Everything Is Awesome!
This weekend marks the big-screen debut of Lego, those addictive Danish blocks we’ve all been playing with for the past several decades, and the movie is much funnier and much better than any movie based on a toy line should have any right to be. But for those of us for whom this isn’t our first Lego rodeo, that hardly comes as a surprise.
Lego has been making direct-to-video movies for the past few years, along with a TV show: Lego Ninjago (next in line for a feature film adaptation, thanks to the great word of mouth on this one). They all feature Lego mini-figures in starring roles, and they’re usually based on particular Lego lines—the aforementioned Ninjago, or the Batman toy line, or Atlantis, etc. And here’s the thing—they’re all really good. Like, much better than you’d expect what is basically a feature-length toy commercial to be. Last year’s Lego Batman movie, for example, was clearly made by people who love and know the Caped Crusader inside-out, and ended up being a better Batman movie than The Dark Knight Rises. The Ninjago show is both funny and engaging, featuring compelling story and character arcs, complete with genuine emotional beats that even reel in this jaded 33-year man while his 2-year old boy is watching.
But then again, that shouldn’t come as any surprise, either—at least not for those of us who grew up with these amazing toys. I may be a lapsed Lego fanboy who hasn’t played with those interlocking blocks in over ten years, but I can still remember the countless hours I whiled away building intricate spaceships—back when Space Legos was one of only three available themes (the other two being Castle and City). Of course, since then, the Lego Empire has grown by leaps and bounds, annexing such high-profile geek properties as the entire Lucasfilm catalogue, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and both DC and Marvel comics. Take that, Disney (no Disney Legos yet that I’m aware of)! With this expansion we’ve seen Lego tabletop and video games, leading into the aforementioned movies and TV shows, and now, finally—a big-screen Lego adventure.
And it’s their best one yet.
Seriously—Lego knocked this one way, way out of the ball park. They did just about everything right, staring at the top by picking the absolute right filmmakers to head this movie up. The movie’s directed by the writing/directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who started out in animation (most notably on the cult series Clone High), and know the medium inside out. Their first feature film was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (another kiddie flick that was much better than it had any right to be), which they followed up with the live-action 21 Jump Street remake/reboot, which was every bit as riotously funny as any other movie I’ve seen in the last decade, and hands down the funniest film of 2012. The Lego Movie is like a perfect blending of those two approaches—it’s kid-friendly on the youngest of levels, but with a wicked sharp humour that seems aimed at people my age.
Really, this movie is for anyone who’s ever played with Lego bricks, and/or anyone with a love for pop culture—anyone from 2-72.
Again, this comes as no surprise, as the film was developed and co-directed by [adult swim]’s Chris McKay, the genius director behind the stop-motion sketch comedy show Robot Chicken, one of the funniest TV programmes on the air right now. McKay himself brings several things to the table, including a charming faux-stop-motion aesthetic that lends more of a home-made feel to the film than other Lego movies (very appropriate for the film’s climax, which I shan’t spoil here), which have featured more fluid CGI (this one is CGI as well, but rendered in a way that replicates the feel of stop-motion animation). His sense of humour is similar to Lord’s and Miller’s, as showcased on his TV Show—a revelry in the theatre of the absurd, subverting pop-culture in a post-post-modern deconstruction that cannibalizes everything worth poking fun of in the media and spinning it into comedy gold. The Lego Movie does this too—particularly with the character of Batman (Will Arnet)—a hysterical send-up of the DARKNESS of the character over the last ten years or so; not just in the Christopher Nolan trilogy, but in the obsessive minds of fanboys everywhere—this Batman listens to heavy metal, is obsessed with the colour black (“and sometimes very, very dark grey!”), and records rage-metal songs about “BROODING! DARKNESS!! NO PARENTS!!!” but it’s okay, because he’s “SUPER RICH! KINDA MAKES IT BETTER!”
These jokes come fast and furious in a steady stream, keeping you roaring with laughter. And when they do slow down, it’s for some well-crafted action and chase scenes—another big strength of the filmmakers, who have a real eye for the geography of a nuts-and-bolts, cause-and-effect action sequence (something that even filmmakers known for being “action” directors can have a lot of difficulty with). But even this isn’t the end to The Lego Movie’s list of virtues—on top of all of that (which, let’s be honest, would be enough to make it a great time at the movies), the movie is surprisingly thematically rich, exploring notions of authenticity, order vs. chaos and a pursuit of balance, and perhaps most refreshingly in a kid’s movie, a sound rejection of the “chosen one” trope that has become so prevalent in these types of hero myths—the movie appears to embrace this conceit at first, only to hilariously subvert it later on. It’s almost as if the film is making a statement on the inherent absurdity of exceptionalism—the “special” characters (called “Master Builders” in the movies) aren’t able to appreciate what the “ordinary” Emmet brings to the table, even though his silly little ideas may end up being the key to their salvation.
The Lego Movie spends a surprising amount of time in the realm of ambiguity, refusing to commit to black-and-white answers, lending it an impressive air of sophistication and maturity. This ties into the theme of balance—finding the middle ground between extremes. The lead character, Emmet Brickowoski (Chris Pratt) may be too dependent on rules and regulations, but that’s also an authentic part of who he is. His romantic lead, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and her boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnet) – yes, that Batman – on the other hand, have gone so far in their desire to stand out from the crowd that they’ve turned themselves into silly caricatures, defining themselves based on who they think they should be rather than who they are—inauthenticity from a place of insecurity. The villain of the film, Lord Business (Will Farrell), is obsessed with conformity and order at all costs—his lair, Business Tower, is all straight lines and right angles in a rigid, monolithic grid. But when we visit the zany, out of control Cloud Cuckoo Palace, we see that a total free reign of anarchy doesn’t work any better, and that non-conformity can itself become a prison of conformity, where, as the delightfully insane Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie) puts it, “not-happy” ideas are “push[ed] down deep inside, where you’ll never, ever, ever, EVER find them!” (Suffice to say, this doesn’t work as well as she would hope.)
