If you’re like me and someone hands you a bucket of LEGO pieces, you come up with a depressing rectangular chair or an airplane whose wings keep falling off. We’re nothing like those obsessives who create replicas of the Kremlin in their basement, or the Battle of Gettysburg, or the molecular structure of strontium.
So it is with Hollywood blockbusters made from toys. Most are put together and come apart with disposable shoddiness, but every once in a while a couple of lunatics will build something ridiculous and lasting. When that happens, it should be honored.
My fingers rebel, but type it I must: “The LEGO Movie” is the first great cinematic experience of 2014.
The LEGO Movie
Shot with a mixture of CGI and stop-motion animation and using 3-D to invite us into its brightly knubbled world, “The LEGO Movie” is a series of irresistible comic riffs on creativity, and it divides the world into two kinds of people: those who like to snap things together and keep them there and those who prefer to pull it all apart and start from scratch. The control freaks and the dreamers, in other words, and the movie clearly knows which side it’s on.
Writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (working from a story also written by Dan and Kevin Hageman) simultaneously celebrate and subvert the sameness of all those little blocks and the humanoid figures that come with them. Their hero, Emmet Brickowski (voiced by actor Chris Pratt), is as generic as can be, and still he worries about fitting in with the yellow plastic crowd. The urban LEGOLAND in which he works as a construction drone is a lockstep society run by the ruthless Lord Business (Will Ferrell), whose government/corporation owns all the voting machines.
The hit TV show in this world is a brain-dead sitcom called “Where’s My Pants?” The song on everyone’s unmoving plastic lips is “Everything Is Awesome,” a chart-ready paean to conformity that scoops out your frontal lobes and takes up permanent residence in your skull.
It all feels a lot like home.
“The LEGO Movie” then proceeds to cheerfully rip off “The Matrix” and every other paranoid-fantasy-gobbledygook epic of the last decade. After he stumbles upon the legendary Piece of Resistance, Emmet is mistakenly singled out as “The Special” by members of the LEGO underground led by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). The latter is a cut-rate guru who might be mistaken for Gandalf or Dumbledore if both those two weren’t milling around in the background in nearly identical LEGO-guy form.
There’s an element of opportunistic genius to this movie: Since LEGO has been releasing licensed character sets from hit films and TV shows for years, the filmmakers can toss just about anyone into the story as long as the lawyers agree. This means that Wyldstyle’s boyfriend can be a testy, blowhard Batman (Will Arnett), that Superman (Channing Tatum) can be hounded by a needy Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), and that Very Special Guests can include William Shakespeare (Jorma Taccone), Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte), and Shaquille O’Neal (Shaquille O’Neal). As a bonus, Liam Neeson channels both his sensitive art-film side and his kickass blockbuster persona as Lord Business’s chief enforcer, Good Cop/Bad Cop.
The keys to the movie’s absurdly high enjoyment factor are its exuberance, timing, wit, and willingness to stoop to its source — or kneel on the carpet looking for lost bricks, as the case may be. Unlike “Battleship,” “G.I. Joe,” and the dreaded “Transformers” series, “The LEGO Movie” is rooted in the wonky hobbyist esthetic of the LEGO system itself, Denmark’s greatest gift to the world. (What’s the competition? Lars von Trier?) You don’t just play with LEGO, you build stuff with it, as far out as your imagination and patience can stretch.
It’s a toy fetishist’s dream, then — a movie made entirely of eensy-weensy plastic bricks. The visuals in “The LEGO Movie” are both insane and generous, and occasionally the film backs into a startlingly pure beauty, such as an ocean sequence made of endless, undulating blue cubes.
That’s one of the few times you’re thankful for the 3-D, and, typically, Lord and Miller dispel the mood with a gag involving a double-decker couch. The duo previously gave us the family-friendly “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and the rowdy, inventive “21 Jump Street” remake, the latter another franchise extension that had no reason to be any good and, surprisingly, was. Their humor here isn’t potty-mouthed like the Farrelly brothers or Judd Apatow, nor does it come loaded with sardonic pop-culture references like “The Simpsons,” nor does it strain for hipness like every other movie tasked with amusing both children and adults. Instead, it’s manic and smart and respectful of the mysteries of silly, as if Jay Ward of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” had been reborn as a LEGO freak.
Some of this may still be too intense for the smallest audiences, and there’s only so much sport a massive, profit-hungry corporation like LEGO or Warner Brothers can make of massive, profit-hungry corporations without being called on it. Yet when “The LEGO Movie” finally shoots through the rabbit hole into a larger reality, the yin/yang of order-vs.-messy creativity gets played out on a different kind of stage. The film goes majorly meta but movingly so, and we’re made to understand that everything we’ve been watching is provisional, able to be disassembled and reimagined at will. When all is said and done, LEGO is still a toy, and this movie is a sweet, rococo ode to child’s play.