You might not realize it yet, but we've just set your weekend plans: Take the kids to The Lego Movie — the funniest, cleverest, most exhaustingly exhilarating animated feature in ages — then leave them to play with their toys and see it again for your own wicked amusement. A few days each year, every family deserves to be happy.
To a short list of wonderful animated features about cloth or video playthings — Pixar's Toy Story trilogy and Disney's Wreck-It Ralph — add this delight from directors and co-writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The liveliness of their Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs cartoon and the live-action 21 Jump Street hardly prepares audiences for their ability to transform blocky Lego figures, with painted faces and no arm or leg mobility, into charming or rapacious characters a viewer can instantly accept and believe in. The technique, which combines stop-motion, animation and CGI, has an aptly rough, faux-primitive look, as if some brilliant kid made a madly elaborate home movie the whole world could love.
(MORE: Richard Corliss's Review of Lord and Miller's 21 Jump Street)
The story, which moves so fast that viewers should wear seat belts, begins in the super-regimented city of Bricksburg, where employees of the megalith Octan Corp. do everything they're supposed to: work in the Octan factory (this is an alternate America that still has a thriving manufacturing sector), drink overpriced beverages ($32, no $40, for a cup of coffee), watch the nightly sitcom Where Are My Pants? and follow the Instruction Booklet as their Bible. Our hero Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation) is the droniest of drudges: he consumes the party line yet feels ignored by his longtime co-workers — because they completely ignore him.
One day he stumbles upon the legendary Piece of Resistance: a toy piece that could trigger the revolution dreamed of by underground rebels, including the blind seer Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and the prole punkster Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). They believe Emmet could be the Special One, the Neo of the Lego Matrix, which would make him "the greatest, most interesting, most important person in the world" — basically the Dos Equis guy with a liberal agenda. ("When he proposes s single-payer health plan, Republicans vote for it.") Emmet is none of these things, at least not yet; he's friendly but a little short of IQ, which leads Wyldstyle to conclude, "It's brilliant that you're pretending to be a useless nobody." He and the insurrectionists must battle long odds to overthrow the Legoland ruler, lord and tycoon President Business (Will Ferrell).
(MORE: Mary Pols on the Similarly Energetic Wreck-It Ralph)
"Hi, I'm President Business, president of the Octan Corp. and the world," his genially authoritative voice booms across the land. "Let's take extra care to follow the instructions" — and he malevolently whispers, "Or you'll be put to sleep," before returning to his cheerful pitchman's tone — "And don't forget Taco Tuesday's coming next week!" Under his secret identity of Lord Business, he plans to glue the world together with a weapon known as KRAGLE (KRAzy GLuE) so that "everyone will stop messing with my stuff." To this nightmare amalgam of John D. Rockefeller, Boss Tweed, Kim Jong Il and some bratty rich kid who won't share his toys, conformity is peace and imagination is insurrection.
Like Mayor O'Hare in The Lorax and the evil oil baron in the 2011 relaunch of The Muppets, business is bad, Bad, baaad — exactly the attitude you'd expect from a company founded and based in socialist Denmark, whose name comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, or play well (with others). We expect no less from those movie Trotskyites on the Left Coast. Wrote Christian Toto last July on Breitbart.com: "The Lego Movie is the latest example of Hollywood drumming anti-capitalist messages into its youthful audience." Has the Fox News Channel chimed in yet with its jeremiads?
No question that the movie promotes what Prez Biz would call a subversive message: Be creative with your toys. It also urges kids to venture out of the virtual world they live in and use their hands for something other than typing. But if the Lego Movie workers have seized the means of production, it's only to increase production — to sell more toys, and tickets for a film whose official title is The Lego® Movie. With a market value of $14.6 billion, the Lego Group is the world's largest toy company, and with a single, almost infinitely adaptable product. Over the years it has produced 560 billion Lego pieces, or about 80 for each person on the planet. (Confession: I was never a Legomaniac. So somebody out there must have 160 pieces.)
Sales will surely increase from this feature-length infomercial, which summons hundreds of other characters that have been franchised to Lego. Wyldstyle's boyfriend is Batman, who may be less interested in her than in his Gotham-saving rep. Instead of Christian Bale, who played Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy, Lord and Miller go with Will Arnett, who's even funnier. Channing Tatum, not Man of Steel's Henry Cavill, voices Superman. But some Lego franchisees bear the original voices: Shaquille O'Neal from the NBA All-Stars set and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) and Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) from the Star Wars movies.
Toward the end, the movie get pretty meta, with a live-action sequence suggesting that the most authoritarian dude in toyland could be the Dad who shouts, "Leggo my Lego." But this simply reinforces the tactics and tone of the picture, which says anything goes when imagination runs gloriously rampant. Anticipating blockbuster status, Warner Bros. has already bruited a sequel. That'd be fine, but we'd like to see Lord and Miller set loose on other brands from Scandinavia. The Ikea Movie, anyone?