That began to change about five years ago, when the Warner Bros.-affiliated producer Lin brought on writers Dan and Kevin Hageman, up-and-comers who had an affinity for the toy based on their own childhood experiences.
The trio traveled to Lego headquarters in Billund, Denmark, and gave a pitch for a film, one that wouldn't just be a blow-'em-up in which the heroes were rehashed intellectual property but something more sweet and personal. Chief Marketing Officer Mads Nipper and his colleagues — a group of such a whimsical bent that its members handed out "business cards" that were minifigures emblazoned with contact info — were hooked, and gave them a standing ovation
Soon, Lord and Miller, known for family fare such as "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" and grown-up entertainment such as "21 Jump Street," were hired and set about giving the movie its irreverent comedy feel.
Also brought on under the film's relatively modest budget (less than $70 million) was Australian visual-effects company Animal Logic. Lord and Miller wanted the movie to be photo-realistic and avoid animation's anything-goes rules of motion so the characters really felt like Lego. (One of the jokes is that romance in the Lego movie universe is consummated by the anatomically incorrect minifigures linking scooped hands, because, really, what else can they do?)
All this, filmmakers said, came together to become something surprisingly, well, handmade given the corporate interests.
"We grew up on the Warner Bros. cartoons that didn't talk down to kids," said Miller. "You know, the stuff that had adult humor about opera and existential crises for Daffy Duck. That's what we wanted to do here, and that's what we feel we got to do."
Still, there was some tension. Warner Bros. executives, according to a person familiar with the movie's development who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity around the issue, were less keen on a whopping third-act twist that would be considered heavily meta even in an independent film. Though the finale would bring a smile to the face of many adults, executives felt it might be too subtle for younger viewers. Lord and Miller pushed for it, and won.
Lego had its own objections to some elements — the company didn't want guns, for instance. "I'm sure Phil and Chris would have wanted more playfulness," Wilfert said, offering a small laugh. "But there were some things we knew we couldn't do because they didn't fit with our brand."
Lord acknowledged the delicate balance between casting Lego in a good light and poking fun at it. "Some of those conversations were difficult," he said. But he added that they were able to turn hurdles into strengths. The gun issue, for instance, was resolved by having the movie's chief weapon become industrial-strength glue. Because what could be more scary for minifigures than the idea of getting stuck together?
Most notably, all the principals said, they agreed on the basic mission. "We all wanted to make a movie that captured what it was like to play with Lego," Wilfert said.
Could that take on a truly postmodern form? "Maybe someone will make a Lego trailer out of 'The Lego Movie,'" said Miller, referencing what has become a stop-motion YouTube phenomenon for some of Hollywood's biggest movies. It may only be a matter of time.