Even with a preponderance of remakes, adaptations and franchises, movies built on creativity are thankfully plentiful in Hollywood. But surprisingly few of them are also about creativity, which is what makes The LEGO Movie so special — even beyond its potential as a feature-length advertisement for the popular toys that inspired it. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writing and directing team responsible for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, score another home run with their third effort, a film that razes product tie-ins and hero journeys alike with the story of a chosen one whose distinguishing characteristic is that he’s so unspecial, in the process underlining not just the opportunity, but the need for people to unshackle themselves from the things that they think will help them fit in, and instead celebrate the qualities that make them unique.
Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) plays Emmet Brickowski, a construction worker who devotes his every waking minute to conformity, via the shared songs, television shows and lifestyle choices prescribed in instructions handed down from President Business (Will Ferrell). But when Emmet accidentally stumbles across an oddly shaped brick buried beneath his construction site, a mysterious woman named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) declares him “the Special,” rescuing him from the authorities so he can fulfill the destiny prescribed by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) for whoever discovers the “Piece of Resistance.”
Pursued by Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Emmet, Wyldstyle and Vitruvius round up a small crew of Master Builders, including Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie), Metal Beard (Nick Offerman) and Benny (Charlie Day) in the hopes of using the Piece against President Business. But when the actual Masters begin to realize Emmet isn’t quite in their class as a builder, they are forced to take matters into their own hands, even as the so-called “Special” begins to wonder if maybe he isn’t.
The core idea behind The LEGO Movie is one that anyone who has ever played with them asks themselves: Do I build the thing on the front of the box, or make it up as I go along? But Lord and Miller transform that quandary into a thematically sophisticated and emotionally resonant story, which for some will be literally a question of whether or not to follow instructions, and for others a wake-up call that suggests their efforts to fit in, to obtain and succumb to some socially-accepted idea of a perfect life, is actually an obstacle to creating a meaningful one.
The experience of watching the film, meanwhile, feels like a tidal-wave sugar rush that pauses just often enough to let you appreciate what it is that’s dizzying your taste buds. Although much of the film was created with CGI, it feels shockingly tactile — cracks between the bricks suggest someone didn’t quite push down all of the pieces, while the characters’ costumes look have a glossy sheen, as if they’re painted on their plastic parts. Remarkably, the whole world is rendered in LEGOs, meaning water, explosions and other environmental effects, creating a complete and cohesive universe, distinguished only by which line of toys a character comes from.
As Emmet, Pratt has exactly the right kind of doofus charm to make the character likable, but without being truly exceptional. The character is written beautifully — his conformity, and complicity, is symptomatic of deep-rooted loneliness — and Pratt injects that all into his outwardly sunny demeanor, especially after he’s told by Wyldstyle that he’s far more special than he’s ever felt. As his female counterpart, meanwhile, Banks’ performance exudes strength, resourcefulness and quick wit that simultaneously conceals insecurity, and she and filmmakers make her a capable — scratch that, superior — companion for the burgeoning “savior” of LEGOland.
Most amazingly, the film manages to offer an almost metatextual look at the building that the characters are doing, showcasing how what we do with the toys creates a fully-rendered universe, and how our attitudes as builders affect that universe. But in a cinematic landscape that often chronicles how one person fights against a tide of conformity, Lord and Miller’s movie is the first one in recent memory that actually feels inspiring — somehow less a rejection of the status quo than a celebration of individuality. That sugar high that comes from the visuals and story sustains you long after you’ve left the theater, and makes you really consider the things that define us, or perhaps more specifically, the things that we think do.
Commercially speaking, this adaptation of a line of construction toys needed only to be fun, colorful and brisk. But in Lord and Miller’s hands, it became something affecting, empowering and transcendent, proving that you can work within the boundaries of the familiar to craft something truly exceptional. Ultimately, The LEGO Movie is all of the things people ascribe to crowd-pleasing entertainment for the “mainstream” — fun for viewers young and old, male and female, with a universally relatable message. But the reason it’s a bona fide triumph is because the person it somehow speaks to is not everyone, but just you.
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