“Everything is awesome!” chirps the theme song of the lively-yet-formulaic The LEGO Movie, which doubles as the motto of the film’s protagonist, a naive construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt). Like the rest of his fellow citizens in Bricksburg, he lives according to a set of instructions that enforce a cheerful conformity in everything from dress to architecture to sitcom viewing habits. Emmet’s pursuit of homogeneity extends to his occupation, where it’s his responsibility to demolish “weird stuff” that threatens the sanctity of the instructions. Everything changes when Emmet finds an unusual Lego piece with special significance to a secret society of creative freethinkers called the Master Builders. Or, more accurately, some things change. Though the Master Builders immediately hail his discovery of their sought-after “piece of resistance” as proof that he is the Special, a savior prophesied by the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), it never really occurs to Emmet – or the makers of The Lego Movie, for that matter – that if everything is awesome, then nothing truly is.
Now, wouldn’t that be quite the subversive message for an unabashed 90-minute toy commercial? To its credit, The Lego Movie sneaks in as much cheekiness and satire as its mission will bear. That’s mostly due to the sensibilities of co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, also known as the guys who helped re-imagine 21 Jump Street as a smart skewering of buddy-cop tropes. And early on, The Lego Movie is indeed a surprisingly sarcastic takedown of modern corporate complacency, from the ultra-generic decoration of Emmet’s apartment (complete with posters that advertise “A Popular Band”) to the diabolical plotting of Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an insecure bureaucrat whose fanatical belief that the world of Lego should never be altered leads to the development of a terrifying weapon. It’s up to Emmet and a motley crew of Builders – including uber-secret agent Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), ’80s technology fetishist Benny (Charlie Day), and Batman (Will Arnett) – to stop Business and return their world to the days of unfettered creativity.
The Lego Movie owes a heavy debt to movies like Toy Story, with which it shares a fundamental sense of humor about the secret world of inanimate objects, and adds belief that imagination cannot flourish within strict boundaries. However, Lord and Miller punt on their most intriguing ideas as the film shifts into a rapid-fire pattern of riotous sight gags and self-referential humor. It’s all exceedingly cute and clever – as if acknowledging the irony of forcing a narrative onto a toy designed to spark creative ingenuity – before taking an overly mawkish third-act turn that belies the film’s wit. At least the early ambition of the story is sustained in the visuals, as The Lego Movie looks unlike any other animated film. Utilizing a mix of computer and stop-motion animation, it takes inspiration from every corner of the Lego universe to pack the frame with an incredible amount of detail and in-jokes, which sometime fly by too quickly to be fully appreciated.
Ultimately, there are two ways to play with Legos: follow the instructions in the box or let your imagination run wild. While The Lego Movie wishes to capture the spirit of the latter, in practice it’s more of the former, a precise and pleasant family entertainment that sticks to an esteem-boosting “everyone is special” message. It’s a little disappointing to see wry, genre-savvy filmmakers like Lord and Miller struggle with the limitations of the movie’s conventional form, but at least they try to break that mold wherever they can, making The Lego Movie as awesome as it can possibly be.
*Nerd Bastards gives thanks to guest Eric Ambler from Ambler Amblog for allowing to use his review under the Nerd Bastard banner.