[7 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Others have said it, but it bears repeating. There is something special about Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Who else could have taken their time in TV, working on such oddball shows as MTV’s Clone High and mainstream hits as How I Met Your Mother, and turned it into a stunning string of cinematic successes?
When it was announced that the popular children’s story Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was being made into a movie, few could figure out how. After all, the book contained little or no narrative. Lord and Miller, on the other hand, manufactured a winning farce about childhood expectations, community struggles, and a crazy machine that makes food out of water. Before we knew it, a new kid vid franchise was born.
Then the duo stepped in to tackle another long gestating, hard to get a handle on project, the big screen adaptation of the ‘80s small screen hit 21 Jump Street. Hiring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill proved the pair had the right approach from the beginning, turning the otherwise nominal teen cop drama (featuring Johnny Depp as a young looking police officer charged with infiltrating the crime at a local high school) into a larger than life, hard-R comedy. Though they didn’t write it, Lord and Miller were seen as the main reason why the film ended up raking in $200 million plus at the box office. Naturally, a sequel is in the works.
So, what does this duo have up its sleeve for an encore? What is their next movie move? The answer, intriguingly enough, is another “unfilmable” children’s property (though there have been many home video takes on the material), LEGO That’s right, LEGO, as in The LEGO Movie. The toy building blocks. The pride and joy of Denmark and the source of endless hours of frustration free construction for kids of all ages. We’re not talking Nanoblocks or K’NEX. No, this is the world we all grew up with, the bricks with bumps ideal that forged a million mock metropolises and even more outrageous homemade machines.
Our “made up” story centers on the LEGO town of Bricksburg. Neat and orderly, it’s ominous leader, President Business (voice of Will Ferrell) hopes to keep it that way. He likes things done “by the instructions” and relies on his policeman buddy Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) to protect him from chaos…and creativity.
Of course, this means nothing to our accidental hero, a construction worker named Emmett (Chris Pratt) who is more than content to follow the rules. When he stumbles across something called the “Piece of Resistance” he becomes embroiled in a possible rebellion. A mysterious woman named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Perkins) convinces Emmet to join up with a wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and his collection of recognizable characters (Batman, Shaquille O’Neal, Abraham Lincoln) to help defeat Business and his LEGO threat - the horrifying substance known as The Kragl!
Needless to say, The LEGO Movie is amazing. It’s a rollercoaster ride that’s all dips and loop the loops. It will have kids craving the latest play sets and adults smiling as they cough up the cash for even more interlocking fun. Set within a cinematic world of stop motion magic and CG/3D fills, it’s imagination infused with invention, resulting in an insane level of entertainment.
Thanks to the premise and the possibilities it provides (it’s a literal gold mine for anyone looking for culturally relevant targets to take on), this is one of those experiences which seems to tap directly into your own sense of what’s clever and works the predetermined laughs out of you. It also functions in a peculiar way, which is to say, it anticipates your reaction to seeing such intriguing mash-ups asThe Lord of the Rings with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and doesn’t disappoint in how such clashes are realized.
Everything in this movie is meta, a comment on a comment. Geeks will go into a coma trying to figure out the multi-layered references and real fans will find the in-jokes as easily as the outrageous pop riffs. The best thing about The LEGO Movie is that, while it relies on the formulas that make such family fare as Madagascar and Ice Age almost unwatchable, it tweaks them by having the subjects as part of the satire.
When Batman offers up a death metal song of his own composition, both the lyrics and the reaction to same soar with comic potential. When President Business goes on one of his many manic rants, his references hit all the right “I was just thinking that” beats. To call this movie “brilliant” is an understatement. It’s mind bending in how easily it embraces the conventions it is simultaneously defying.
It reminds one of Disney’s delightful and equally adept deconstruction of the video game universe, from arcades to consoles, in Wreck-It Ralph, except The LEGO Movie has more to say as a subtext than “everyone’s a hero.” Indeed, without giving much away, there’s a connection to the old line from the Bible “and when I grew up, I put aside childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11) that will really hit home with the over 30 crowd in the theater.
Like the best children’s films of the last few decades—Ralph, Coraline, the Toy Story trilogy—there is a mixture of nostalgia and knowing that circumvents the otherwise obvious pleasures being presented. Lord and Miller then make sure to carefully balance the wistfulness with what works in a modern kids movies (lots of eye candy and cleverly crafted action scenes) with the result being a ridiculously good time.
Sure, some parents may complain that they are taking their wee ones to what is, in essence, a 90 minute experiment in branding via brainwashing and some of the gags miss their mark, but for the most part, The LEGO Movie proves that January through April doesn’t have to consist solely of studio cast offs and contractually obligated release dates.
Of course, if it wasn’t for the work of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, we might indeed have another reason to dread such cinematic doldrums. Thanks to them, there’s a reason to cheer… and it’s called The LEGO Movie.