My life trajectory has twice intersected with that of the Lego Group: in the 1970s, when I was a boy; and over the past several years, now that I have a boy of my own. It’s an open question which of us—I or the building blocks—has evolved further during that span. The Legos of my youth were relatively straightforward: brightly colored blocks with their immediately recognizable, logo-bearing dimples, some longer, some shorter, some flatter, some wider. Like most of my contemporaries, I assiduously built a little Lego town: blue for the police station and cruisers; red for the firehouse and ladder-trucks; and green for grass. Otherwise, the blocks were largely interchangeable, and the particular buildings or vehicles to be made with them largely subject to imagination.
The Legos of today resemble those primitive specimens in much the way an iPhone resembles a telegraph. The pieces are vastly more specialized (complex hinges, working gears), the colors innumerable (the available shades of gray may fall short of 50, but not by much), and the designs—frequently based on media properties such as Star Wars or Harry Potter—bewildering in their complexity. The market logic is inescapable: rather than have one bin of simple blocks from which to construct more or less anything, my son has quite a few sets, each of which can be assembled into an extraordinarily detailed Republic Frigate, say, or Battle of Endor diorama, but none of which are terribly well suited to building anything else.
It’s no small irony, then, that the moral of The Lego Movie, repeated frequently and emphatically, is Don’t follow the instructions! Let your imagination run wild! Which is not at all to say that it’s a bad movie—it’s actually a total gas—rather that its message is that we should do as Lego says, not as Lego does. But then, consistency is the hobgoblin of little international toy conglomerates.
The Lego Movie tells the story of Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an ordinary construction-worker mini-figure toiling away in the conformist dystopia of Bricksburg. Not that he minds in the least: It’s up in the morning, a quick shower under pale blue Lego studs, a $37 cup of coffee, and then off to a day’s work building skyscrapers of Burj Khalifan splendor, all the while singing along to the pop ditty, “Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re one of the team.” (If Mustapha Mond had written jingles, this is what they’d sound like.) There are directions for everything, and Emmet always follows the directions.
That is, until he tumbles down a hole at the construction site and finds himself mesmerized by a strange, red, rectangular prism not of this (Lego) world. This is the “piece of resistance,” and its discovery may or may not mean that Emmet is “the special”—one chosen by fate to defeat the evil despot Lord Business (Will Ferrell) before he can complete the diabolical plot he has scheduled for Taco Tuesday.
Emmet soon finds himself among the Master Builders intent on overthrowing Lord Business, a motley crew that include the tough gal Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), an Obi-Wan-ish wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), the pirate-cyborg Metalbeard (Nick Offerman), a “1980-something space guy” named Benny (Charlie Day), the pinkly perky Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie), and Batman (Will Arnett). (Additional cameos include Channing Tatum as Superman, Jonah Hill as Green Lantern, Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman, Will Forte as Abraham Lincoln, and, in one of the film’s most winning sequences, Billy Dee Williams as—who else?—Lando Calrissian.)
The good guys hopscotch across Lego-verses—The Old West, Middle Zealand, Cloud Cuckoo Land—desperate to stay ahead of Lord Business’s chief henchman, Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), and prevent the tyrant from using such anti-Lego artifacts as the Sword of Exact Zero (an Exact-o knife), the Ban-Da-Id (you get the idea), and worst of all, the dreaded Kragle (this one you’ll have to see for yourself). All the while, Emmet’s compatriots are deconstructing and reconstructing Lego objects left and right, reinventing their surroundings in a blur of geometric whimsy. The hope is that Emmet will somehow unlock his own potential as a Master Builder. But the signs are not promising, with the erstwhile instructions-follower remaining stubbornly fixated on a design he came up with for a double-decker couch.
Goofy? Extremely. But The Lego Movie is a ball from start to finish, stuffed full of gags with trans-generational appeal. Co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) keep the plot moving briskly, with only a slight sag toward the end as the narrative veers meta. The vocal performances are a delight, in particular those by Freeman, Neeson, and Arnett. And the visuals are amusing and inventive, even though (alas) the animation is computer-generated rather than stop-motion.
Is it a touch off-message that—in connection with this giddy paean to individual imagination and not following instructions—Lego is releasing a series of complex movie-themed construction sets (The Getaway Glider, Cloud Cuckoo Palace, etc.)? Well, yes it is. But what can you do? It’s strictly business. Lord Business.