You’re right to be suspicious of a movie based on a set of wildly popular children’s toys, and yet The Lego Movie is far more than a cynical extension of the Danish brand that conquered the world. It’s an early front-runner for best animated film of 2014. In fact, it may just wind up as one of the year’s best movies of any kind.
The film begins with Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an ordinary Lego figure with no idea that there are any Lego worlds beyond the city of Bricksburg, where he lives and works in construction. Emmet has spent his life following building instructions and avoiding a single original thought, but he’s forced to awaken his powers of creativity after stumbling onto a mysterious artifact known as the Piece of Resistance, which becomes stuck to his back. His discovery leads an underground punk warrior who calls herself Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) and a blind, bearded wise master builder appropriately named Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman) to proclaim Emmet as a savior, the only figure capable of stopping Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) and his evil plan to superglue the entire universe in place.
Most animated filmmakers try to keep the littlest audience members entertained with action sequences, but the filmmaking duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (best known for the animated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs movies and the live-action 21 Jump Street) instead create pace through the sheer number of visual and verbal gags they throw at you. They take shots at the vapid advertising and pop culture that keep Emmet mindlessly entertained; his favorite song is a techno jam called “Everything Is Awesome” that neither you nor your kid will be able to remove from your brains. There’s a great running bit with Superman (voiced by Channing Tatum) trying to shed pathetic hanger-on Green Lantern (voiced by Jonah Hill). When Vitruvius whisks Emmet away to the medieval Lego set, a quick-fire montage accompanies him as he describes the place as “a magical realm of knights, castles, wizards, torture, leeches, poverty, illiteracy, and dragons.”
Lord and Miller’s exquisite sense of comic timing serves them well, whether they’re operating fast or slow, as in a gag when Lord Business’ henchman Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson) kicks a chair in frustration, and the camera tracks its graceful arc as it lands on an evil minion scrambling for cover in the far distance. The animation is computer-drawn (by Warner Brothers’ animation department), but it’s made to look like the stop-motion Lego movies that people make in their homes. This results in spectacular scenes of Lego-made explosions, fireballs, and floods and then sets up a gag when a ghost appears dangling on a clearly visible string.
An enviable group of comic actors has been assembled here. Neither Freeman nor Neeson has ever been funnier. Vitruvius’ motley crew of adventurers is voiced by Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, and Charlie Day, who all generate their own laughs. (Arnett is a nicely self-absorbed Batman, but even he can’t match Brie as an adorable pink kitty whose love of unicorns and rainbows hides a seething core of poorly repressed rage.) Celebrity voice cameos abound here, including members of the Star Wars cast and Shaquille O’Neal, portraying his Lego self as part of a senate council that includes Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare, Wonder Woman, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. Anchoring it all is Pratt, who finally lands a comic leading role and knows when to go along with the madcap proceedings and when to react to it as a regular guy.
The movie does fall down at the end, with a live-action sequence that’s supposed to pay tribute to the powers of imagination that lead us to build with Legos. The scene could easily have made its point in half the time. Even with that misstep, the blend of hectic pace and intelligent, subversive wit pushes the film toward avant-garde territory. I have to go back to the 2010 Belgian film A Town Called Panic to remember the last time I saw an animated film that was so frenetic. The Lego Movie gives you a heady rush indeed. You may want to invest in some new bricks when it’s all over.
The Lego Movie
Voices by Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, and Morgan Freeman. Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Rated PG.