When you’re a young film buff, just starting to dig in to cinema’s massive canon, there’s this feeling that comes with each film you watch. It’s a kind of high, really. It’s a mixture of bliss and astonishment, of wonder and revelation. In the few years you’ve lived up to this point, you’ve never experienced such an elaborate array of thoughts and emotions from a film. You understand what people mean when they say that films are “great,” and there’s nothing that you want to do more than consume as many of these great films as you possibly can. Cinema is your drug, and you’ve just taken your first hit.
But as with all drugs, the strength of the high fades as time goes on. You’re able to intellectually recognize “greatness” in films, and there’s still a fantastic wave of joy that comes with watching them. If there wasn’t, you wouldn’t watch movies anymore. But in the back of your mind, you know that you’re never going to get that original feeling back. The more films you watch, the harder it becomes for a film to surprise you, and becoming an adult means dampening that part of your brain that gets excited about absolutely everything that’s new. That’s just the way that the world works.
Why do I mention all this? Well, for a long time it’s what I assumed was true. It’s not true, though. I know that now. Because a couple days ago I saw The LEGO Movie, and I felt something inside me that I haven’t felt for a very, very long time. I felt like I was seeing something new.
If you only take a surface-level look at this film, then it might appear to be nothing more than funny but simplistic fare for young kids. I’ve heard more than a few people say exactly that. Despite everything that Pixar taught us, people are still hesitant to look at animated films that are ostensibly geared towards children with a serious critical eye. It’s unfortunate, because The LEGO Movie is incredibly dense and thematically rich. You can’t say that about a lot of “grown-up films.” Look at this year’s Best Picture line-up. There are some great films in there, to be sure, but few of them do anything new cinematically, and all of them restrict their focus to a singular theme. It’s pretty basic storytelling. “This is the thing I’m trying to say, this is the story that will communicate that message.” Every good movie in history does this. This exclusive fixation on one theme is fine, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Which is why The LEGO Movie blew me away to the degree that it did. This is a film that tackles dozens of equally fascinating topics and ties all of the major ones into a unified theme at the end. It’s awe-inspiring to behold. Every scene, every shot of this movie has something new in it. Every single moment introduces a new idea or a new detail of the world, and not just in the film’s set-up. This stretches all the way to the very end of the film. The ending introduces yet another new idea that changes the way we think about the film’s world and how it operates. Think about some movies with great “world-building.” Now think about how those films build their worlds. It’s mostly set-up to support the story, right? Not so here. The world is the story in The LEGO Movie. They are one and the same. And though their developments separate from one another at times, each ultimately enriches and improves the other.
If you’re looking for people to make a movie about Legos, you’re going to want someone with an eye for detail. After all, Lego isn’t about the final product as much as it’s about every little individual block that makes the product what it is. (This actually ends up tying pretty strongly into the narrative, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) In other words, laziness can’t be tolerated in the making of a movie like this. Every shot has to be so bursting with minutiae that you’d never notice them if you weren’t looking. You can criticize writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller for plenty of things (I wouldn’t, but a person could) but in this area it’s undeniable that they nailed it. Their film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs also excelled at this, with every background detail coming into play later on in the story. Here, the details are more about enriching the world. In the introductory sequence wherein we’re introduced to Emmet, our by-the-book, conformist protagonist, we see a poster for his favorite band in his apartment. The name of the band is “A Popular Band.” It’s trademark Lord/Miller humor, and it’s so suited to this film.
Let’s talk about that, actually. Lord and Miller have a unique style of humor, and it’s a major part of what makes their films so special. It can be hard to describe, but it has something to do with turning subtext into text in a self-aware way. Emmet’s favorite band is a great example. They carve an idea down to its simplest element, and then exaggerate that element to an insane degree. In one of my favorite scenes in The LEGO Movie, Batman (Will Arnett) plays a song that he wrote. It’s a grungy hard-rock ballad that digs deep into his soul. “DARKNESS,” the lyrics scream. Batman explains that it’s about how he’s an orphan. “NO PARENTS,” the song responds. The film’s portrayal of Batman is a pretty obvious jab at Christopher Nolan’s angsty and grim version, and at the “dark-and-gritty-ization” of almost all superhero movies in the past decade. It’s funny that the film is distributed by Warner Bros., who spearheaded that movement with their Dark Knight films and brought the exact same sensibility to Man of Steel. Is there a smarter way to poke fun at this? No doubt. But satire should be broad and absurd by its very nature, and the best examples are. Batman’s song, and all the other jokes like it, could easily be seen as childish or dumb in their simplicity. To say that misses the fact that their simplicity is what makes them so brilliant. By reducing the object of their criticism to its plainest form, the criticism becomes so much more cutting. For example, Emmet and the rest of the residents of his city are distracted from President Business’ (Will Ferrell) nefarious plans by a TV show called Where Are My Pants?, which is nothing but a pants-less man asking his wife where his pants are, to the roaring approval of a studio audience. The citizenry spend all day, every day listening to a peppy and upbeat pop song called “Everything Is Awesome,” which drills into their heads a subconscious desire for conformity and an almost fascistic demand for teamwork.
