The Lego Movie: Giving Legos a Definitive Personality

The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie

Last year’s Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s foray into the virtual world of video games, attempted to give the pixelated arcade heroes a voice and personality, something they never really had before, with varying results. The film’s verisimilitude, its world-building, was aided by intricate computer animated visuals and a colorful, expressive cast, voiced by an excellent slew of voice actors, including John C. Reilly as the titular Wreck-It Ralph, who seems to be based on Donkey Kong from the original Donkey Kong arcade game from 1981. The film depicts Ralph as a lovable giant, misrepresented as an emotionless oaf due to his being the “villain” in the game. Disney’s story, which at times suffers from a lackluster script, gives a new insight into these game characters, adding new dimension to them and giving them a voice to tell their stories.

A more recent nostalgia cash-in, The Lego Movie (2014) similarly grants new dimensions to the world of Legos by giving them a real, dynamic world, a universal plot of sorts, and a distinct personality and voice. What is different about Wreck-It Ralph and The Lego Movie is that the former takes an existing narrative (arcade game narratives) and gives it “a new spin,” whereas the latter takes a personalityless franchise of building blocks and gives it an official personality.

This was a big undertaking for directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Lego, which originated in 1949, has been universally known as the de facto creative child’s toy, allowing children to express whatever narrative, idea, or visual imaginable for decades. Children (or adults) are given free reign to imagine what the Lego universe is like, how Lego characters act, what the metaphysical laws of Lego are. Lego sets are an important piece to the Lego experience, guiding builders to build Wild West saloons, towering castles, vast skyscrapers, and an assortment of vehicles, but the true magic of Lego is when those worlds collide, when instruction manuals and imaginations work together to build a unique Lego experience. By giving Lego bricks an official voice and personality, The Lego Movie encroaches on this freedom.

The plot of the film is mostly just a fun romp around different Lego sets. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), who functions as a sort of idiotic straight man to the eccentricity of the chaotic high plot that he becomes entangled in, is the protagonist, a construction worker who plays by the instruction manual. His “everymanness” was smart of the writers, as he is easy to identify with. Just as video games often employ the use of a “silent protagonist” to allow players to project themselves onto the main character, Emmet’s earnestness and curiosity gives the audience a chance to see this new and flashy Lego world through his eyes, and when Emmet is shocked or confused about the Lego world, so is the audience.

One of the opening scenes paints a tableau of Emmet’s life of trying to fit into the perky dystopian Lego metropolis he lives and works in. He eats a Lego waffle, takes a Lego shower, and even has a Lego-styled instruction manual for how to behave in Lego society. It’s such a genius little portrayal of a Lego figurine’s life and one of the most charming and inventive segments of the film. The audience also catches the film’s energetic and bubbly them “Everything Is Awesome!!!” a joint effort from musicians Tegan and Sara and the hilarious and talented wordsmiths the Lonely Island. The song’s catchiness was never in dispute, but it’s the Lonely Island’s rapping that gives the song its personality.

The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie

Emmet’s utopian world view is shattered by the introduction of Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a strong-willed, multi-colored haired female resistance member, who insists that Emmet’s home is a facade and that he must be one of the “Master Builders” (a fact that perplexes even her due to Emmet’s seeming incompetence). What follows is a series of hijinks as Wyldstyle tries to convince Emmet that he must save the world, etcetera, etcetera, and the duo eventually meets up with Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), the prophesying Gandalf archetype and Batman (Will Arnett), who happens to be Wyldstyle’s macho boyfriend.

The plot, as well as all the subplots, take a backseat to the visuals and production, though, as well as the humor and surprisingly solid dialogue. The ending, which I won’t comment on further, is a bit fiction breaking and feels loose, but the magic remains throughout, nonetheless.

Notably, the plot of the film never meanders into pandering territory, nor does it fall on animated movie tropes such as damsels in distress, etcetera. While there is a distinct “good versus evil” vibe, the plot often takes a backseat to the humor and visuals, showcasing the very best of what can be built with Lego bricks (the chunky ocean waves are one of the best visuals in any animated film). The lawless use of several Lego worlds (Wild West, pirates, Batman, Classic Space, Star Wars, etcetera) is akin to playing with a Lego collection, letting one’s imagination take over the narrative.

