It’s not exactly the most promising proposition- the idea of a feature length cartoon about the world famous Danish building blocks seems like a cynical cash-in, an opportunity for one of the world’s most famous toy brands to create one of the biggest product placement ridden movie disasters since 80’s ET rip-off and shameless McDonalds corporate advertisement Mac and Me.
Thankfully, in the hands of 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller the film is an irreverent joy, simultaneously cashing in on the youthful nostalgia for toys (not too dissimilar from Toy Story or Wreck-it Ralph) and a laugh a second gag rate that feels like an explosion at a pop-culture factory, with everybody from Milhouse (of The Simpsons) to Shaquille O’Neal (voicing himself!) making appearances.
The stellar voice cast is led by Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt as Emmet, a construction worker without any defining characteristics. Emmet’s life is unremarkable; cursed without an imagination he instead consumes the mass media produced by President Business (Will Ferrell), whose similarities with Rupert Murdoch are presumably unintentional. Of the media he produces, Emmet most notably obsesses over an instruction manual on how to make friends. His lack of personality has caused all his co-workers to ignore his existence, and even the police don’t have his photo on file because his face is “too generic”.
One day at work, he unwittingly stumbles into a hole containing “The Piece of Resistance”, something which will stop President Business destroying their world with a weapon known only as “The Kragle” (a partially concealed tub of Krazy Glue). Now, two “master builders” (Elizabeth Banks and Morgan Freeman) believe he is the chosen one and that his limitless imagination can save the Lego universe from impending superglue genocide. Sadly, it turns out the fate of the world lies in the hands of a man whose only original idea was a double decker sofa.
If it wasn’t for the final half hour the film would likely cause a Fox News shitstorm not too dissimilar as to when they called Jason Segel’s Muppets reboot movie communist for containing a businessman as a central villain. The film is unintentionally anti-capitalism, which is all the more welcome considering the film was presumably pitched as a 100 minute advert for Lego. As I said above, Ferrell’s character is clearly a cipher for Murdoch – not only does he produce mass media that aims to make the country’s populace stupider and conformist to his opinions, one throwaway gag indicates his company also make “voting machines” come election time, and it’s not like Murdoch’s publications to let their readers make up their own minds on polling day.
Another positive is it also contains some of the most impressive animation I have ever seen- with the exception of one key sequence towards the end of the film (which I cannot possibly spoil) the film is animated entirely by CGI Lego pieces. This comes to a head in a faux stop-motion sequence on a pirate ship, where the ocean waves create a migraine inducing change in frame rate that made me feel more seasick than the shaky cam sequences in Captain Phillips.
Like Toy Story before it, the amount of characters in the Lego universe allows for a plethora of fun cameos, ranging from big DC superheroes (Will Arnett as Batman being the undisputed highlight) to characterising random Lego pieces (Charlie Day playing an “80’s Space Guy”). The film ends with feelings of nostalgia not just for toys, but also the experiences of playing with them, and if there is any weakness in the film it is this. With too much time invested in squeezing in as many jokes and pop-culture references at expense of anything deeper in terms of storytelling you are left feeling that the film would be stronger if an emotional connection could have been made- although the ending, which recontextualises everything that has come before, goes some way to altering this, just not far enough.
After all, Toy Story 3 made audiences cry at the fates of simulated bits of plastic, and if The Lego Movie was as accomplished in its characterisation as it was in its rapid-fire joke telling and animation innovation it could have instantly ranked alongside that movie as one of the all-time greats of the genre.