It's easy to view "The Lego Movie" with a degree of skepticism, if not outright suspicion. This is, after all, a movie that is based on a popular line of building block toys, and one that, unlike big screen adaptations of things like "Transformers" or "Battleship," actually retain the original toy's childlike designs. In fact, "The Lego Movie" goes out of its way to remind you of the tiny plastic construction toys that you grew up and probably manipulated in some unwholesome ways. So a degree of cynicism is probably warranted, considering just how closely the movie could resemble a feature-length commercial (and to be sure, whole aisles of toy stores are currently being flooded by the stuff). But it turns out that "The Lego Movie" is an absolute blast—a whip-smart, surprisingly emotional family film where the toy property is seen less as a concrete template than a tool for seemingly limitless potential.
When "The Lego Movie" starts, we're deeply entrenched in the Lego Universe. We're introduced to Emmet (Chris Pratt), who looks like a typical Lego mini-figure and is, of course, a construction worker, steadily working on building projects around his blandly upbeat city. (The most popular song in Lego-land is an obnoxiously infectious ditty called "Everything Is Awesome.") As chipper as Emmet appears to be, he is also quite lonely. You see, Emmet might work in construction, but he's not a very good builder and coworkers and neighbors (even the woman with a dozen cats) routinely ignore him. All of this changes, of course, when he happens upon a mysterious woman named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who is poking around his construction site, and who is responsible for discovering The Missing Piece—a mythic object that could save the Lego Universe from imminent destruction at the hands of the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell).
Wyldstyle whisks Emmet away with her, out of the clutches of the villainous Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) and Lord Business' robotic henchmen, and together they travel to different corners of the Lego Universe, including an Old West town (where a honky tonk version of "Everything is Awesome" gently plays in the background) and Cloud Cuckoo Place, a magical, glittery land that looks like what would happen if a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper was brought to three-dimensional life. It's in these different lands that the supporting players are assembled, including Batman (Will Arnett), a giant piecemeal pirate named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), the adorable Unikitty (Alison Brie), a "1980-something space guy" named Benny (Charlie Day) and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), an old wizard and "Master Builder."
Of course, the assorted Lego higher-ups believe Emmet to be one of these Master Builders, someone who can use his cunning and ingenuity to help get them out of the mess that they're in and stop Lord Business and his evil plan to freeze the entire Lego Universe in place. But he's not. Instead, Emmet is a goofy, earnest dude, but not the stuff that heroes are made of, or built from for that matter. So it's up to him to prove that he really can succeed in his mission and save the day, despite being constantly undermined and lacking in the essential abilities necessary to become a Master Builder.
If there's one complaint about the earlier sections of "The Lego Movie" it's that everything is moving so quickly that it's hard to soak up all of the details of the movie's massive, intricately detailed world. There's so much beautifully designed stuff going on that it's hard to focus on anything at all; you just want to luxuriate in the world before being blasted off to some other part of it. But wanting more of something is much better than being underwhelmed with what you're given, and the movie has a zippy, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"-style feel to the way that it incorporates other properties and aspects of the Lego brand (there's an ongoing joke about the tenuous relationship between Channing Tatum's Superman and Jonah Hill's Green Lantern). There's a joyful spirit to the movie's storytelling that makes it possible for (literally) anyone or anything to show up next.
As the movie chugs along, it becomes a full-on action flick, but one that is hilarious and rich and knowing. At some point it becomes clear that the movie is also gently sending up the "go retrieve the doodad" plot that has become a staple of virtually every major Hollywood tent pole, playfully deconstructing the genre while simultaneously celebrating it. (It's also pretty ballsy for a movie based on Lego, multi-national corporate toy giant, to have as it's villain a character who promotes the blandness of capitalism.) As directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, who last gave us "21 Jump Street" (and are behind this summer's sequel), there's a subversive a streak that manages to give everything an edge without ever taking away from the whirligig fun of the movie.
And the movie is absolutely sensational to just watch. The animation was largely handled by Animal Logic, an Australian company that had been responsible for some of the Lego-branded "Star Wars" specials and who bring this universe to life using an uncanny combination of stop motion animation and computer generated imagery. (The fact that the movie has been in production since 2011 should not surprise anymore.) There's a clunky, imperfect quality to the animation (supervised by longtime "Robot Chicken" collaborator Chris McKay) that is utterly charming, and the animation is even more brilliant when viewed in 3D. Few movies, especially animated films which usually come from the same mold, can truly be described as unlike anything you've ever seen before. Still, "The Lego Movie" is one of those movies.
Talking about plot specifics, including a third act twist that takes things into decidedly more meta-textual territory (further advancing the movie's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"-ness), would be to spoil the exploratory fun of watching "The Lego Movie," a movie that takes some very strange zigs and zags throughout its brisk 100-minute running time. Maybe the most unexpected aspect of "The Lego Movie," though, is how emotional it ends up being. So many children's films flatly talk about the power of imagination and creativity. But by setting the "Lego Movie" within a world that can endlessly be built and rebuilt, it gives that message some actual oomph. Those with the power of imagination have the power to reshape everything around them, including their place in the world and what that world stands for. Instead of empty platitudes, "The Lego Movie" is filled with the building blocks of actual change. "The Lego Movie" is the first great studio film of 2014, one that fills you with childlike wonder and awe, no matter your age. [A]