The Lego Movie: Giving Legos a Definitive Personality
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.
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.
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.
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