Vibrant, Zany "Lego Movie" Finds Fun In Dysfunction

The toy-based motion picture has been a sore subject for Hollywood financiers and moviegoers alike. For the rare cult classic like “Clue,” there have been multiple creative failures – Michael Bay’s “Transformers” series comes to mind – and even the occasional box office bomb. Peter Berg’s “Battleship” stands out as a prime offender, a non sequitur of a film that took a world-renowned brand name and drove it into the ground for two long hours. It was the nadir of the genre, and an easily identifiable signpost as to why Hollywood had kicked around the idea of a theatrical Lego movie for decades – without actually getting around to making one.

Considering its lengthy development cycle, “The Lego Movie” is a distinctly peculiar vehicle for the beloved toy line, merely using the colorful, rectangular blocks as window dressing for a satirization of big, dumb Hollywood blockbusters. But sometimes the best way to escape development hell is to go for broke. And filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs,” “21 Jump Street”) do just that here, making the pic into a free-spirited romp that should appeal to audiences of all ages.

Chris Pratt (NBC’s “Parks And Recreation”) voices Emmet, a friendly but (warning: terrible Lego pun imminent) blockheaded construction worker who has unknowingly backed into a life of conformity. He exists in a fascist society that discourages individuality through the control of information, as evidenced by the spoon-fed pop hit of the moment, “Everything Is Awesome!!!” Yes, it’s a heady framing device for a children’s film, and the politics of the piece are occasionally muddled, but it works on a primal level, raising an important quandary – how can one person be special if everyone is special – or vice versa?

To address this question, the narrative relies on hordes of supporting characters, including a potential love interest for Emmet in Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a wise, old mystic, Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), a cop with a split personality (Liam Neeson), Batman (Will Arnett), and the villain of the piece, Lord Business (Will Ferrell). When Wyldstyle mistakes Emmet for someone with special abilities, the two begin a quest to stop the evil Lord Business from unleashing a high-powered weapon – the “Kragle” – on the masses.

The incongruity of the characters is jarring at first, but Lord and Miller ultimately whittle the cast down to its essential pieces, giving the best of the supporting players a moment or two to shine. Pop culture icons and historical figures abound, from Superman to Shaquille O’Neal, Chewbacca to Abraham Lincoln. But it’s Charlie Day as an overeager cosmonaut that steals the show.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that it wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It feverishly mocks Hollywood formula while mostly adhering to it, making for a bumpy ride in the early going. Its frenetic pacing is an immediate hindrance, keeping its characters from breaking free of their molds. But the picture eventually taps into the kind of emotional resonance that Lord and Miller are known for, using an unexpected but welcome live action scene to stunning effect. When things come together in the third act, it’s beautiful.

It’s hard to imagine a more inspired Lego film, or one less concerned with selling toys. And in that respect it’s a shooting star over a gloomy horizon of cynical children’s filmmaking. It’s peppy, borderline manic, funny, bizarre, poignant, and utterly nonsensical, making for an entertaining if not entirely lucid time at the movies. It’s anything but by the book, and apart from its definite narrative shortcomings, it should be celebrated for so expertly (warning: second terrible Lego pun imminent) thinking outside the blocks.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: February 7, 2014
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Screenwriter: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Starring: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman
MPAA Rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)