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The Lego Movie: A Whole Lotta Awesome

by Ethan Alter February 7, 2014 6:05 am
<i>The Lego Movie:</i> A Whole Lotta Awesome

I adore The Lego Movie for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that directors Chris Lord and Phil Miller -- the team that proved there was a great movie that could be made out of 21 Jump Street -- are obvious fans of The Matrix. And I'm not just talking about the first film in that franchise, which provides this one with its central narrative spine, i.e. an ordinary guy learning that there are worlds beyond his own and that he may be the chosen one with the power necessary to defend them from extinction. I'm also referring to the lesser-loved (undeservedly so) sequels, which venture to narrative realms and traverse thematic ground uncommon for a spectacle of its type. Not to spoil anything specific here, but The Lego Movie has more than a few strands of Reloaded and Revolutions woven into its DNA, particularly as our tiny, yellow Neo stand-in Emmett (exuberantly voiced by Chris Pratt) grasps his way towards a rousing victory as well as a state of higher consciousness about his place in a carefully constructed multi-verse.

Lest I've managed to scare away everyone who doesn't have a deep and abiding affection for the second and third Matrix films, rest assured that you don't have to enjoy those pictures to flip for this one. (But it helps.) In fact, I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't flip for The Lego Movie unless they: A) Hate Lego; B) Hate fun; or C) Hate having fun with Lego. Granted, the animated Lego productions that have been made to date aren't exactly auspicious, mostly consisting of agreeably mindless kiddie TV shows like Ninjago and direct-to-DVD fare like Lego Batman: The Movie -- productions that mainly exist to sell a few toys and make some amusing Lego-related jokes. And both of those functions are also fulfilled by The Lego Movie, which arrives in theaters with plenty of tie-in merchandise. But Lord and Miller have also gone a step further, making a movie that not only highlights how people play with Lego, but why they play with Lego. In the guise of a rambunctious animated comedy, the duo (along with their assistant director Chris McKay, who oversaw a lot of the production while his bosses were off shooting 22 Jump Street) have actually delivered a thoughtful and even moving treatise on the power of imagination and the magic of uninhibited creativity.

They've also, by the way, made the young year's funniest movie. From its opening frames, The Lego Movie is bursting at the seams with visual gags, rapid-fire punchlines and an anarchic spirit that recalls the mad geniuses of Termite Terrace, home of the Looney Tunes. For the first fifteen minutes, it all speeds along a little too quickly to be honest; perhaps out of fear of boring the audience -- or boring themselves -- Miller and Lord rush through the set-up at breakneck speed, establishing both Emmett's routine and the routine of the Lego metropolis where he lives and works. That drudgery (which for our eternally enthusiastic hero isn't drudgery at all) is broken by the arrival of a female warrior and Master Builder named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who unwittingly leads an unwitting Emmett to stumble upon an artifact of great power, a discovery that marks him as The One The Special -- a mini-figure of major power.

And it's a good thing The Special has apparently been found, because his Legoverse and the many others like it (including an Old West frontier town and a fantastical land known as Middle Zealand) are being threatened with destruction by Lord Business (Will Ferrell), the omnipresent evil deity who values order and obedience over free play. To stop him, our reluctant, hapless hero has to partner up with a motley crew that includes unicorn-cat hybrid Unikitty (Alison Brie), cyborg pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), Morpheus stand-in Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), excitable astronaut Ben (Charlie Day) and… Batman (Will Arnett).

Arnett's Dark Knight has been the breakout star in the movie's trailers and it's a terrific take on the character -- part total bad-ass and part utter jerkwad. But the vocal cast is excellent across the board, with each of them investing so much life and personality in these pieces of plastic. They're helped along by a set of directors and an animation team that uses the physical properties of Lego in consistently inventive and hilarious ways. (It should be noted that the film was largely animated by computer rather than stop-motion, though some actual sets and figures have been incorporated into scenes. It's a testament to the skill of the animators, though, that the CGI-Lego really could pass for the real thing.) For instance, because their peg-ready feet can stick to any surface without having to worry about gravity, certain characters will just start to casually walk on ceilings when the mood suits them. And if Wyldstyle needs to assemble some sort of vehicle to escape a swarm of Lord Business's killer robots, she can assemble one out of the literal building blocks that happen to be part of every world. Lord and Miller take great care to highlight the tactility and versatility of Lego in every scene, not just as a way to make kids beg their parents for a Lego Store shopping spree, but also to emphasize character details (like nervous newbie Emmett's simple designs compared to Wyldstyle's elaborate creations) and underline the film's driving thematic notion that fooling around with Legos is a healthy form of self-expression for the young and old alike.

It's that central idea, which blossoms into full bloom in the bold -- if a tad overlong -- final act, which really distinguishes The Lego Movie from other toy-based films. (And yes, I still can't believe that's an actual genre.) One of the mantras of marketing is that you have to understand the product you're selling before you sell it and Miller and Lord demonstrate an obvious understanding of what's made Lego a playroom staple for decades now. But they also have the storytelling prowess to push themselves beyond making a mere sales pitch, which is more than I can say for overblown movie-length commercials like the G.I. Joe or Transformers features. As a result, they haven't just made a generic Lego movie… they've made the Lego movie, the definitive cinematic account of why -- as that infectious Tegan and Sara anthem that runs throughout goes -- everything Lego is awesome.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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