Note: This piece contains spoilers.
The vast majority of Phil Lord & Chris Miller’s new
film, The Lego Movie, is inventive, entertaining, sharply funny, and a
particular combination of total chaos and laser focus that makes for an
extraordinarily enjoyable time at the movies. I expect to revisit these
first 80 minutes or so many times in the future. I hope never again to
be put through the last twenty, which felt more than a little
disingenuous. Though it tries to insist that kids' toys, games, and
movies should be primarily made for and enjoyed by their target
audience, it ends up being guilty of doing exactly the opposite,
crafting a message more geared for nostalgia-ridden adults. This is more
than just an awkward dramatic structure; this is an ideological
The majority of the film takes place in an animated world, wherein Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an ordinary construction worker, is pulled into a sort of revolution. It turns out that Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) intends to seal up the walls between Lego “dimensions” (your city, your Wild West town, etc.), but a few “master builders” are attempting to put a stop to this, and let every Lego citizen live as they please. Emmet, it turns out, may have stumbled onto the exact piece they need to seal their victory.
In those final twenty minutes, however, it is revealed, as perhaps
we’d suspected, that the movie takes place quite literally in the
imagination of a child given control over a giant Lego set. All the
wacky imagination and mishmash of cultural icons, geared to a story so
quickly-paced and nonsensical it could only be the product of someone
tapped in closely to the mind of a child? It turns out there’s an
explanation for that - it actually comes from the mind of a child. What
seemed boundless becomes banal, more explicable than exciting, more
Inception than inventive.
As the camera pulls back on Emmet, having dove into what we believed to be his death, we find him lying on the floor of a live-action, not animated, set, gazing up at his true master, a young boy, Finn (Jadon Sand), himself subservient to the actual owner of the toys - his dad (Will Ferrell, live, in person). The film quickly asserts that its exploration of the perils of conformity and the unbridled joy of individual imagination were less a comment on “life in the modern world,” and much more to do with the conflict that comes when adults try to retain control on childish things, in the process robbing the very children around them of their own childhood. Dad is quite agitated to find Finn at his play set.
It turns out Dad and Finn have had this discussion before. “How many times have I told you,” he says, indicating the “DO NOT TOUCH” signs tacked onto every corner of the sprawling world he’s created. “These are block building sets.” “But we got them at the toy store,” Finn replies. “They say for ages 7-14.” “That’s just a suggestion,” Dad insists, reaching for the glue to cement every piece in its proper place, so that no cowboys ride through city streets and no spacemen square off against dragons.
This potent, sadly relevant theme is definitely worth exploring. By exploring it within The Lego Movie, however, Lord and Miller are committing the very sin they’re attempting to condemn. Up until the full revelation of the “real life” world, the film fires on all cylinders, delivering entertainment and humor that requires no special maturity nor naivete to enjoy. It’s a true family film. The audience is everyone. Who is the audience for the finale? Adults, certainly, but perhaps not even all of them. Those with their own carefully-managed collections of children’s toys? Those aware that such grown-ups exist? Whatever the case, it’s not a theme for children: not inappropriate for them, but rather wildly out of place. The adults have reclaimed the playspace.
What’s more, this coda was entirely unnecessary to relay this theme. Within the animated world, Lord Business enacts figuratively what his real-life counterpart is doing literally, concocting a massive plan to ensure that all the toys stay in their proper place, and that everything works according to arbitrarily-assigned rules. This meets a two-tiered challenge, villainizing both corporations that churn out tedious, expository discussions of films in the guise of action-adventure and the adults who demand such entertainment and wreck all the fun. That content is all there for audience members who need it. Those that don’t—the kids‘—can still enjoy a magnificent motion picture. Until, that is, they’re forced to endure another abrasively dull discussion on grand themes built not for them, but for an older generation attempting to keep the toys all to themselves. Their fun be damned, this is about something. Just like every other achingly dull superhero movie.
Nye is a member of the Online Film Critics Society. His work has
appeared on RogerEbert.com, Movie Mezzanine, Battleship Pretension,
CriterionCast, and The House Next Door. He maintains a blog at railoftomorrow.com. Follow him on Twitter @railoftomorrow.