While you certainly don't need me to tell you that the number one movie in the country three weeks running is a success, The Lego Movie seems to have struck a Pixar-esque chord in even the most skeptical corners of the internet. A certain amount of goodwill was always going to be garnered by the sheer novelty of seeing many people's favorite childhood toys (and I would suspect a disproportionate amount of people writing about pop culture on the internet) animated to life, but that same goodwill seemed potentially doomed to be destroyed by those shouting that we were just being suckered into paying for a 90-minute Lego commercial. The Lego Movie is much more than both of those things. It is a film actively engaging in the most common superhero movie tropes and putting on a clinic in their use, it is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, the restraint shown by the animating team in limiting their character’s movement to that of actual Lego figures is a visual gift that keeps on giving, and most of all it is a film that takes a massive and unnecessary emotional and storytelling risk in its climax that pays off tremendously.
And why should we be surprised? Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have made a career out of turning what seem like bad ideas into good comedies. 21 Jump Street is much funnier than it has any right to be and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a solid kids movie. 21 Jump Street is as successful and attuned as it gets in regards to playing with the modern social strata of young people. Where many comedies, even smarter, more critically acclaimed titles like Easy A or Superbad tend to rely on the age-old nerds and jocks cliches, Lord and Miller understand that particularly in more wealthy, urban and suburban environments, geek culture has gone mainstream in a big way and the high school social classes are divided by privilege and social success over athletic prowess and bulk. They also reignited Channing Tatum’s career by putting his usually self-serious good looks through a gauntlet of goofy physical bits and revealed surprising comedy chops and a willingness to play on his public image. All this, plus action scenes with set-pieces and a pace that feel legitimately tense and dangerous and a fulfilling emotional buddy-cop ending at least prove that the pair are able storytellers and directors of broad Hollywood comedies.
In The Lego Movie, Lord and Miller enter a scenario that both narrows and widens their visual palate. On the one hand, they are not only dealing with animated characters, not naturally expressive humans, but also animations that are particularly limited in their range of motion, facial expression, and physical differences. On the other hand, the mythos of the Lego universe allows them to expand their visual world endlessly, because the Lego is merely the block, the world and the characters are created from the imaginations of the molders of the block. Even “human” items like Krazy Glue or paper clips that find their way into the Lego world take on a unique imaginative property and particular uses in the Lego universe.
Very few other pre-existing properties give filmmakers the same sort of visual and narrative freedom that the Lego universe allows. Legos look at home in a traditional city, in a cloud city, in the old west, or underwater, dressed as Batman, Shaq, or Abe Lincoln. The same character can drive a motorcycle and fly a spaceship. What makes them such popular toys is that they are as malleable as the human imagination, and that same principle makes for a great backdrop to an animated comedy.
The subtext of malleability in storytelling becomes text in the plot of The Lego Movie, and ultimately becomes a truth in the world of the film itself. At its core, Emmet’s story in the film tries to appear as standard Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” or rather, the characters around Emmet expect to be part of a hero’s journey but when Emmet appears as a non-traditional hero compared to say, Will Arnett’s Batman, the story departs from that formula and becomes more personal to the character we have watched develop.
From a storytelling standpoint, this is where things begin to get uniquely complex and impressive. To this point, Lord and Miller have established that the rules of the world within The Lego Movie mirror the rules established by the tradition of the Lego toys. Movement, mixing and matching pieces vs. following directions for specific sets, and mixing characters from many universes are all ingrained in the world of the film. However, in the third act, it is revealed that the plot of the film has been mirroring the imagination of a real boy’s playtime in a Wizard of Oz-esque twist involving characters and conflicts from the boy's life, namely his relationship with his father.
Once Emmet falls out of the Lego tower and off the table in the boy’s basement that holds the entire Lego universe, the lines between the Lego world and the human world are blurred. On the one hand, Emmet loses his physicality entirely, but we still hear his voice and thoughts, and he is even able to will himself off of the father’s desk and back into the Lego world. That moment in particular brings together the subtext of Legos as a toy, the text of the film, and makes a larger point about storytelling and imagination all together. And most importantly, they stick the landing. The father-son conceit is present throughout the entire fabric of the film so a scene that could feel totally sappy, contrived, and manipulative in another film instead feels earned and emotional.
Lord and Miller succeed in towing the line of interaction between the human world and the Lego world. This is not Toy Story where the toys have a life of their own and fall limp around humans; it is important to be aware of the implications of the choice to make humans appear live-action rather than animated. The Lego characters in the story exist in the context of the human imagination: their personalities, worlds, actions, and motivations are all ductile depending on who is playing with them at that moment. Even when items from the human world find their way into the Lego world, they take on their own meaning within that world. Ultimately, The Lego Movie is a film about imagination in storytelling because really all filmmaking exists in the context of human imagination, but Legos are particularly suited at being building-blocks of a comedy film because their imaginative possibilities are endlessly flexible.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.