By R. David
Published February 8, 2014
The phrase “an animated film that parents will enjoy too” gets thrown around pretty liberally these days. Any cartoon feature that traffics in a fair amount of pop culture references and grown-up satire seems to automatically be deemed entertaining for adults, never mind how obvious, simplistic or downright out of place these references are. Shrek and his donkey breaking into a dance number to some ’80s one-hit wonder or a Smurf dropping a Britney Spears jab does not automatically equal adult entertainment.
Animated features that are truly enjoyable for children and adults alike are not cloying, pandering, lazy flicks simply relying on the occasional, random wink and nod at grown-ups, but rather those that speak to the child in all of us. Films that appeal to multiple generations are not simply ironic or sarcastic, but they speak to the heart; drudging up childhood memories, feelings and experiences. Think “Toy Story” and the best of the Pixar films. These movies have heart and imagination, not just a truck load of puns. If the barometer of quality adult entertainment in non-animated films is guaged by things like a captivating story, smart dialog, and originality; that too should be the foundation of any animated film hoping to appeal beyond the kiddie demographic.
Imagine my surprsie to discover that the filmmakers behind the “The Lego Movie” understand this better than anyone this side of the Pixar universe.
At first glance, “The Lego Movie” could not feel like more of a crude, exploitive corrporate tie-in: A movie conceived by beancounters and studio honchos who will throw any piece of junk into theaters as long as it is conected to a recognizable brand name to help put butts in seats (the “Battleship” movie, anyone?); and all the better if its aimed at kids (“Hey, they’ll see anything and because parents have to take them, double the money!” – Every Studio Exec Ever). But it is my sincere pleasure to report that this movie is not only the complete opposite of a film made with no other inspiration than pure corporate greed, but also the rare excepttion to the rule that animated movies promising to be for the whole family generally only pay lazy lip service to adults.
“The Lego Movie” is truly a smart, clever, original, joyous, vibrant and exciting adventure for kids, as well as the kid in us all. It is a dizzying success, both technically – it is an animation marvel – and in terms of how throughly realized its story and characters are for a film based on tiny interlocking blocks. It helps, of course, that “The Lego Movie” has 60-plus years of product history to build upon, and the fact that nearly every pop culture phenomenon has been Legoized through the years; hence why this film features not only Batman as a prominent character, but also Superman, Milhouse(!), and Star Wars characters and vehicles, as well as “1980-Something Space Guy”. If that last bit of info tickled your funny bone, that is the sort of irreverent humor “The Lego Movie” has in spades; an example of how cleverly the film winks at both audience and its subject matter.
The film is a sureal funhouse of clever gags, surprising cameos and smart satire. If you were to pour the “South Park” movie through a gentler, Pixar-esque filter, you’d get “The Lego Movie”.
The story involves construction worker Lego, Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), who wakes up every morning to the same routine in a world filled with Lego characters all limited to the specifications their character titles demand (“Cop”, “Fireman”, “Doctor”, etc.), most of which don’t question their drone-like existence, happy to be cogs in the wheel that makes the greater Lego universe turn. They all stroll through their day singing their brightly conformist, earworm anthem “Everything Is Awesome” (good luck not spending the rest of your night singing its refrain). Naturally, there are a few rebellious personalities who refuse to be confined by the personality roles they have been assigned and question their greater purpose. Like Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), a rabblerousing, punk-chick who delights in questioning authority and dates Batman (Will Arnett). She mistakes Emmet for “The Special”, a master builder who might just be the key to saving the (Lego) world from evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Lord Business’ motives aren’t immediately apparent, but Emmet, who has feels like a fish out of water amongst his peers and has had always had to struggle to fit in, is convinced by Vitruvius, a God-like spiritual guide of sorts (voiced by Morgan Freeman, naturally), that he is the savior Lucy and her superhero pals (including Shaq – because, yes, there is a Shaq Lego) have been looking for.
“The Lego Movie’s” theme of being yourself and not being afraid to take risks is fairly well-traveled ground in animated features. But there is a reveal in the last 10 minutes or so that takes this lesson even deeper. And story elements and ambitions aside, “The Lego Movie” a rollicking good time, punctuated by a wonderfully irreverent and absurdist sense of humor (credit co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was similarly tongue-in-cheek). Will Arnett’s over-dramatic, self-absorbed Batman in particular is a comedic highlight, and a perfect example of where this film succeeds in tickling the funny bone of adult viewers and their children alike. Similarly, the film’s design and action sequences employee a winking charm; lushly animated in most instances (impressively, the movie is able to keep all the film’s elements looking like they are made of Legos, despite their movements flowing naturally, ie Lego water, Lego fire, etc.), but every once in a while breaking away to a live action shot of Legos on a string and a human mimicking explosive sounding effects, just to remind us how all this action typically takes place. It’s an insanely effective comedic maneuver; randomly breaking the “fourth wall” and momentarily pulling the audience out of the illusion the extraordinarily detailed animation otherwise wraps us in. The film is also willing to poke fun at itself and the insane breadth of the Lego universe, not just by shoehorning in some of the more random examples of pop culture characters who have been Legoized over the years, but by including many of the different worlds the company has explored over the decades; from pirates, to space, to high tech city landscapes.
“The Lego Movie” has some of the familiar beats of the average animated film and gets a bit bogged down late in the game with a few climaxes to many. But these are minor gripes. On a whole, the film is surprisingly engaging – yes, even for adults – and a fast-paced, funny and sweetly mocking ride that encourages imagination and creativity.
Just like the toys it is based on.
3½ Stars (Out of 4)