Can an advertisement be entertainment, or even classified as art? Consumers are likely to find ads of any form or length to be somewhere between innocuous and deserving of extreme cynicism, save for those precious television commercials that are interrupted by some dumb championship football game. It is widely believed that in an ideal world, the intersection between art and commerce would be nonexistent. But because we do not reside in this utopian global commune filled with organic squash farms and djembe circles, we must suffer the scourge of dreaded corporate benefactors in our popular entertainments. Yet, if this is the status quo, then why is “The Lego Movie” so wonderful and enlivening?
Based on Lego Construction Toys, as dictated in the credits, “The Lego Movie” focuses on Emmit (voiced by Chris Pratt, future lord of the blockbuster), just a regular Joe minifigure making it in the Big City as a construction worker… until one fateful day when he is discovered to be “The Special,” predestined to help his fellow Lego people fight back against the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who plans to destroy the world on Takos Tuesday (the “s” is silent). From that simple setup, “The Lego Movie” explodes into a detailed flurry of imaginative and astounding images and setpieces—all made up of those familiar blocks from your childhood, rendered in photoreal CG.
Every aspect of this movie feels constructed with the care and flourish of the grandest Master Builder and maintains the inventive, anything-goes quality traditionally found in the sprawling and unconventional creations of children. It’s this quality that elevates the film into something more than the 100-minute Lego commercial it ostensibly is; by emphasizing the ethos of play, “The Lego Movie” molds a universe that extends beyond the conventions of the bottom line, one with character and wit and tenderness that would justify its existence even if it were an original concept. “The Lego Movie” joins “Wreck-It Ralph” as a spiritual successor to the perennially loved “Toy Story,” another look into the minds of the playthings that enable the freewheeling fun of making your own world.
And as with “Toy Story,” “The Lego Movie” is as indebted to its stacked voice cast for building and shaping its filmic world as it is to its animators. In addition to those by Pratt and Ferrell, the movie contains contributions from Morgan Freeman, the only man alive who can give equal gravitas to the line-readings “Hope can drive a man insane” and “He’s coming—cover your butts!”; Liam Neeson, who wonderfully manipulates his badass iconography for laughs; Elizabeth Banks; Will Arnett; Alison Brie; Charlie Day; and Nick Offerman. Each of these actors goes beyond merely lending a famous voice to a plastic body, crafting vibrant cartoons who endear themselves to the audience more than a yellow minifigure has any right to.
Maintaining the vision of cathartic fun and games are directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. “From the guys who brought you ‘21 Jump Street’” seems like an oddly dissonant endorsement for a movie about toys, but Lord and Miller bring to “The Lego Movie” the same pop culture savvy and clever wackiness that fueled the perpetual motion of giggles and cackles of their short-lived television series “Clone High.” Lord and Miller deftly balance the incredible scope and endless reinvention inherent to the Lego universe, which includes Shakespeare, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the 2002 NBA All-Stars, while adding an ambitious “Inception”-like layering of worlds between the minifigures and the fabled “Man Upstairs.” This leads to a wracking third-act twist that’s as inventive as everything else in the movie, with an added touch of sincere melancholy that transforms a zany circus into a surprise tearjerker.
“The Lego Movie”’s greatest success lies in the way it makes the ethereal nature of imagined worlds tactile. The characters’ interaction with their environment–minifigures break apart if they fall too far, and they constantly use their block surroundings to build ships and cars—inspires the creative stirrings of the audience, begging them to join whatever mysterious force is building these cities and moving the characters through them. Sure, the ultimate purpose of “The Lego Movie” may be to boost sales of a product, but the movie is much more than a protracted commercial. It’s a romp that perfectly captures how toys offer endless possibilities and encourage you to play by your own rules.