These days, every big-budget movie seems to follow an identical template: Hero finds out he (or sometimes she) is Special. Hero acquires wacky buddies, crusty mentor and feisty love interest. Hero conquers self-doubts, defeats Bad Guy, saves the world.
Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" archetypes have a scholarly pedigree and a long and lucrative history in popcorn entertainment. But they're getting tired. And in recent years, oddly enough, the best place to find creative subversions of those well-worn tropes has been in animated kids' flicks. Love at first sight? Disney's Frozen was skeptical. Wreck-It Ralph made us ask who was really the bad guy, while Rango sent up hundreds of genre clichés with "Looney Tunes" abandon.
Now comes The Lego Movie. Is it one long product placement for Danish interlocking plastic bricks and the cool stuff you can build with them? Of course. It's also a very funny spoof of the blockbuster template and an impressive visual achievement.
Directed and cowritten by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind the equally irreverent 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie offers jokes aplenty for kids, for lifelong Lego nerds, and for adults who barely remember how to slot two bricks together. Lord and Miller have found the mythological resonances that, along with handy licensing agreements, link those plastic bricks to the past three decades of pop culture. And they're eager to mock all of it.
The movie starts like a blockhead version of Brazil with a touch of Idiocracy. Our hero is Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a lowly construction worker in Brickville, where seemingly benevolent tyrant President Business (Will Ferrell) regiments work and play alike. (Citizens obediently quaff overpriced coffee and bop to an earworm pop song called "Everything Is Awesome.")
Through a series of accidents, Emmett finds himself attached to a mysterious red rectangle prophesized to hold the power to bring down the Business regime. The rebellious Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) sweeps him away to join an insurgency of Master Builders, who represent the view that you should be able to connect your plastic pieces any damn way you want. They include a Gandalf-like sage voiced, of course, by Morgan Freeman.
From there, the film just keeps getting visually and thematically wilder. Wyldstyle leads Emmet through a series of distinct territories, each rendered to give computer graphics the illusion of Lego-piece materiality. In the pirate realm, for instance, the surging sea appears to be composed of thousands of organically shifting bricks. Even the smoke from explosions has Cubist angles.
Emmet also encounters a slew of licensed characters such as Wyldstyle's boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett), who takes his "dark and gritty" reputation ridiculously seriously. While much of the film's humor depends on pop-culture recognition, it goes deeper than simple name-checks. (Oh, there's Lego Chewbacca!) And a surprisingly real conflict emerges from the chaos: Anarchic creativity is great, but is it always the best way to approach a task?
This theme becomes explicit in the movie's third act, which takes a turn into meta land that some viewers may find dampening to their high spirits. While these scenes do slow the film's frenetic pace, they also contextualize the silly plot in ways that make viewers think.
Like the Toy Story series — and unlike Transformers and its ilk — The Lego Movie acknowledges that real children's play blends cultural tropes and templates with wild-card weirdness. Rare is the kid who ever uses a toy exactly according to the "instructions," because it's no fun. If only screenwriters indulged their own messy inner children more often, maybe we'd see a bigger choice of plots on-screen.