One of the most publicized developments in cinema as of late is how business properties are taken on and adapted into movies. On one hand this is tied to the much detested status quo of the Hollywood studio system, forsaking creativity and originality for remakes and adaptations. After all, existing products with a built-in audience will surely be more lucrative than a new property. That criticism of Hollywood has been semi-overblown, at least insofar as plenty of original pictures get substantial financing. Elysium and Oblivion are two big sci-fi tent poles, and both came from the minds of the director and the director alone. Still, Leonardo DiCaprio has touched on the current studio climate while he's made the press rounds for The Wolf of Wall Street, lamenting how the studio system of 2013 never would have financed The Aviator or Blood diamond. But, interestingly, the more studios reach into the ether for existing properties to make into movies, the more filmmakers are challenged to make them work as cinema. Occasionally, they dig up gold. This was never truer than with David Fincher's The Social Network, which turned the "Facebook movie" into a Citizen Kane like fable on our collective lost humanity. So what can a film about a bunch of plastic bricks say about society? As it turns out, a lot. The Lego Movie works.
In keeping with the recent trend on hyper realism, filmmakers obtrusively force innately unreal products into a real environment. As much as the intended effect is to cause audience investment, the result is a lack of self-awareness, and worse, a lack of measured cohesion in the work. Sure, Transformers is a hugely successful franchise in box office terms, but it’s undeniably silly to see oversized and over-designed robots bouncing about Chicago. Instead, The Lego Movie embraces its status as a film adaptation of a product line, and even more refreshing is that it itself is a product. Instantly, viewers are in on the joke. For that reason, giving a routine brief summary of the plot risks being counter-intuitive. This is a richly drawn metafiction that teems with a winking self-awareness. But I’ll try to anyway. The plot begins with an ordinary construction worker whose life is so automated his morning routine needs an instruction book just as much as the skyscrapers he has helped build. His name is Emmet. And, as adventure stories often do, the plot is kicked off when he meets a mysterious and alluring girl. He becomes embroiled in plot to save the world from the evil corporateer, “Mr. Business.”
Mr. Business is played to hilarious effect by Will Ferrell, giving a performance comparable to his sometimes forgotten turn in Zoolander. The similarity is both in villainous flamboyance and in vocal inflection, and he makes an excellent villain. Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt gives the main character a hilarious naivety that makes a character whose ignorance could have been grating an endearing trait. Emmet is suitably lovable, and a successful proxy for every type of heroic hero in the book. His journey isn’t original, but nothing in this film is. In fact, that’s sort of the point—more on that later. The whole voice cast is excellent (brief shout out for Will Arnett giving a predictably hilarious performance as Batman) and gives plastic characters with only a handful of facial expressions a wealth of emotion. We care about them, their relationships, and their outcome. Of course, for young kids, they’ll easily connect to the narrative since ultimately that’s what they’re already been doing at home. They take these plastic figures and invent stories with them, so as the film does this they’ll feel part of the story.
Indeed, the film’s politics are nakedly drawn. The Lego Movie is unabashedly political. This is especially true in its scathing criticism of capitalistic enterprise and anti-personalization, and the film hammers home its points with numerous examples in every corner. Take for instance that there is a single song the citizens of the brick metropolis listen to: “Everything is Awesome.” It is produced, like almost everything else, by Mr. Business. It is here that the film finds some of its brilliance: by freely recognizing that the Lego characters and settings are basically advertisements for their respective real life versions, when the film features non-Lego products, they become implicated in the same self-reflexive criticism as the Lego products themselves. I know that’s a mouthful, but here’s what I mean: the song example is still a good one. While we like to think that the Taylor Swifts and Lady Gagas of the world are simply talented artists who struck it big, the reality is a cold one. They are products manufactured by music companies for mass appeal, from their image to the generic melodies and lyrical content. This type of corporatism is reminiscent of the 1960s documentary Lonely Boy, which chronicles how the chubby and unattractive Paul Anka was transformed by the music industry into a passionately loved pop sensation. Music is only one of many examples of how the filmmakers construct their social commentary, but by using that song in the marketing itself, the song takes on a doubly meta-like effect.
The Lego Movie’s critique runs deep and complex, bravely exposing the artificiality of its mere existence. Ordinarily, this might make for a droll experience and an intellectually abrasive affair, but due to the sheer inventiveness allowed by the premise, it’s anything but. Actually, it’s a blast! The meta-nature of the story runs deeper than tackling serious themes, and there’s many more than what was just described above. And, as much as the film is a criticism of its own product, it’s also a celebration of everything a toy like Lego allows. In a word, creativity. Pop-culture references abound, and typically reshaped with the same freedom with which cars rebuild themselves into planes and back again throughout the movie. The film is a hodgepodge of tropes from every genre, using each type of Lego as an opportunity to briefly meditate on what makes that genre work. Frankly, it’s invigorating to see a bearded robotic pirate fighting alongside Batman, and it’s as though the whole film is full of moments where the screenwriters included here what they never could have anywhere else. What makes the film work can also be found in a multitude of other popular media, such as Doctor Who. Doctor Who glances at different genres, character types, and story types, and satirizes them with hilarity, charm, and creativity. The Lego Movie has many those same qualities and for the same reasons, and it’s a miracle that directors and writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) took a blatantly commercial property and spun it into something so profound.