2014 Academy Awards, 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street, 87th Annual Academy Awards, adventure, Alison Brie, animated films, Batman, Channing Tatum, Charlie Day, Chris Pratt, Christopher Miller, cinema, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, co-directors, co-writers, colorful films, destiny, directing team, duty, Elizabeth Banks, family films, father-son relationships, film reviews, films, friendships, good vs evil, heroes, individuality, Jonah Hill, Lego Movie, Liam Neeson, Mark Mothersbaugh, Morgan Freeman, Movies, multiple writers, Nick Offerman, Oscar nominee, Oscars, personal expression, Phil Lord, positive films, positivity, romance, Shaquille O'Neal, stylish films, superheroes, The Lego Movie, Will Arnett, Will Ferrell, Will Forte
In an increasingly cynical, self-absorbed world, genuine displays of emotion often stick out like sore thumbs. When everyone is shuffling around with their hands in their pockets, rolling their eyes and being openly dismissive, the person who’s jumping around, laughing, shouting and having a great old time seems quaint, at best, and kind of idiotic, at worst. That, unfortunately, is one of the myriad curses of our modern age: our healthy sense of irony has mutated into an outright dislike of anything that seems too sincere…after all, what’s cool about that?
Being cynical is not a problem for Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie (2014), however: I wager that you’d be hard-pressed to find a film that wears its heart on its sleeve more proudly than this one. In fact, their film is so upbeat, jubilant, frenetic and good-natured that it seems ready-made for nothing less than complete and total derision…even kids movies are world-weary these days, after all. The crucial thing here, however, is that The Lego Movie is actually the furthest thing possible from a mindless, slobbering puppy: in reality, the film is actually quite clever, combining a dizzying, scattershot approach to pop culture references (albeit in the furthest way possible from the dated treacle of the Shrek films) with a tenderly insightful look into father-son relationships. The themes are always big and on the nose but it’s also pretty impossible to keep from getting swept up in the spectacle: in every way possible, The Lego Movie is the epitome of a big-budget, multiplex kids’ movie with heart, spirit and something to say.
Our plucky hero, Emmett (Chris Pratt), is a thoroughly average, cheerful, workaday drone who always follows the rules, has little imagination, no friends and no chance for any sort of wider recognition. His thoroughly average life comes to an end, however, after he meets the rebellious Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and comes into possession of the fabled Piece of Resistance. As luck would have it, Emmett appears to be the prophesied “Special,” the Master Builder who can save all of the Lego realms from the dictatorial homogenization efforts of President Business (Will Ferrell), who sidelines as the evil, outrageously outfitted Lord Business. Business hates individuality and wants to use the dreaded “Kragle” to freeze the denizens of Legoland in place.
In the best epic tradition, it’s up to Emmett and Wyldstyle, along with a motley group of new friends, to save the day. Along for the adventure of a lifetime are Wyldstyle’s arrogant boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett); Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), the hybrid-pirate; Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie), the perpetually chipper horned cat; Vetruvius (Morgan Freeman), the wise wizard who foretold Emmett’s appearance; and Benny (Charlie Day), the displaced astronaut who just wants to make an old-fashioned spaceship. The group will need to work together if they want to succeed, however, since President Business’ right-hand-man, Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson) is hot on their trail. As the dreaded TAKOS Tuesday looms, will Emmett restore individuality to the various kingdoms of Legoland or will the Kragle seal their fates forever?
Even at nearly two hours long, The Lego Movie packs an awful lot of action, plot and chaos into its stylish framework, making the film as dizzying as it is relentlessly upbeat and fun. There are so many small details crammed into every frame, so many running jokes, gentle satire and pop culture references, that the film sometimes feels like being dropped into a life-size Pachinko machine. There’s a method to the madness, however, a natural flow that allows one to get caught up in the eye-popping visual candy and just go with it. Unlike many modern animated films, which often seem so frenetic as to be unintelligible for anyone older than a pre-teen, The Lego Movie never seems completely nonsensical, even as it constantly smashes the wall between audience and action, animation and live action.
