Film and TV

Building a better Lego Movie

Consider the Lego, the toy of contradiction. With one — well, with hundreds of them — you can build anything: houses, airplanes, house-airplanes. You can even build something that will change the world, as Larry Page and Sergey Brin did in 1996, when they housed the server for their new invention, Google, in handmade Lego casings.

Yet each brick is constricted by rules. Pieces have one dot, four dots, eight dots, but rarely five. They come in red and blue, but never plaid. Ovals are scarce, triangles nonexistent. Invented in Denmark on the cusp of World War II, Lego, for the next four decades, offered only a world of buildings devoid of people and life. And when the Lego gods created man, the "mini-fig," he was startlingly conformist. Each had the same height and same face, and if the company hadn't forbidden their toys to dress up as soldiers (a brave choice, given the kid appetite for war games), they could have served as the perfect playset to reenact The Triumph of the Will.

More recently, Legos have found freedom through segmentation. Instead of the jumbled box of bits of my childhood, Legos now come packaged in licensed kits with pictures and instructions showing children exactly what to make, be it Star Wars' Millennium Falcon, Tolkien's Tower of Orthanc, or Bruce Wayne's Batcopter. Individuality begets even more rules than before. The only thing to do that's truly free is throw away all the packaging and invite a kid to create anew.

So, yes, consider the toy's contradictions. Because The Lego Movie writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have, to their credit, embraced the commercial and the cynical, creating a goofy cartoon that will sell enough tickets and toys to keep their bosses happy while facing head-on the fact that these bricks are kinda, well, fascist.

Our hero is a mini-fig named Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), a construction worker who discovers he is the prophesied chosen one, a Hollywood trope as stiff as his joints. He awakens in a darling dystopia where everyone has a smile on their face and a specific role to play, be it barista, cat lady, or surfer. There's only one hit show and one hit song. And when Emmet, despite his passionate desire to blend in and follow the roles, inadvertently finds himself glued to a non-Lego red rectangle, he winds up the target of the evil President Business (Will Ferrell), a looming figure in towering brick KISS boots, along with his robot minions and a head-rotating policeman named Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson).

Lord and Miller have a deft and daring sense of the absurd. They give us a world where everyone is literally a cog, make us root for Emmet to build things he's only dreamed of, and then circle back and ask if there can be too much creativity, as when Emmet and his allies Batman (Will Arnett), an astronaut (Charlie Day), a pink unicorn kitten (Alison Brie), a rebellious punk (Elizabeth Banks) and a godlike Lego sage (Morgan Freeman, natch) attempt to make a submarine without coordinating their plans. Should there be a supreme builder? And with the appearance of mysterious man-sized relics — a golf ball, a bandage and a tube of Krazy Glue — is it possible that there's a larger supreme builder?

The theological implications are such a pleasurable head trip that it's a disappointment when The Lego Movie zooms out in the third act to show us the humans calling the shots. But the misstep is balanced out by Lord and Miller's commitment to mining the material for every possible joke: explosions that look like cubist art, the ability to transform your enemy's plane into a baby carriage, the inability to tell Lego Gandalf from Lego Dumbledore.

Lord and Miller do great work within constraints, taking pre-made pieces and fashioning them into feats worthy of applause. It's no wonder they made a Lego movie — and it's no wonder it's so good.