'The Lego Movie': Playtime is Awesome

The subtext of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s cheeky, retro-subversive The Lego Movie isn’t buried too far beneath its plastic brick surface.

The Lego Movie

Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Cast: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman
Rated: PG
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-02-07 (General release)
UK date: 2014-02-14 (General release)

The subtext of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s cheeky, retro-subversive The Lego Movie isn’t buried too far beneath its plastic brick surface. But even though it’s a feature-length commercial for a world-conquering toy brand that makes sure to find room to plug a few other big-ticket media franchises (DC comics, Star Wars), it still offers genuine artistry. With as much in common with Battleship and the GI Joe movies as with The 400 Blows, this past weekend's box-office winner might be mostly empty calories, but they’re tasty.

Like every kids’ movie today, The Lego Movie is about an ordinary schmo called to do extraordinary, non-schmo-like things. Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) is a standard-issue construction worker in a scary-bright Lego city that runs on choreographed, caffeinated conformity. Greeting the morning with a smile and a herky-jerk exercise routine, Emmet can’t wait to follow every routine that’s laid out for him. That includes following the ubiquitous instruction manuals (“If you see anything weird, report it immediately”) to rocking out to the up-tempo dance-anthem blasting from every radio in earshot: “Everything is Awesome.” There is no other song playing in his world and it stays with you afterward like the worst, most effective ad jingle ever crafted.

Of course, everything is not awesome. The beloved President Business (Will Ferrell) -- spotted in an opening Middle Earth-ian battle scene as a dark lord given to hideous cackles and pronouncements of doom -- is a successful tycoon fearful of anything unpredictable. That explains (sort of) the super-weapon he plans to unleash on Legoland, in hopes of preventing the changes sure to be wrought by a prophesied Chosen One. In a plot that seems inspired by the children’s story Philip K. Dick never wrote, Emmet is revealed as that Chosen One upon whose thin plastic shoulders falls the fate of the toy world.

If it were only this simple, The Lego Movie would be insufferable. The story is littered with familiar bits, from the rebellious rocker-girl Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who inspires Emmet to join an underground collective led by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, well beyond self-satire at this point). He's engaged in an epic Gandalf-vs. Sauron-style battle: President Business is supported by legions of malevolent robots, the Stasi-like Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), and a group called the Micromanagers, while Vitruvius has a ragtag bunch of misfits drawn from every dusty, forgotten drawer of the Lego universe, including the cyborg pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), the 2002 NBA All-Stars, the Millennium Falcon, Superman, and Batman (Will Arnett). This crew in particular constitutes one of the most effective ensembles ever assembled for an animated film, with a crackling comic interplay and resolute disregard for the rules of reality.

While Emmet's realization that he's special is about as predictable as President Business might like. But the film doesn't dwell on such clichés, blasting right past this tenet of be-yourself positivity to deliver a more enduring message in favor of anarchic freedom. The forces of evil in The Lego Movie are not only by the usual corporate sorts who would back a President Business, using media to push a branded form of rebellion as just another product. Instead, the villains here tell people how to build things, according to a very specific, sometimes elaborate blueprint. Of course, Lego has been criticized in recent years for just such practice, selling sets so complex that children build them once and then never play with them again. As a late -- and yes, predictable -- development in the film makes clear, toys should be just instruments for play, for exploration and fun, not a pre-set end result.

The Lego Movie's aesthetic smartly buttresses this message. Unlike so many kids’ movies today, its animation style doesn't draw attention to its dazzling newness, but instead evokes the action-figure stop-motion of Robot Chicken and thousands of amateur videos. The humor is also somewhat retro, occasionally surreal, as though some YouTube snark-snipers have been let loose in the company candy shop. How else to explain the team's journey to the anime-trippy Cloud Cuckooland, presided over by the terrifyingly positive Unikitty (Alison Brie) or the movie's repeated mocking of Batman’s pompous brooding?

The Lego Movie isn't exactly calling for open rebellion against the corporate toy complex that provides its title: it means to sell interlocking plastic blocks. But in a world of cloud server-scheduled childhoods, proposing that kids should be left alone to play however they damn well feel like it seems at least mildly rebellious.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.