You gotta hand it to this new directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street). Would anyone walk into a movie about the adventures of animated legos and think it wouldn't turn out to be a corporate advertisement for the toy product alone? I certainly wouldn't, and I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised, as The Lego Movie is in fact a delightful, wickedly funny and mile a minute meta heavy madcap romp through the Lego universe, with only a minimum of commercial advertizing involved (can't get away from it entirely- the movie does want to make you buy and play with some legos, and I 'm sure that worked to the manufacturing company's benefit).
But there is a high energy, creative force at work behind it anyway, and the movie feels unlike the usual safe, sweet, typical animated features that come out every year, solely about triumphing over adversity (the only message that is ever imparted by an animated film for the most part). This movie is actually a celebration of both individualism and collectivism (that's right, simultaneously). Set in the brightly colored world of legos, our protagonist is an everyman, Emmet (voiced with sly enthusiasm by Chris Pratt, of TV's Parks and Recreation), who fits into the world around him so easily that his friends describe him as a nobody with no particular ideas or interests whatsoever. He doesn't question authority and subscribes to the doctrine of "instructions" by the land's evil leader, President Business (Will Ferrell), whose goal is to force everyone to be wrung from a similar cloth in personality, attitude, etc. so that he can ultimately rule over the citizens and eventually "freeze" them all in place. There is an underground group of rebels who set out to stop him of course, and Emmet accidentally falls into this crowd when he stumbles onto a construction site and apprehends "the piece of resistance," which all the rebels assume makes him the chosen one they've been waiting for- "The Special," who was foretold to them in a prophecy imparted by the great one (Morgan Freeman, who else?)
So now Emmet has to prove his worth and we're taken on a wild ride through all the different lego universes as the various familiar lego toys (there are appearances by Batman, Superman and the Star Wars guys) show up and form a ragtag group to save the universe. Throughout all of this we're treated to a mad-dash pace of zaniness and jokes tossed at you a mile a minute (I know I missed some), with the typical pop culture and meta-references thrown in for good measure (Liam Neeson plays a "bad cop" in a riff off his Taken personality, while Will Arnett's Batman tosses in asides to his most recent Dark Knight persona). If the original Shrek was the first movie to go all in with inside jokes aimed at the audience's knowledge and familiarity with the outside world of fairy tales, this is that kind of humor on steroids. It makes me wonder if we can ever go back to the un-ironic, non-winking at the camera kind of entertainment again, or if this is the new normal, and movies are now in a forever kind of smug conversation with the audience over the things we know, with them telling us how much they know we know.
But it's all clever and entertaining anyway, despite the atomic level of self-awareness (Lord and Miller do the same with the Jump Street movies), and the lesson Emmett eventually learns in fact isn't necessarily about his own "specialness," but only that in combination with the talents of others, can they work together as a society to build something truly original and creative. I admit I was taken aback that this endorsement of flat out collectivism turned out to be the message of the movie, but hey, these guys are legos, so it makes sense, right? (Now see if an animated film would ever dare to embark the same message regarding human society- that'll be the day). The final twist on the world of the legos, while clever and involving a cameo appearance whose very presence never fails to make audiences smile, kind of puts the movie in direct placement as a feature length ad for Legos, as I said earlier, but I guess it's alright. By that point we've probably had enough of this world for now- that is, until the inevitable sequels turn this creatively refreshing movie into a franchise cash cow the way the Shrek sequels sullied the first one. But since that day's not yet here...feel free to enjoy this while it lasts.