The Lego Movie would be nothing without Legos. That's not as obvious a statement as it sounds, and I'm sorry to say I've pulled back the curtain on this critically acclaimed, plastic-brick Oz. Strip away the branding and nostalgia, and you're left with an unfunny compilation of meta-humor cliches and a story that doesn't hold up under the slightest scrutiny.
The movie centers on Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a jovial construction worker in Lego World (or whatever it's called). He has no friends, and his co-workers barely know he exists. One day, he stumbles upon The Piece of Resistance, an odd-shaped red brick that melds itself to his back. Turns out it's the only thing that can stop The Kragle, a world-ending weapon of mass destruction wielded by the evil President Business (Will Ferrell). Also on the hunt for The Piece is Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a sassy pseudo-punk and agent of good who's disappointed when Emmet is revealed to be the Chosen One mentioned in an ancient prophecy laid out by the ancient wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman).
Got all that?
After collecting a few more Hero's Journey-archetypes, Emmet, Wyldestyle, and Vitruvius set out to rally the Master Builder Legos for help in defeating President Business. Batman (Will Arnett) shows up as the Han Solo stand-in;* while mythical-creature hodgepodge Unikitty (Alison Brie) and 80s astronaut Benny (Charlie Day) round out the quirky sidekick roles. The casting is perfect, and by "perfect", I mean the most obvious choices one could make when assigning actors to voice characters: Arnett is sufficiently brooding and gruff; Brie bubbles with Anime optimism (except, of course, when her secret dark side emerges), and Day yells a lot.
If The Lego Movie is the first movie you've ever seen, you'll likely discover lots of inventive, hilarious fun. If, however, you're over the age of ten, the only way to find genuine humor and new ideas in this over-long commercial is to fool yourself into thinking it's something different. There are jokes and gags everywhere, but none of them reach beyond the first fifty or so bits you might expect to see in a movie about Legos. The explosions all end with little flickering flame pieces twisting madly about; the Legos' odd claw hands are routinely ridiculed; and one character comes back as a generic-looking ghost. In many ways, The Lego Movie reminded me of Wreck-It Ralph, another popular kids' film that relied on gimmickry and brand recognition to disguise the fact that there's no filling beneath its candy-coated surface.
Had co-writers/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller invested a tenth of the brain power into The Lego Movie as they did Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and 21 Jump Street, this might have been an instant classic. Instead, they slum it with jokes everyone will see coming,** and don't bother with cleaning up their sloppy story details. To wit:
1. The filmmakers establish that Lego World's various realms not only contain weird creatures and mystical powers, but that Superman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, and Batman all exist in this reality. So when President Business and his army of killer robots show up, why do the world's greatest superheroes allow themselves to be captured and virtually taken out of the movie? I guess because this is Emmet's journey, and he has not yet completed his transformation from loser to mighty champion (which means, I guess, he's destined to have his powers rendered irrelevant by script limitations someday).
2. Late in the film, we learn that Lego World is, of course, the province of a flesh-and-blood human boy named Finn (Jadon Sand). Lots of movies have pulled off the parallel-world conceit (most notably Toy Story), but Lord and Miller muddy the waters of their reality's rules. It is implied that the Lego people of The Lego Movie were fashioned and manipulated by Finn and his dad (Ferrell); we see the effects of their play on Emmet and his friends. But if most of these adventures can be attributed to Finn's imagination, how is it we're presented with such self-aware, pop-referencing storytelling and gags? For as much as the filmmakers want to sell the idea of kids using their minds to create crazy adventures, their narratives rely awfully heavily on adult voices.
Yes, I know this is ostensibly a kids' movie, and therefore doesn't have to make sense. But I've had to suffer a great number of fools lately who think it's some grand reinvention of form and a terrific film for adults. There's no harm in putting out recycled garbage for children to enjoy (Stan Lee once said that every comic book is someone's first comic book), but wouldn't you rather nurture kids with stimulating, original entertainment? Or are you okay with subjecting them to a lost generation of soul-dead creators who were only ever influenced by things that were influenced by other things?
Speaking of dead, I was a bit heartbroken when I learned The Lego Movie was going to be completely rendered in CG. Up until recently (granted, I haven't been following the film's development that closely), I assumed it would be a stop-motion masterpiece. Of course, such a feat would take a decade on this scale, but it sure would have lent some credibility to the proceedings. I don't mean to denigrate the spectacular work of the 3D artisans who built these highly realistic Lego worlds, but in several scenes--especially those involving mountains and cityscapes--the impressiveness lost a bit of its shine. Instead of a team of real-life Brick Masters meticulously sculpting scenery out of thousands of pieces, I was stuck with pretty pictures of mountains--all modeled, lit, and placed digitally, with neither hundreds of invisible bricks packed inside for support nor a blistered thumb in sight.
But that's The Lego Movie in a nutshell. By design, it's a heartwarming tale of finding one's own way and bucking an oppressive, consumerist system. In practice, it's but one tier in a multi-platform branding offensive meant to boost Warner Brothers' bottom line. This was reinforced to me during a trip to the bathroom, immediately following the screening.
While washing their hands, a little boy asked his dad, "Daddy? Can we get all the Lego Movie playsets?"
To which he received a stern response, "No, you've got plenty of Legos at home. We don't need to buy more. You completely missed the point of the movie!"
Maybe he did, dad, but so did you.
*Oh, and the "real" Han Solo makes a cameo as well, lest we forget that Lego makes fun and affordable Star Wars-brand sets, too.
**During a musical sequence, Emmet says, "Man, I could sing this song for five hours!" Cut to a title card that reads, "5 Hours Later". Cut back to Emmet finishing up the song. Get it? No, really, GET IT?!