A big screen movie about plastic building blocks? Give me a break. This has got to be the hardest evidence yet of Hollywood’s imaginative bankruptcy. “Okay, Blockbuster Movie Council, what are your new ideas?” “Well, we’ve made movies about bestselling pregnancy guides. We’ve made movies about the game of Battleship and and the Pirates ride at Disneyland. What are the best-selling toys in the world?” “Let’s make a movie about LEGOs! Kids will line up around the block!” “And the merchandising platform is already in place!”
It made me angry. Why take a toy that is beloved for how it inspires creativity in children and turn it into a movie about what adults are doing with them? Why encourage kids to leave their toyboxes and watch other people play with LEGOs on a screen?
I had one glimmer of hope.
Well… two: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. I’d been similarly skeptical of their last animated movie: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. How could such a silly little picture book — a good one, mind you, but simple in scope and concept — merit a feature film? Then, I saw it. And it was a gonzo bananas laugh-a-thon.
So, to fight back against cynicism, and in the interest of watching over all of the little imaginations I care about — my nephew Gavin; my seven-year-old friend Amos Partain in Indianapolis, who spent hours showing me videos about LEGO design as if they were life-changing TED talks; and Ezra and Ivo Ribera, the five-year-old and four-year-old who brought their father Brendan to the press screening with me — I decided to give the movie a chance. If I didn’t enjoy it, maybe I would enjoy watching the kids enjoy it.
Within five minutes, my worries about The LEGO Movie had evaporated.
Lord and Miller usher us swiftly into a LEGOland multi-verse, where the map of one LEGO world overlaps another, and heroes can leap from one to the other like Alice happily hopping through wonderlands. Guided by a dreamy goth-girl action hero called Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), we’ll visit “The Old West” for a barroom brawl; slip through a saloon into a wizard’s secret lair; then descend into a plastic bubble world where horned cat called Unikitty (I’d have preferred “Kittycorn”) preaches a saccharine gospel of positive thinking.
We also stumble into representatives of franchise territories like The Simpsons, DC comics (Batman’s a major character, while Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern making brief appearances), The Lord of the Rings, the NBA All-Star team, and other prominent franchises that are better left as surprises. (One world in particular sends some familiar faces in a sequence that nearly brings older moviegoers to their feet in a rush of astonishment and happiness. It may remain my favorite big-screen surprise of 2014.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up…
The movie begins in the hilarious metropolis of Bricksburg, where we meet Emmet the Construction Worker (voiced by Chris Pratt). Like Truman in The Truman Show, he’s a smiling citizen, going through the motions of a typical Bricksburg day: he wakes up like everybody, stretches like everybody, eats a complete breakfast like everybody, watches the same sitcom that everybody watches — and heads off to work. His daily routines are fueled by the insanely overpriced coffee that everybody buys, by enthusiasm for the everybody’s local sports team, and by everybody’s favorite song: “Everything is Awesome.”
Everything is formulaic and everything is agreed upon because Lord Business is a towering tyrant who wants everything to go according to his plan, with no actual independent thinking from anybody else, no individual imaginations sparking to life, no LEGO pieces straying from the all-important Instructions.
Lord Business’s agenda is enforced by a two-faced officer called Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson, doing his best work in years).
He is opposed by the spiritual leader of the rebellion, a Gandalfi-Wan Kenobi with eyes like headlights who recites poetic prophecies about a chosen one who will save the world — a person called “The Special.” “All of this is true,” intones Vetruvius, “because it rhymes.”
As the audience laughed at the spectacle of Bricksburg life, I looked around and realized — these are Seattleites. This was an audience full of people who pay crazy prices for coffee. Many — if not most of them — were wearing 12th Man gear (the Local Sports Team had won the Super Bowl only 24 hours before this screening, and fans were dressed in the standard-issue Local Sports Team jerseys). And most of them were jamming right along to “Everything is Awesome,” which has already become an Internet hit thanks to the film’s promo videos. It was a little bit spooky.
Still, for all of the social relevance of The LEGO Movie‘s picture of societal conformity, take heart. The audience sided with the rebels against Lord Business, against his mono-minded robots, and against his frightful tentacle-splaying drones called Micromanagers (which look a lot like Sentinels from The Matrix). This movie has tapped right into the heart of zeitgeist. And it looks likely to become this generation’s The Truman Show, their Stranger Than Fiction. (My friend Gareth Higgins, author of Cinematic States, has already called it “this generation’s They Live.”)
Turns out Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was just the warm-up. The LEGO Movie is, at once, a movie with more laughs-per-minute than any recent comedy I can remember; the greatest LEGO invention of all time (it may be animated, but everything in the film looks and moves like real LEGOs); and a thrilling summons to unleash our own creativity — not only with our LEGOs, but with our lives.