One of the film’s neatest coups is the way in which it mashes together so many disparate pop culture figures, superheroes and assorted film franchises. Not only do we get a full complement of iconic superheroes (besides Batman, the film also features Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Superman, and, if I recall correctly, Spiderman) but we also get Star Wars characters (Han and Lando show up for a funny bit), real-life figures (Shakespeare and Honest Abe are here, along with Shaquille O’Neal, for some inexplicable reason) and at least a couple dozen that managed to sail right by me. If there’s one deficit to The Lego Movie’s “everything and the kitchen sink” approach, it’s that it’s pretty impossible to catch everything the first time through: it’s like the scene in I Love Lucy where she tries (and fails) to combat the conveyor belt. By the time we’ve recognized and laughed at one reference, we’ve missed three more. On the flip side, however, I’d rather have an embarrassment of riches than a veritable wasteland…there, literally, is something for everyone here.
Along with being upbeat, fun and goofy, The Lego Movie also comes with a raft of good, positive messages and morals behind it: the importance of imagination; building people up rather than tearing them down; fostering teamwork; self-sacrifice; giving your children enough autonomy for them to succeed (or fail) on their own terms; the need to think outside of the box in order to solve problems…they’re all here and none of the messages (including the father-son bit) are so forced, maudlin or obvious as to be cloying. As previously mentioned, Miller and Lord’s film is the furthest thing from “big, dumb and loud” that there is (although it is pretty noisy, to be honest).
As far as voice talent goes, The Lego Movie is like an endlessly replenishing Horn of Plenty: we get the now ubiquitous Chris Pratt (giving Bradley Cooper some competition in the box office recognition stakes), a great performance from Banks as the self-assured Wyldstyle, terrific comedic support from Offerman, Day and Brie (the part where Uni-Kitty goes ballistic is pure gold) and incredibly fun performances from Ferrell and Neeson. Neeson, in particular, seems to be having a blast playing off his recent tough-guy image and he really lights up the screen whenever he’s barreling through the action. And then, of course, there’s Arnett as (arguably) the most self-centered, egomaniacal Batmen in the history of the character. Arnett is always fun but he’s especially good here, managing to bring subtle nuance to a character that didn’t really need it: thanks to his performance, the Emmett/Wyldstyle/Batman love-triangle has just enough pathos to feel real.
At the time, much was made of The Lego Movie’s general snubbing at this year’s Academy Awards (the film was only nominated in the Best Original Song category, which it won). After finally seeing the film, I must freely admit to being just as baffled by its exclusion: while I’ve yet to see the actual nominees, I find it rather hard to believe that How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) was a better “mainstream, multiplex” choice for nomination than The Lego Movie. The integration of actual Legos with computer animation, alone, makes the film eminently more interesting and impressive than many animated films I’ve seen recently and it’s intelligent enough to appeal to adults, as well as children. To be honest, it’s a real head-scratcher that ranks along the exclusion of Enemy (2014) and Nightcrawler (2014), at least as far as I’m concerned.
As someone who dislikes noisy, crass, chaotic, self-referential modern animated films, I was fully prepared to hate The Lego Movie, even though I really enjoyed the duo’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009). Instead, I was kind of blown away by it: the film is consistently impressive and, when it soars, it really hits some heady heights. Add in a great score from Devo mastermind Mark Mothersbaugh and there’s really precious little to complain about here. Whether you’re a parent, a kid or just someone who loved Legos growing up, I’m willing to wager that you’ll find something to love here.
One of the most beautiful aspects of childhood is the sincere joy that kids have over everything that they come across: kids don’t “like” stuff, they just like it, no qualifiers or snark necessary. The Lego Movie understands how important it is to dream, believe and shoot for the stars, how the boundless depths of our imaginations once took us to unbelievable places…and how they can still take us there, if we let them. In many ways, The Lego Movie is about the pure, undiluted joy of being a child: you’d have to be a real Lord Business to make fun of that.