The film’s humor goes to great lengths to get at least one chuckle from every audience member before the credits roll. Kids will get all the absurdity and non-sequitur stuff, which is reminiscent of an Adventure Timey kind of humor, whereas there are plenty of more subtle jokes and visual gags for more perceptive audience members. The film likes to poke fun at itself and the Lego medium in general, with jokes aimed at some of Lego’s stranger territories (there’s a great list in the film of all the Lego weirdos, including Bionicle) and it’s a refreshing, loving, cynicism-free kind of humor. One of the main cast, Unikitty (Alison Brie), is a satirical stab aimed at Legos “targeted at girls.” Like Wreck-It Ralph, there is an extensive list of cameos, including Lego Superman, Lego Dumbledore, and even Lego Milhouse.

This varied and light humor suits the Lego brand well, as it appeals to the young and to adults, and is never corny, which would tarnish the brand. The film’s humor is aware of itself and aware of Lego and the immense love for Legos, and plays it safe with a great script and great voice actors. Despite there never being a distinct “Lego humor,” the jokes in the film feel right at home, creative, witty, fresh, and full of lawless imagination.

When Emmet and Wyldstyle enter the bar in the Wild West world, there is this great, almost Fellini-esque brawl scene that spans several moments. The absurdity and mock-violence is outrageously funny, and the brevity of the scene is awesome. The scene also showcases just how much fun it is to create a unique Lego narrative, possibly inspiring Lego veterans to break out the bricks after the movie for just one more great scene. And if anything, that is the true accomplishment of the film, that it gets Legos on the audience’s minds to the point where they would actually want to play with them.

Cynically, this is just a great, film-length ad, but under closer inspection, there is a wealth of inspiration to play and create. Whereas Wreck-It Ralph did not reinvigorate a newfound popularity in arcade games, The Lego Movie makes Lego bricks seem like tons of fun and hours of creative excitement.

A special mention goes to the “1980s space astronaut guy” (Charlie Day), a figurine that references Lego’s Classic Space (1978-1987) series. While his motif of not understanding modern technology and being obsessed with spaceships grows a bit stale by the climax, his character is a testament to the amount of detail and thought put into the film. His role as one of the main cast could have easily been filled by a popular licensed character (Superman, Green Lantern, who also has a running gag, any number of Harry Potter characters), but the writers chose a very pure Lego character to emphasize the Lego-ness of the film and its world.

Classic Space Lego set
Classic Space Lego set

He is easily one of the most plain characters in the film, with a one-note personality, but he recalls the days of Lego before movie licenses were the brand’s biggest cash gain, when Lego bricks truly were blank pages for builders to play and project. One of the film’s best details is the astronaut guy’s broken helmet, a small detail that will ring true with fans of actual Lego bricks.

The film’s greatest asset, though, is its moral dualism, which may sound too lofty for its own good. One of the themes of the film is the struggle between being creative and following the instruction manual (any Lego builder can attest to this). Emmet is mocked by his seeming lack of creativity throughout the film and his “Master Builder” status is often put into question because of this. The moral of the film seems like it will be “Don’t follow the rules, be a kid, be creative,” but the film ends up approaching the theme much more maturely that giving up black and white answers.

Rather, because Emmet follows the instructions, he thinks differently than the other Builders, and this, in the end, is what saves the day. This gray area, this world where it is moral to both be creative and use instruction manuals, but to always think for yourself, is actually poignant and pretty great.

The point of playing with Legos is that they are a gray area, that there are no rights and wrongs. It is this freedom to express and create that is what’s magic about them, and it’s the key to their lengthy success. And while giving Legos a distinct humor and narrative may seem dangerous to the toy’s creativity, the film never harms the franchise. It was risky to make a Lego film, if not for the Hollywood big-wigs but for the Lego Group, the Lego company, who one must assume loves Lego bricks dearly. As The Simpsons Movie (2007) felt like a missed opportunity to create something great, The Lego Movie perfectly sums up what is great about Legos and it is ultimately a love letter to creativity and play, the essence of life.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Tabitha Daniel

    I took my eight yr old to see this movie and I loved it more than he did. It was hilarious! It was awesome to see a movie that wasn’t pushing any subversive agenda other than to say that everyone has something special about themselves. I can’t wait for the next one:)

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      When I saw the film, there were a lot of younger kids that didn’t seem fazed by it, while the older audience members, from what I could tell, got a lot out of it, which is great.

    • A great movie now is going to be milked over and over again until It gets boring
      Please don’t do this. I’m fine with a sequel but please don’t’ take it to far.

    • Because of the way the movie went in the third act i dont know if i would want to see another one. It ended perfectly and there is no way to surprise the audience again. I hope they are making another not just for the cash but because they have an actual good idea for the second.

