When my son was old enough to discover Lego, I was a bit surprised to see how dramatically the toy line had changed since I was a kid. Mostly gone were the basic sets of square and rectangular bricks, replaced by far more advanced sets that were essentially complicated models, comprised of specialty pieces meant to be built in one particular way. Lego had begun to license other properties, so you had Harry Potter Lego, Star Wars Lego, Marvel and DC Lego…and while that was all really cool, I couldn’t shake the fear that maybe Lego was losing sight of what made it so special. This was a toy that was never meant to be something prescribed. It was meant to be whatever you could imagine it might be. What if Lego was training kids to only want to build the X-Wing as it’s meant to be built, or to only play Harry Potter rather than coming up with their own characters? And what about the adult collectors—geeks like me who are now old enough to buy all the toys they want? There are surely folks out there with every set of a given fandom Lego has produced, all of which have been assembled once and put on display, never to be disassembled and reinvented ever again. I find that desperately sad. Lego wasn’t meant for that.
The Lego Movie knows what I’m talking about, which is why it might just be the greatest licensed-property movie ever made. When I played the Lego Star Wars video games, I was struck by the charming way in which Lego had figured out a kind of storytelling style that uniquely suited its toys. It’s something hard to put one’s finger on, but by the powers, it works. And this was writ large in the Lego Movie, which somehow manages to be self-aware, subversive, and genuine all at the same time. Never have I seen a movie that managed such disparate tones all at once, but this one does it as if it’s no big deal.
The story takes place within a Lego world itself, where a pleasant but bland everyman named Emmet enjoys living a repetitive and conformist life as one of the many construction workers who helps to build and rebuild the city. One day he stumbles across a mysterious artifact called the Piece of Resistance which is the only thing that might stop the evil Lord Business from freezing the entire world in place with a super-weapon known as the Kragle. Helped by a daring and beautiful adventurer named Wyldstyle, and a cast of assorted other mini-figure heroes, Emmet romps through a strong of worlds that represent all iterations of Lego sets past, present and future in his quest to get the Piece of Resistance to the Kragle and ensure everyone’s freedom forever.
The biggest joy to be had here is are the performances of the expansive cast, from Chriss Pratt as Emmet and Elizabeth banks as Wyldstyle to Will Arnett as the most pompous dudebro Batman ever put to screen, Morgan Freeman as a less-than-dedicated mentor, Will Ferrell as Lord Business (in more ways than one), Liam Neeson as the double-faced Good Cop/Bad Cop, Billy Dee Williams as Lando freaking Calrissian (!) and plenty of other folks. They all inhabit their roles as various Lego people with the kind of love and enthusiasm that could only have come from folks who clearly remembered what it meant to play with Legos as a kid. There is an infectious energy throughout the entire production, which could have so easily devolved into a cynical advertisement for a toy line, and instead becomes a manifesto for what to do with a toy line everybody knows needs no introduction.
There are so many layers to this movie that it helps to step back from the spectacle of a magnificently crafted 3D computer animation feature and listen to what the movie is saying. There are a ton of great jokes aimed at adults, but also to kids wise enough to get them. Like how the price of coffee increases every time you hear it. Or how the song “Everything is Awesome” is a hilarious takedown of conformity but employs a beat so damned catchy that you can’t help but sing along to it. And as the movie cracks wise about corporate branding and creative control, we see a unexpectedly total creative freedom that is the source of this movie’s magic.
The moment of truth comes when we see that the movie is the imagined drama of a young boy named Finn, who is sneaking in some play time with his workaholic dad’s expansive collection of pristine Lego sets. Most movies that cross the reality/fantasy divide only succeed in ruining our suspension of disbelief. But here, the movie jogs this way so it can deliver a message that couldn’t possibly work if the action stayed entirely within Emmet’s world. As Finn’s dad scolds him for entering the Lego room and playing with his dad’s sets without permission, we are reminded, what are all of these marvelous toys for, if not to play with? What are these magnificent sets meant for, if not to inspire people to create their own worlds? The revelations that follow are not some hypocritical reminder from a toy line’s manufacturer not to fall too deeply into the preset worlds it has worked so hard to develop and market. Rather, they offer a true reminder of how the way we look at toys changes as the power of imagination dies within us, bleached away by age, maturity, and the stresses of a world that rushes to forget what it ever meant to be a kid. But it doesn’t have to be. All we need to do is put a few bricks together and remember that everything really is awesome, if we’re living out a dream.