Review: ‘The Lego Movie’ is a tall stack of subversive fun

“The Lego Movie” is a massive collision of subversive humor, hyper-kinetic energy, mind-jangling design, spinning colors and about 15 million Legos, no exaggeration.

It is very tempting to use the movie’s pounding pop anthem — “Everything Is Awesome” — to put this insane sensory experience into sound-bite perspective. But that is no doubt the piece de resistance of the filmmakers’ master plan. Or in “Lego Movie” speak, the Piece of Resistance.

So in solidarity with that sentiment, I’ll resist.

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Instead let’s consider why a film about the unassuming little plastic lock blocks that have captivated kids and bedeviled vacuum cleaners and bare feet for generations works so well on the big screen.

Having a cast that knows precisely how to play with a good line helps and “Lego” has done well in that regard. Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and others bring the inherently inert to vibrant life.

But it is instructive to go back to the source, the toy itself, for more clues. Ingenious in its simplicity, endless in its creative possibilities, made for building up and tearing down, yet nearly indestructible, accompanied by instructions that can be followed or completely ignored.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller wisely adopt the fundamental principles in constructing this zany 3-D world. The pair, who were the creative team responsible for the charming 2009 adaptation of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” also wrote the “Lego” script. They know how to shake and bake the kid stuff so that adults will bite too.

From the first frames, the film is grounded in that classic Lego debate: whether to stick with the plans provided or go freestyle. The clash between uniformity and diversity becomes the central conflict that drives the action, which may actually surpass “Transformers” levels and I wasn’t sure that was possible.

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Lord Business/President Business/The Man Upstairs (Ferrell) — basically the bad guy who runs everything — is a rigid sort, unsettled by change and on a campaign to stamp it out. He’s got crews working to homogenize the metropolis of Bricksburg where Emmet (Pratt), a very ordinary guy and our unlikely hero, lives.

Just to be clear, because they are making a major point here, there is nothing distinctive about Emmet. His days don’t vary, he follows the same routine, eats the same food, laughs at the same sitcom joke. When someone tells him, “Don’t get any ideas,” he says, guilelessly, “I never have any ideas.”

Even so, Emmet couldn’t be happier. His life is awesome. His friends are awesome. His job? Awesome. The construction worker gets to demolish buildings every single day. A lot of interesting ideas are seeded into the simplicity — understandable to youngsters in a literal sense; amusing to the older crowd for the broader implications.

When Emmet takes an accidental tumble down a metaphoric rabbit hole, his very structured existence comes crashing down too upon discovering there is much more to the world than Bricksburg. It would be ironic, if Emmet understood irony, that just as his worldview is expanding, Business is shutting it down.

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There is a prophesy, handed down by Vitruvius (Freeman, his Lego man looking a lot like a blind prophet), which is keeping the anti-Business resistance alive. It involves something called the Kragle (one of several word teases the film employs), the infamous Piece of Resistance and the Special, a mysterious master builder who will save the world. Things get really complicated when Emmet is mistaken for the Special.

Things get even more complicated when he develops a crush. She rides a souped-up cycle, her name is Wyldstyle (Banks) and she has an immediate effect on him — everything goes slow-mo and in this movie, that really stands out. Watching Wyldstyle toss her helmet hair as if it were Pantene perfection ranks among the film’s best effects.

As Emmet soon discovers, there are many superheroes fighting Business’ extinction plan. Batman (Arnett) is the most problematic because he’s Wyldstyle’s boyfriend. The basic good versus evil battle really boils down to a fight against conformity, particularly the kind of conformity adults tend to enforce and kids tend to resist. There is a little twist at the end of the film to tether the animated ideal to the real world that is kind of nifty, though I’m not sure it was necessary.

While not a groundbreaking concept, it is smartly told and peppered with wry riffs on pop culture as well as unexpected historical high points. So don’t be shocked to see Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Shakespeare (Jorma Taccone) and Superman (Channing Tatum) going for a punch line with equal energy.

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Sometimes it’s the simplest things that bring such pleasure — Neeson’s Bad Cop/Good Cop, for example. With a quick spin of his head, he goes from fearsome to friendly and becomes a more arresting character for it.

Sometimes it’s the most complex things that steal the scene — take Nick Offerman’s Metal Beard. With his many moving-and-morphing pirate parts (and quite possibly pirated parts) he’s a remarkably creative contraption. If only he’d stay still long enough to see all the nuts and bolts. The same can be said for the animation and effects in general. It is impossible to overstate the scale of their inventiveness, the details are delightfully dense.

Now to the elephant in the room — or I guess, the Lego on the floor. If you’re wondering if the film plays like a 90-plus-minute commercial, strangely it does not. There is a very familiar feel to the film, which remains true to the style of those ubiquitous bits and pieces that are EVERYWHERE. At the same time, “The Lego Movie” is strikingly, exhilaratingly, exhaustingly fresh. Not plastic at all.

Corrected: An earlier version of this review said Abraham Lincoln is voiced by Dave Franco. It is voiced by Will Forte.


‘The Lego Movie’

MPAA rating: PG for mild action and rude humor

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: In general release