“I want you to join me. Look at all the things that people built. You might see a mess. What I see are people inspired by each other, and by you. People take things from what you have, are making something new out of it.“
It is hard to imagine an era when films were treated any more like products. Today’s blockbuster franchises rarely exist simply to sell themselves – they double as advertisements for a raft of goods, from tie-in video games to personal appliances. A film studio is never just a film studio, but a small subsidiary of a conglomerate, with revenue to be raised by the many arms of the octopus. There is often more money in the merchandise than the art – toys sales are what compel Pixar to churn out the dire Cars / Planes franchise, just as George Lucas’ billions came not from the Star Wars films, but his ownership of the merchandising rights for retractable lightsabres and Wookie collectibles. Audiences have grown increasingly complicit in this bargain; witness the uproar by parents over the lack of Frozen tie-in products available in recent months to sate the ravenous pre-teen fans of the surprise hit, now so used to a deluge of apps and action figures.
Into this landscape strides The Lego Movie, yet another film based on, and existing to juice the sales of, a line of toys. On first glance, a film adapting a line of interlocking Danish bricks appears to be a particularly brazen prospect – one could argue that Transformers and GI Joe at least implied particular narrative paths. Lego’s strength as a toy was always its relative freedom; there was a great diversity of play suggested by those mounds of colourful blocks and nondescript miniature characters (though the company has since diversified into branded properties, from Star Wars to superheroes). That freedom hardly seems the appropriate fit for a family film’s narrative straitjacket, nor the attempt any more than a cynical cash-grab in a climate ravenous for franchise clout.
Yet The Lego Movie is fantastic. The writer/director team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have managed to deliver a story of genuine heart, soul and earnestness – which still ensures that each and every audience member leaves the cinema with a burning desire to pick up a bucket of Lego bricks. The Lego Movie succeeds where other tie-ins have failed not only because it boasts a strong story, but improbably because rather than trying to use that story to mask the toy that birthed it, Lord and Miller embrace their film’s role as an extension and celebration of the brand.
* Severe Spoilers Ahead *
Almost everything in The Lego Movie works. It is whiplash-fast, lathering on the sight gags, references and sly corporate digs as the characters hop between gorgeously designed worlds, animated in slavish (but impossible) imitation of painstaking stop-motion. Although the plot beats are evocative of Toy Story, Wreck-it-Ralph and The Matrix, the script’s minute-by-minute inventiveness keeps the ride from feeling derivative. The evocation of tropes is invariably double-edged: Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) is both the staple wise mentor and a self-important windbag; Batman (Will Arnett) gets to be both the crowd-pleasing hero and repeatedly lampooned for his fetishised ‘dark and brooding’ persona.
At the story’s heart is a self-conscious “chosen one” narrative ploy. A prophecy dictates that everyman Emmet (Chris Pratt), on finding the “piece of resistance” is the “the special”; “greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times”, destined to save the world. Much of the early conflict stems from Emmet’s inability to live up to this label, and the denigration he receives from his supposed allies, the ‘Master Builders’ (Superman, Gandalf and even Lego-Abraham Lincoln are spectacularly unsupportive). Indeed, the celebration of hyper-creativity and imagination by the Master Builders is hardly less restrictive and alienating than the conformist utopia of villainous Lord Business (Will Ferrell), with its catchy daily musical interlude:
“Everything is awesome,
Everything is cool where you’re part of a team.”
Contrary to the expectations of his allies, Emmet never reveals himself to be an imaginative genius – he wins their respect, and plays his part, by knowing how to work with others and bring their wildly divergent ideas together. It is a mark of how dire the collective cinematic addiction to ‘chosen one’ mythologies has become that I was prepared to cheer at the (otherwise predictable) revelation that the prophecy was bunk; it was only Emmet’s growing self-belief that made him ‘the special’. He proves himself a hero not by embracing destiny, nor by being the best (that, as always, would be Batman), but by being himself – an empathetic team player.
However, the heart of The Lego Movie is only exposed by the subsequent twist that takes Emmet over the edge of the universe and into the real world. The recontextualisation is arresting; the entire story thus far has taken place entirely within the imagination of a young boy wreaking havoc on his father’s vast Lego collection. The hodge-podge medley of characters and genre tropes take on the shape of play rather than design; the film has been, in effect, one of Toy Story’s opening sequences writ large. But despite introducing a classical deus ex machina – superior beings literally raise characters out of the action – the wider framing heightens the story’s stakes by making them altogether more intimate. It becomes immediately apparent that Lord Business, with his dastardly plan to set the citizens of the Lego world in place with ‘the Kragle’ is simply the avatar of the boy’s father (the live-action Will Ferrell), who wants to lock his son out and glue his ‘collectibles’ together.
All the talk of battles and chosen ones come down to something both familiar – the relationship between an emotionally estranged father and son. We have not been watching a film about saving the world; we’ve been watching a film about what it means to play with Lego. The freedom of play that at first made Lego seem an impossible candidate for cinematic adaptation is not an impediment to the story, but rather its point. It is a freedom that allows the film to climax not with violence, but with words of support and a hug.
The father is proud of the intricate worlds he has toiled over, and wishes to seal off his creations, to be admired but not experienced, whereas for his son those experiences – to invent, to play – are why he delights in an afternoon spend in the basement mucking around with a box of Lego bricks. The rift there is not so unfamiliar – too often in life and art we venerate end products but neglect the process, attempting to fortify against change rather than embracing the joys of the untamed tumult.
Yet both desires – to construct something lasting and to indulge the impulses of the moment– have value. Emmet’s final confrontation with Lord Business, echoing that between father and son in the reality above, is no battle but instead a mutual recognition. Emmet speaks not to a villain, but to a man he calls “the greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times,” whose achievements inspired before they constrained; and Lord Business recognises that the imaginative chaos beyond his tower is not wanton destruction, but creative achievement in its own right. A passion for creation binds and reconciles them, protagonist and antagonist, son and father. Or, more specifically, a passion for building with Lego.
It is a message that is both emotionally on-point and a brazen celebration of the brand. Lord and Miller tap into that buoyant experience of free play that came so much more easily when we were young, and let it triumph over the cynicism that encroaches with age. The sincere love for the possibilities inherent in those iconic Danish building blocks makes the pitch immeasurably satisfying. What is unsettling about The Lego Movie is that it is not only a good film and a Lego commercial, but that it may indeed succeed as a film because it so fully embraces being a Lego commercial.
In a cinematic environment overrun with parasitic franchises so often ridiculous, bloated and repugnant, The Lego Moviesuggests that there may be hope for stories born from brands and corporate synergy, should they be willing to embrace the human emotions and impulses that are invariably at the heart of their popularity. I may regret those words in a day, or a year – but it is a testament to the many pleasures of The Lego Movie that I’m forced to contemplate them at all.