Even the heroes and villains aren’t all-good or all-bad; they possess both sets of qualities, just like real people. That’s the amazing thing about these characters—their verisimilitude. In a movie that deals head-on with questions of authenticity, that message might ring hollow if the characters weren’t themselves authentic—no small task in a cast with nine central characters. That authenticity is established from the get-go by building proper characterization up-front. The importance of this cannot be underestimated! So many films stumble and fall right out of the gate because they don’t give us any reason to care about the characters. But these guys know how to take the proper time to introduce our cast, tell us why we should care about them, what each character wants, and what the stakes are for everyone. What’s more, they are able to do so with remarkable economy. This has the dual purpose of getting the movie going as soon as possible without sacrificing audience engagement—so when the action starts happening, we’re actually invested in what’s happening—meaning the chases are more exciting because the stakes are higher—not because of some in-universe MacGuffin, but because we care.
That brief scene tells us everything we need to know about the character and the world he lives in, and it does it in a funny and economical way. We get a real sense of who he is—sweet, cheerful, a little dim—but full of blind optimism. He doesn’t question his existence, even though the telltale signs of dystopia are everywhere—a Big Brother-type constant presence of suffocating authority, telling everyone to obey, follow the instructions no matter what, and always be happy. This series of pictures is worth tens of thousands of words.
These principles of storytelling sound simple enough—and in a way, this is simple, basic screenwriting 101. But so many movies get this so wrong, and so rather than getting the audience involved in what’s going on, they just sort of happen in front of us—a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But when we care about the characters—when we feel like we know them—we care about what’s happening on-screen all the more. And when we care, we laugh louder, gasp harder, and smile wider. And this movie will make you grin from ear to ear.
Part of the reason for this is the impeccable casting. The Lego Movie has a phenomenal cast of comedic actors who bring a lot to their roles. Chris Pratt, one of the funniest and best parts of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, plays the leading role of Emmet, an exhaustively cheerful everyman (in Lego parlance, a standard-issue mini-figure) who is perfectly average in every way. The charming and riveting Elizabeth Banks, who has done stellar work in nearly every genre imaginable, is his romantic lead. They’re joined by a veritable cornucopia of A-list comedy stars: Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, and Charlie Day are all part of the core ensemble; Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Will Forte, Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, and Jorma Taccone all show up in minor bit parts—and I’m not even mentioning the cameos, which are too good to spoil. And then there’s the soundtrack—a really great electronic score by Mark Mothersbaugh (who scored Wes Anderson’s first four films), featuring the hilariously upbeat “Everything is AWESOME!!!” which features comedic music super-group The Lonely Island (“I’m on a Boat!”, “I Just Had Sex!”, “Jack Sparrow” [feat. Michael Bolton]).
Ultimately, what I’ve spent the last 2,000 words trying to convince you of is that The Lego Movie is too good to skip. Go see it. It’s awesome.
Everything is Awesome.
 A reservation that, at first, gave the studio cold feet at first
 Which I’ll spend the next 2000 words or so adding to. Buckle in, folks; we’re gonna be here a while.
 There’s actually a character in the movie—Benny, the 80’s Lego Spaceman (Charlie Day), who reminded me a lot of my inner Lego fanboy. Benny’s obsessed with building spaceships out of everything, and everything into spaceships. This was so totally me with my Legos as a kid.
 And even more recently, Minecraft, TMNT, The Simpsons, and coming soon, Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, apparently.
 I stand corrected—I discovered while doing research for this review-turned-long-form-essay that Lego apparently released a Lone Ranger set last year—not exactly an auspicious start, if I do say so myself…
 Batman: The Brave and The Bold did a very funny episode, “Legends of the Dark Mite,” that highlighted this as well.
 *cough-Michael Bay-cough*
 Realized quite literally in the dual-personality Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), a split-personality henchman to the main villain, Lord Business (Will Ferrell). I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Neeson in a comedy role before, but he’s hilarious here, making great use of his natural Irish accent in a dual-voice part.
 Think about how they do this in 21 Jump Street, with the opening flashback and subsequent montage depicting how Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s characters go from being rivals to best friends. By the time they graduate police academy, you completely buy the relationship and you care about what happens to these two guys. This is classic character set-up, establishing relationship/motivation/emotional stakes, without which the rest of the move would not work. And it’s all done within five minutes.
 An open secret among those who study acting is that comedic work tends to be much harder and require much more on behalf of the actor than dramatic performances. Thus, even though they tend to get ignored around award season, comedic actors are often just as good if not better than their dramatic colleagues. This is why when a traditionally comedic actor goes “straight,” as it were, they tend to make such a huge impact—think Jim Carrey in The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Jonah Hill in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street (both roles won him Oscar nominations), or Matthew McConaughey in, well…anything. This is also why comedic actors tend to do so much better in voiceover roles. Voice acting, like comedy, requires a subtle amount of over-acting, since your face isn’t registering on camera. So in the recording booth, you have to go a little broad, or else it’s not going to work. This is why when big movie stars—even those who might be noted for giving solid dramatic performances—lend their celebrity to big-studio animated films, they tend to be really flat and boring. Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie; all fine, good, even great actors—all not-so-good at voice acting. Contrast with some of the best vocal performances in some of the best animated films: Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Kristen Bell; all actors who were (or still are) known for doing comedy before transitioning into dramatic roles.
 And the next fresh face to join the Marvel Movie Universe in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy