Review: The LEGO Movie (2014)

The LEGO MovieI’ve been anticipating this movie for months, after seeing the first trailers in the theater.  It’s not just because I have sentimental memories of playing LEGOs with my son (who is now a bona fide LEGO scholar–yes, I mean that).  It’s also because any animated feature boasting the voices of both Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson stands a good chance of being, well, awesome.  (Cameos by Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Cobie Smulders, Billy Dee Williams and even Shaquille O’Neal couldn’t hurt either.)

The verdict?  Nothing LEGO has thumbs, but if they did, they’d all be up.

LEGO corporate has already raised marketing to an art form, so one has to expect the movie to be a bit of a commercial.  Minifigs (LEGO-speak for “mini-figures,” or little plastic characters) and even entire scenes from the film are available for purchase–and they’re not cheap.

But if selling toys were the only motivation, they wouldn’t have needed to lavish so much loving creativity on the visuals and storyline.

On the surface, the tale is a familiar one, a Joseph Campbell-esque hero’s journey that simultaneously draws upon and sends up every Hollywood cliché imaginable.  Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a construction worker, a likable but lonely drone who occupies the unexceptional end of the minifig hierarchy.  By accident, he stumbles onto the Piece of Resistance, a fabled object that represents the last hope for saving LEGOkind from the evil schemes of Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his minions, including Bad Cop/Good Cop (Neeson).  Emmet is rescued by an adventuress named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who assumes he is The Special, the prophesied savior.  Aided by Wyldstyle and her egotistical boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett), and mentored by the mysterious and blind Vitruvius (Freeman), Emmet sets out to bring the Piece of Resistance into Lord Business’ evil lair, and foil his plan to capture the Master Builders and glue all LEGOs permanently into place.

At this level of narrative, we are left with the tried-and-true moral that Even Ordinary People Can Do Great Things If They Just Believe.  But the charm and genius of the movie lie in its persistent dedication to the LEGO universe itself.  It’s like kids bringing buckets of LEGO pieces to a play date and having a movie studio put at their disposal.  The animation takes pains to preserve the jerky, brick-by-brick feel of stop-motion.  Wild juxtapositions mirror how kids combine pieces and ideas from different LEGO sets, as when Abraham Lincoln takes off in a rocket-powered chair.  And the writers gleefully play out the visual implications of working within the minifigs’ limited range of movement, whether it’s Emmet’s hilarious attempt at jumping jacks or the moment when Wyldstyle’s hair is supposed to sweep alluringly across her face in slow-motion–which means one rigid piece of plastic swiveling back and forth on top of another.

I’ll refrain from giving away the surprising meta-turn the script takes as it careens towards its climax.  Suffice it to say that it embodies a quintessentially LEGOphile question that forms the central tension of the story: is life about unfailingly following the instructions, as Lord Business would have it, or about imagination and creative possibility, as the Master Builders would have it?

Not surprisingly, the script leans heavily toward the latter–but not entirely.  Emmet realizes that while he seems far less gifted than his companions, their unconventionality as individuals makes it harder for them to coordinate toward a common goal.  They need a man with a plan, and if anyone knows about following instructions, it’s Emmet.

With its PG rating, the movie is about as family-friendly as it gets.  The action/violence is highly stylized (kid-friendly dismemberment?), some of the humor derives from the fact that minifigs have no pants, and there are some moments of romantic tension between Wyldstyle and Batman that will probably sail over the heads of younger audience members.

Beyond that, though, the script’s implicit theology is worth a discussion for those so inclined.  Lord Business (who is also President Business) cultivates a highly-ordered moral universe in which there are instructions for everything, virtue consists of conforming to the rules, and rugged individuality is a threat to be brought under control.  That vision clashes with the gospel of freedom and creativity represented by the Master Builders.

Against that imaginative background narrative, how should we understand the moral vision of the Christian life?  To what extent is it about following instructions as opposed to individual improvisation?  And perhaps more specifically: what would it mean for people of either persuasion to live in a community defined as one body with many parts and a variety of gifts given by God to serve the whole?

Be careful how you build.

5 thoughts on “Review: The LEGO Movie (2014)

  1. Cameron, I enjoyed your Lego Movie article. Although I haven’t seen this animation, your description of the theme seemed to resonate with me in a personal way. I retired from an economy of scale that provided electricity to over 4.5 million customers. In the early years of my twenty-six year tenure, the company (at least, in our business unit) was a dynamic organization made up of “a highly-ordered” universe, but one that encouraged thinking outside the box through individual creativity.

    In the end, increased government regulations settled the question regarding the extent to which formal instructions and creativity should be pursued.

    Farewell, individual improvisation.

  2. Very good thoughts on this film. My son (23) and I saw it and thought it was outstanding on so many levels. I concur with your thoughts on the theology of it, as well. But, finally, we will always remember “darn, darn, darny, darn” because it proves that profanity, sexuality, and wanton violence are not the necessary elements to entertain even today’s most jaded audience. Those are cheap crutches when film creators cannot think of anything else. This movie dared to be subversively hilarious in the manner of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, drawn for the kids, made for the big kids. Thank you for writing on this one.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I agree. Some of my favorite movies of all time, in fact, are from Pixar. They excel at the same thing we get in The LEGO Movie: visual delight, good storytelling, and humor that both the kids and the parents can appreciate.

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