“The Lego Movie” is rated PG, and is now showing at Waterfront Cinemas in Newport.
by Kevin Paquet
When children’s entertainment fails, it’s usually because the people telling the story started with a tale for adults and then stripped away the objectionable bits until only the most inoffensive and disjointed components remain. A good work succeeds because it sets its own terms from the start and lives entirely within them. “The Lego Movie” is such a work, but it’s more than that – it might just be definitive of what good children’s cinema can be.
On the face of it, a movie about the little plastic people who come packaged with many Lego sets is ridiculous, but the first and most critical twist is that the movie knows this and plays to it with gleeful abandon. Our protagonist, Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), is introduced as he starts his day – indeed, as he starts every day – in Bricksburg, a Lego city. He lives life, with unwavering joy, in accordance with instructions that pop up on a plastic tablet he carries with him. He gets up, showers, eats breakfast, spends some quality time with housemates – here the narrative deliberately falters, because Emmet’s only housemate is a houseplant – and then heads off to work, where he’s a construction worker tearing down and erecting buildings in accordance with the instructions that govern his life and that of everyone around him.
This is all as commanded by Lord Business (Will Ferrell), head of the Octan Corporation, burgeoning supervillain, and self-styled President Business of Bricksburg. On the “infinitieth floor” of his office tower, Lord Business has a collection of “artifacts” – rather generic items from our world, such as a Band-Aid that he believes to be a cloak – and the most sinister of these is the “Kragle,” which is in fact a tube of Krazy Glue. With this he will freeze the world in the form that most pleases him.
Emmet falls into the mix when he accidentally uncovers the Piece of Resistance – the one thing that can stop the Kragle. He is then captured and harshly interrogated by Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), who believes Emmet to be part of a secret organization. He isn’t, but once he’s freed by the improbably named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) he’s sucked into a world of fantastic and ridiculous intrigue.
Wyldstyle takes Emmet to meet Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman, who has never been in finer form making fun of his own voice). Vitruvius speaks of a prophecy that the finder of the Piece of Resistance will be the one to save the world. This is standard “chosen one” stuff, but the movie riffs on it with gusto. First we find out that the only thing Emmet has ever made by himself – without instructions – is a double-decker couch. Later, he travels to meet a council of Master Builders – the people he’s supposed to lead – and launches into a speech built around the cliché that he lists nothing but bad things about himself before getting to the “but” that will turn the tide. Except that it doesn’t work; the bad things make him sound so hopeless and inept that nobody wants to work with him.
Held apart from the movie itself, Emmet verges on being a disappointment. He’s a stock character by design, and the handful of distinguishing characteristics we get about him are fairly damning. Most tellingly, during their escape from Bad Cop, Emmet slo-mos the lecture Wyldstyle is giving him and rewrites the words in his head to make her sound more like a girl playing hard to get. It’s funny, and it’s clear that the sexism is a part of the character, not the movie as a whole, but the narrative never gets around to refuting it and a number of other shortcomings he has. It’s left on the goodwill of the viewer to decide whether or not Emmet is a changed man by the time the credits roll.
Oddly, the characters who get smaller amounts of screen time are actually better developed. Wyldstyle’s boyfriend is none other than Batman (Will Arnett, in a pitch-perfect parody of Christian Bale), who has an abiding affinity for loud music and plays Emmet a song he wrote (“It’s about how I’m an orphan!”) while they escape yet again. The ranks of Master Builders also include Benny (Charlie Day), a spaceman with a busted helmet who desperately wants to build a spaceship, and Princess Unikitty (Allison Brie), a cat-unicorn creature who rules Cloud Cuckooland and has repressed rage issues. In each case the characters are a mix of good and bad traits that, while highly cartoonish, are also grounded in reality – which, of course, only makes them funnier. The scene at the end where Benny finally gets to build a spaceship is one of the most beautiful pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen.
The story goes out of its way to play with the oddities inherent in a universe made of Legos: One of the first people Emmet meets when he steps out of his apartment is a neighbor who has loads of cats, and Emmet knows all their names, despite the fact that they are absolutely identical in appearance and only one of them meows differently than the others. Flame, smoke and water are all rendered in solid Lego pieces, making their appearances both surreal and strangely beautiful (my personal favorite was a mushroom cloud).
The only way visuals that ridiculous can work is if the dialogue and music rise to meet then, and by God they do. The story often pauses its breakneck pace to consider oddities: Emmet starts his workday while the movie’s theme song, “Everything Is Awesome,” plays in the background and he gushes that he could listen to it for hours – at which point we jump forward five hours and find that it is, in fact, still playing. Later, while being rescued the first time, he asks Wyldstyle if it says “Wyldstyle” on her birth certificate.
“The Lego Movie” can get away with such compound insanity because of its surreal setting – Lego people can suffer mishaps that would kill an actual human being and just walk away, leading to a kind of stylized mayhem that reminded me strongly of the Muppets at their best.
It’s worth noting that a funny story told through goofy toys doesn’t automatically work. A decade ago, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of “South Park,” made an R-rated puppet film called “Team America: World Police” that, to be perfectly honest, was painful. This combination of quick-fire dialogue and injury-free slapstick seems to require a certain purity of spirit in order to work, and, for all its subtle (and unsubtle) jokes about personal disorders and life’s injustices, “The Lego Movie” believes in the goodness of people the whole way through. I haven’t seen a movie that made me this happy in years.
© 2014, Kevin Paquet