Can a feature-length toy commercial also work as a decent kids' movie? The bombast of the G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises might suggest no, but after an uninspired year for animated movies, The Lego Movie is a 3-D animated film that connects, as an homage to the ingenious Danish-born construction game, along with a subversively flippant story about thinking outside the blocks.
Co-director and screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) borrow the reverence of Pixar's Wall-E and the rude fun of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police to create a movie that's fast-paced and silly with enough throwaway clever in-jokes for their accompanying adults to justify a second viewing.
The plot, which is a parody of a dystopian science fiction story along the lines of Tron or The Matrix, focuses on an unexceptional mini-figure construction worker, Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt).
Emmet has spent his life in the skyscraper-filled city of Bricksburg, living by the instruction manual: ("Root for the local sports team. Don't forget to smile. Always return a compliment.") Each night, he watches the same laugh-tracked sitcom, Where's My Pants? Each day, he works a construction job listening to the anthem Everything Is Awesome (an actually awesome Auto-Tuned bubblegum ear worm from the Calgary sister duo Tegan and Sara, with a rap break from Andy Samberg's Lonely Island trio.) Then, one afternoon at the end of his shift, he discovers that the future of his square-cornered world depends on him abandoning his code of conformity.
After taking a tumble at his job site, Emmet discovers a red cylinder known as the "piece of resistance" is stuck to his back and he meets a ninja rebel with coloured punk stripes in her hair, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). She's part of a revolutionary movement under the leadership of a blind master-building sage Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). They're out to save the Lego-verse from President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell), who plans to cement the mix-and-match Lego blocks into a fixed state using a binding substance called Kragle.
Kragle (a tube of Krazy Glue with some letters obscured) is one of the brand-name "relics" that have fallen into the Lego world, including a Band-Aid, a Q-tip and and X-Acto knife, a.k.a. "The Exact-Zero." These household items are related to the Man Upstairs, whose unseen hand (at least until the movie's end) rules this busy little plastic world.
Under the supervision of animator Chris McKay (Robot Chicken) the visual style and the message are both tied to how a limited means of expression can produce a profusion of creative possibilities. Everything onscreen is constructed from bricks, gears, wheels and mini-figures, including a heaving ocean. President Business's chief enforcer is Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), whose swivelling head has a smile painted on one side and a frown on the other.
Over the years, numerous brands have been sublicensed by Lego to create popular mini-figures, many of whom make an appearance here. They include DC Comics' Superman and Wyldstyle's pompous boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett), as well as wizards from Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, Abraham Lincoln, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and NBA star Shaquille O'Neal (who provides his own voice). There's an Old West set, pirate-themed scenes and a psychedelic realm of mix-and-match Lego creations called Cloud Cuckooland, where the space cadet empress, Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie), is a cross between a unicorn and kitten.
No doubt, there is an uncomfortable number of logos being marketed to kids in the The Lego Movie, along with the obvious one that's in the title, but the film as a whole is very much in the spirit of Cloud Cuckooland: It's a place where the use of X-Acto blades and Krazy Glue breaks the rules but almost everything else goes.