There are so many things to like about “The Lego Movie”: a great voice cast, clever dialogue and a handsome blend of stop-motion and CGI animation that feels lovingly retro, while still looking sharp in 21st-century 3-D.
But the best thing about this movie, which was produced in full partnership with the Danish toymaker famous for its plastic-brick building system, is its subversive nature. While clearly filled with affection for — and marketing tie-ins to — the titular product that’s front and center, it’s also something of a sharp plastic brick flung in the eye of its corporate sponsor.
Once celebrated for fostering creativity through simple yet versatile sets that could be combined into a wide variety of structures — a barn, a boat, a plane — the 80-year old Lego company is probably best known today as a purveyor of narrowly proscribed model kits with hundreds of highly specialized pieces designed to replicate, in meticulous detail, say, the A-wing starfighter from “Star Wars,” and nothing else.
The most essential item of the modern Lego set has become, unfortunately, the instruction booklet.
Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, “The Lego Movie” takes dead aim at this disturbing trend, undermining, with delightful results, the hegemony of a creative toy that comes with its own set of inflexible rules. “The Lego Movie” is an homage to the spirit of the iconoclast (i.e., the child).
Its hero, ironically, is anything but a rule-breaker. Set in a world built entirely of Legos, the story revolves around construction worker Emmet Brickowski (voice of Chris Pratt), a tiny plastic Everyman who loves nothing better than following instructions. But when his Lego universe is threatened by an evil villain (Will Ferrell) who intends to glue all the world’s pieces — and its people — together, Emmet must join forces with a group of rebels to stop him. (In a nod to the term Lego uses to designate its in-house designers, these creative free spirits are known as “master builders.”)
Guided by a leader who’s part Gandalf and part Morpheus (Morgan Freeman), this underground resistance movement consists of a fittingly motley crew: a punk-ish loner named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks); her egotistical boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett); a well-worn Lego spaceman figure from the mid-1980s (Charlie Day); and a robot-pirate hybrid named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman). The rest of the freedom fighters are a cheeky mix of Lego-sized historical personages (Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare and Shaquille O’Neil) and co-branded comic book heroes (Green Lantern, Superman, Wonder Woman and others).
Keep an ear out for cameos by such stars as Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Billy Dee Williams, good-naturedly reprising his role as Lando Calrissian from the “Star Wars” trilogy. It’s hard not to have fun when the film (written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) is having such a good time with pop culture.
The chief party animal, of course, is Ferrell. Overplaying his character, Lord Business, like a distant cousin of his dim-witted “Megamind” villain, the actor once again gets tons of comic mileage out of his patented silly grandiloquence. (“Nail polish remover” — a deadly weapon if you’re a plastic toy and your face has been painted on — becomes, in Ferrell’s threatening delivery, the “poe-leash remover of nah-eel.”)
“The Lego Movie” pokes fun at anyone who would argue that Lego products are, as one character puts it, “a highly sophisticated, interlocking brick system,” and not simply toys. But it also makes fun of itself, tweaking the conventions of narrative filmmaking, animation and Lego model-making itself. It’s a constant pleasure to discover how the animators have figured out how to render such un-bricklike substances as water, soap bubbles, the steam from a locomotive or flames.
The moral of this story is a sweet and uncomplicated one: Believe in yourself; everyone is special; there’s a time to follow the rules and a time to break them. Sure, those sentiments are cloying. In fact, they sound like something you’d see on one of those stupid, inspirational cat posters, don’t they?
As it turns out, that’s exactly how a character in this adorably acerbic little movie describes them.
Three and a half stars. PG. Contains mild action and some rude, nose-thumbing humor. 94 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time. Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post