miraculous, finding the heart inside the plastic. I look back on Legos as a time when the most important thing in the world was something so small, being able to build my own universe with pieces of plastic. As children grow up and look back on this film, appreciating it with renewed vigor as they get older, I hope they can do so with the same sense of wonder. If there’s any justice in the future, The LEGO Movie will be remembered as a classic.