That song, incidentally, is a great illustration of The LEGO Movie‘s complicated brilliance. I’ve seen a few critics complain that the song is meant to be seen in a negative light at the beginning, but is played triumphantly during the end credits. “Isn’t this a blatant betrayal of the film’s message in order to sell the soundtrack?” they ask. Well, no, it’s not. See, The LEGO Movie has an elaborate relationship with theme. Instead of taking one idea and playing it to its conclusion, there’s a ton of stuff going on at every moment. Even the film’s central plotline can be hard to understand if you’re looking for a simple moral in it. If you were only shown the first ten or fifteen minutes of this film, you’d assume you knew where it was going. Coherence to the status quo makes people vulnerable to the schemes of powerful villains, and being original and true to yourself is the best way to live.
And for a while, it looks like The LEGO Movie is headed in that direction. Emmet is recruited by a group of people called Master Builders from all the different Lego-verses. They think he’s “The Special,” a hero foretold in prophecy who has the unique ability to defeat the bad guy’s ultimate weapon. The Master Builders are separate from average people because they don’t need to follow instructions. They can build anything they want with just the pieces they see around them. There you have it, right? A pretty simple “Go Your Own Way And Don’t Follow The Crowd” message for the kids. Except it’s more complicated than that. The Master Builders are individualistic to a fault, and as such they’re incapable of working together towards a common goal. The movie takes the middle ground on this particular issue, and that makes it unprecedentedly bold. “Yes, being totally conformist is a bad thing and you should be true to who you are on the inside,” the movie says, “but if you only use your singular abilities for selfish purposes, then it’s not worth using them at all.” It’s a far more honest message than the simple “Be Yourself” that most kid’s movies would have, and that’s what really makes it extraordinary. And that’s just one thematic thread. There are a ton of others, particularly one that I won’t mention because of spoilers. Let’s just say that there’s only one place this movie can go in the end, and they go there.
And on top of all of that, there’s something else going on that boosted my appreciation of The LEGO Movie into the stratosphere. It’s extremely witty and clever without being alienating or smug, because there’s a beating heart inside every piece of plastic. This isn’t some post-post-modern ironic critique of itself. That’s been done. No, this movie is totally sincere in everything it does, and it’s all the more resonant for it. When things happen to these characters, it’s not part of some joke on the part of the filmmakers. Everything means something. The stakes are real, and we’re invested in them because the characters are real. If there’s anything ironic or subversive about The LEGO Movie, it’s that these bits of molded plastic contain far more humanity and soul than so many flesh-and-blood characters in so many other movies. The movie takes them seriously, and while that seriousness enhances the humor in a lot of places, it also enhances the connection that you feel to this world. I said earlier that the filmmakers put so much love into the construction of every single detail in every single shot, but the smartest move they make is to get out of the way of their story. If you’re paying attention, you might start uncovering a meta-narrative at play. But then the movie makes that meta-narrative just part of the actual narrative, and infuses that with deep sentimentality. This movie never pretends that it’s smarter than its characters, or revels in its ultimate power over their fates. So few movies are able to pull that off and not come across as smug and snobbish. The Cabin in the Woods is one. I can’t really think of any others.
Day after day for over a week now, I’ve come back to this review and been at a loss for what to say. I think that says more about my reaction than another thousand words ever could. It’s not just that The LEGO Movie is a great movie. There are plenty of those. The LEGO Movie is as enthusiastic about itself as you are, and not in an egotistical way. Picture all your best friends jumping around inside a bouncy house, every one of them smiling and laughing, beckoning you to come inside to have fun with them. That’s the feeling that The LEGO Movie evokes. Everyone involved with the creation of this movie is having the time of their lives, and it absolutely shows. It’s complex, heartfelt, hilarious, intelligent, pick whichever adjective suits you. The LEGO Movie had a profound impact on me, though, one I don’t know if I’ll ever experience again. So the adjective I’m going to use is “perfect.”