It’s impressive on every level. The cast of voice talents assembled for this film is as impressive and imaginative as any I’ve encountered in the history of animated films — but don’t go looking for a list, or you’ll spoil some brilliant surprises. The animation is kaleidoscopically colorful and dazzling in its choreography. Viewers will go on discovering clever new details moment by moment in their second, third, and (if they’re parents) fifteenth viewing.
What I love best about this film is that Lord and Miller made four fifths of an insanely entertaining movie and could easily have closed it up neatly with a formulaic conclusion. But no. They saved their boldest move for the last act, a gamble that is likely to bother a few viewers here and there. But I think it pays off beautifully.
And I’m not going to describe it to you.
Suffice it to say that the last act leaps beyond the confines of the usual “reject conformity” and “overthrow the tyrant” storyline to raise questions about the cosmos, the Creator, and about what really lies at the heart of true creativity. Most moviemakers would grant sainthood to the rebels and condemn the oppressors. But The LEGO Movietakes the road less traveled by… and that makes all the difference. Like The Matrix trilogy, it finally arrives at a vision that refuses to divide the world into Us Versus Them, but that leans into something more hopeful and redemptive altogether. This movie offers a vision of a future in which the instructions are helpful, but not a form of tyranny, and in which imagination is not rebellion but innovation.
It also quietly asks: What if God might not be a solitary tyrant? What if God were to present himself as a relationship between an Authoritative But Benevolent Father Figure and a playful, wildly creative Son, united by a holy spirit of mysterious creativity?
Perhaps I’m reaching too far to detect theological implications as heavy as these. But I don’t think so.
What is more — while The LEGO Movie is, on its surface, busy with the spontaneity and enthusiasm of seven-year-olds diving into the world’s biggest toy box and improvising a circus of invention — at its foundation, the film gives us a vision of the cosmos that is positively Tolkien-esque.
Forgive me as I indulge in some fantasy-fan geekery for just one paragraph:
Those who explored beyond The Lord of the Rings to Middle-Earth’s cosmic origin stories (The Silmarillion) know that Tolkien wrote about the world’s first age as a time of Elves, Dwarves, Men, and angelic beings called Ainur. They were made by beings called Eru Ilúvatar and Vala Aulë, and given life by a deity called Eru. Eru made all the available “stuff” of creation, but those beings that he made were now meant to get busy making more. Their purpose in the cosmos was an activity called “sub-creation.” Evil began when one of those angelic beings stopped collaborating and broke away. Lo… dissonance! He cultivated an illusion that he was a supreme being himself, fashioning obedient drones to serve him. But the whole endeavor was corrupt — he lacked the ability to duplicate Eru’s creative creatures, and he wouldn’t have allowed them anyway. Thus where Eru’s world flourished, his own territories were dark and desolate.
A flourishing world is a harmoniously creative world, not one in which a sub-creator stifles freedom and relationship. Individualism leads to anarchy, meaninglessness, and death. Life is meant to be symphonic, a community that balances improvisation and cooperation, under the guidance of a benevolent conductor.
This was how Tolkien designed his fictional cosmos. And he believed it reflected what human beings do with their imaginations in a world created by, and governed by, God. In exercising our own creative impulses we both reflect, glorify, and enter into intimacy with our creator. Madeleine L’Engle echoed this idea in what remains for me the most rewarding book on the subject of faith and art — Walking on Water — “God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling.”
You’d hope to explore ideas like these in films based on Tolkien’s work. But Peter Jackson fails to understand some of these ideas, and openly rejects others. (I’ve asked him, and his answers were disillusioning.) Thus, the big-screen desolation of Tolkien’s saga.
So what a crazy surprise it is to find Tolkien’s ideas at work in a movie about LEGOs. More than any movie I saw in the preceding year, this super-branded blockbuster — totally bananas with pop culture references, bursting with the stuff of a merchandising bonanza — has set my mind on ideas to live by.
What is the piece of resistance? It’s simple, actually. And quite profound, if you think about it. It’s a limitation set on authority to prevent the abuse of power, so that no one’s freewill is crushed, no community is forced into conformity, and no limits are set on the imagination.
God’s LEGOs are the stuff of creation. His children are meant to collaborate with him. The future is playtime. And yeah — in the grand scheme of things, everything is awesome.
I don’t know how much of this Lord and Miller had in mind when they made this movie. Artists often reveal more than they ever intended. The LEGO Movie certainly doesn’t feel like the result of heavy, philosophical dialogue. It feels like the fruit of childlike imaginations collaborating and improvising, guided by the wisdom of experience. Thus, every scene sparks with inspiration and ideas that will go on rewarding subsequent viewings for years to come.
As the end credits rolled, I turned to Ezra. He’s five-and-a-half years old. I needed to know — for all of this film’s interest in reaching adults, how does it play for those moviegoers who probably play with LEGOs on a regular basis?
“Well, Ezra? What did you think? Did you have a favorite part?”
He looked at me with all the gravity of a seasoned film critic and answered, “All of it.”