On paper I should be against something like this. Product placement in movies is – almost always – the form’s artistic nadir. Intrusive, unwanted, soulless and often downright irritating, it pollutes the medium and at its most invasive (I, Robot or Wreck-It Ralph) does considerable damage to the final film*. Then there’s the smaller stratosphere of films based on children’s toys and games (Transformers, Battleship, the whole roster of video game adaptations) and their near total failure to provide anything of genuine worth. Factor in my own reticence toward American animated movies of the last 15 years and really The Lego Movie is built to fail here at The Lost Highway Hotel. On paper anyway.
In practice, however, something rather magnificent has happened. Co-directing team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have created a film tie-in overstuffed with riches; a hysterical success story which vaults over expectations for this kind of thing. Lego didn’t need for this 100 minute advertisement to be great; their product continues to be so successful that it would go on just fine without it. It’s a coup for them that their brand will now be bolstered by – I’m calling it – one of the funniest American movies in years.
The success here comes down, largely, to embracing the core values of the Lego product; imagination and creativity. The story follows ordinary Lego mini-figure Emmet (Chris Pratt), who one day stumbles across not just the girl of his dreams, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), but also a mythical artifact known as the Piece of Resistance which catapults him out of his safe, comfortable, structured life into a whirlwind of action and adventure.
Cannily riffing on a tried and tested (and beaten to death) Hollywood formula, Emmet is proclaimed as ‘the special’ by the wise-and-knowing Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and the adventure gets under way. Emmet has to stop the controlling Lord Business (Will Ferrel) from his dastardly plan to lock all Lego pieces together forever with the power of the Kragle, an ancient and powerful force – the genuine identity of which is one of the many wry ways in which The Lego Movie undermines its seemingly cliché premise.
And that’s part of what’s so heartening here. The Lego Movie takes one of the hoariest old set-ups and repeatedly attempts to take it down and rebuild it. The level of invention here is wonderful. Lord and Miller’s film moves at a breakneck pace, scrambling through scene after scene with a breathlessness that practically demands repeat viewings. The jokes come thick and fast, and if it’s not a one-liner or an action set-piece, then you can be sure there’ll be some detail in the background that’ll be worth pausing and rewinding for. This crazy construction is a collision of tiny details powered at the accelerated rate of a sugar rush.
The bright colours and funny characters will keep the kids happy, but adults should not fear indulging in this one. The writing team have taken a leaf out of The Simpsons‘ book and catered admirably across the board, only they’ve assumed the entire production ought to run at the speed of that show’s opening titles. This rat-a-tat pace is almost overwhelming, but the sheer hit ratio of good to bad keeps The Lego Movie from becoming tiresome. Again, it’s creativity and imagination that allow the film to soar.
If anything the level of sophistication in the humour seems like the greatest surprise of all. Our introduction to Lego world – in which workers are identikit models slotted into a government-controlled utopia of formulaic sitcoms, surveillance and endless pop radio earworms – is a joyously satirical prod at America’s own conventions of the norm. But then there’s a third act reveal that truly takes The Lego Movie to another level…
Talking about this is going to prove tricky, as I don’t want to spoil the film’s best-kept secret. Suffice to say that just when Lord and Miller’s hectic pacing starts to become weary, the movie makes an abrupt shift, a brave move out of conformity into something a great deal more dangerous and, ultimately, a great deal more human. A literal deus ex machina restructures the film into something far more complex, shunting the cliché hero story into a different perspective.
It’s the kind of eleventh hour masterstroke that you’d more commonly associate with the work of Charlie Kaufman, or Michel Gondry – whose handmade aesthetic is recalled throughout anyway.
In fact let’s take a quick break from praising the innovative storytelling to credit the astonishing work from the animators here. The Lego Movie looks incredible. The genuine effort to mimic the look and feel of stop-animation is marvelous. CG animated ‘toons tend to feel soulless, lacking the personal touch of the artist. Not here. The Lego Movie balances proficient modern techniques with a genuine sense of care and attention to detail. Form backs up content.
All of which makes this a zany, unexpectedly heartwarming success story, one which has more in common with the endless inventiveness of Hammer & Tongs’ output like A Town Called Panic than the glut of cash-cow studio movies with which The Lego Movie is supposedly more closely aligned.
Embrace the creativity, the inventiveness, the ingenuity. It might just be a toy, but Lego is that rare product where the values actually mean something, as opposed to callously attempting to give anthropomorphic resonance to a business model. And even if its all just a canny trick to make me love a brand, to make me buy a product, you’ve got to admire not just it’s success but its approach. Everything is, pretty much, awesome.
*though both of those films have far bigger problems, admittedly.