  2. Victor Floyd

    This movie….. In no way was I expected such mind blowing awesomeness when I sat down on a reasonably comfortable chair with my two nephews at my local cinema to watch this marvel of a movie
    First thing I done when I got home….flipped open my laptop and pre ordered it on blu ray.

  3. I thought the LEGO Movie was pretty good. Hilarious, but also heartwarming. I had a Wreck-It Ralph, Toy Story vibe going on while I watched it. Great stuff.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Toy Story is such a great series of films. I especially hold the third one in high regard. Pixar always goes above and beyond with their script-writing.

  4. Eleni Buss

    After seeing that hilarious cliffhanger ending, I REALLY want to see the Duplo wars continue in the next film!

  5. Jordan

    I just realized this was the same article as the Lego Movie Review you wrote a while ago, but I suppose you had to change it because the movie had been out too long. Damn. Here in Australia it hasn’t even come out 😛 It must have taken a long time to change around the focus on your ideas. It looks really good though.
    I really want to see this. Considering Lego has been around since the 1950’s its amazing they haven’t made a feature length film before now… as far as I know. There were Lego versions of “Knights of the Round Table” song as part of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail DVD extras… that was pretty awesome.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Thanks! Haha yeah, I hadn’t even thought the film had been out very long when I originally wrote it, but luckily I had already been considering this topic beforehand.

      I’ll have to look up that Monty Python extra though…

  6. Art Posocco

    Great approach to the film narrative! It is very interesting to think of this film in comparison to Wreck-It Ralph. I agree that The Lego Movie succeeds where Wreck-It Ralph at times falters. However, it’s telling that both films (following the lead of the Toy Story films) are more successful (creatively and also financially) than other films based on specific video games, toys, or board games. The key, I think, is to give the filmmakers more creative freedom and not force them to cater to fans of a specific property. For example, although Batman is used extensively in this film, it is not a Lego Batman movie. Likewise, Wreck-It Ralph is about video games in a broad sense, not just about a specific game with a limited audience.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Absolutely agreed. I’m not sure if you’re into games, but there’s always derision surrounding licensed games because the license holder doesn’t give the developers enough time/freedom to actually make a great game. I was surprised that the Lego Movie handled the licensed Legos so well – I figured they’d either be ignored completely or used as a crutch.

  7. I loved how the movie actually depicts its all kids imagination and not a dedicated animation in the end. Makes it so much better! And reminds me of how I used to play with brick toys!

  8. rubengc

    I thought that this would be a nice, pleasant movie – but the hugely positive press it has garnered makes me want to see this ASAP

  9. I was never into Legos growing up. There was never anything about building anything that interested me. But I loved everything about the film. I loved that it was about imagination, creativity, and the sinking feeling that you’re not special enough to count. I loved that it felt modern, which you pointed out with the lack of animated movie tropes. And most of all I loved the humor. After being slightly disappointed by Frozen, Lego Movie was a real nice treat.

    Your comparison to Wreck-it-Ralph was real interesting. I never really thought of them as being similar. But I can definitely see some resemblances now. Very thorough read!

  10. Leah Smith

    You’ve made a lot of good points here, but I have to disagree about the space guy. At the end when he finally get’s to make a spaceship and he freaks out was hilarious! Nice comparing it with “Wreck-It Ralph” though.

  11. RLTerry

    Such a fun movie! Thanks for taking time to write about it. You bring out some great points. For all intents and purposes, I feel as though TimeWarner Animation out “Pixars” Pixar. This movie contains excellent dialog, exposition, cinematography, and a fun score. As opposed to recent animated movies that rely almost entirely upon a commanding score to cover up a plot with more holes than swiss cheese. You composed a brilliant article analyzing this enjoyable movie.

  12. agentnyx345

    As I am with most children’s movies, I can’t help but feel a bit wary of them, and rarely ever try to see them in theaters. The Lego movie was definitely one that made me feel uncertain, especially considering that it was a movie that evolved around a toy (aka. product pushing much?). When I actually saw it though, it completely took me by surprise, and made me have fun with it (especially batman’s epic exasperated sigh. Lol) Not to mention, the ending made me cry, like, a lot. So I’m glad to say that this is one kid’s movie that I thoroughly enjoyed, and would rate a B+. Totally recommend, if anyone’s looking for a fun movie to watch.

  13. “A house divided against itself.. would be better than this.”
    “Abraham Lincoln!”

  14. I know that the Lego itself was designed so that anybody could play with it and that energies would be used to build.

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