By: Daniel Reynolds
The entire floor used to be covered with it. My siblings and I would have overturned buckets, loose pieces spread out, castles, island forts, planes, trains and automobiles. That was how I experienced Lego. Assembling different sets, building up neighbourhoods; a narrative would usually emerge, life in a plastic city. The strength of Lego, even as it has become increasingly franchised (Star Wars, Batman, Harry Potter), is that it can be anything. Seeing a movie of Lego (not a complete first mind you) feels like just another extension of the endlessly imaginative Lego ethos, the desire to create and build and imbue with life those little pieces of plastic scattered across the floor.
So, thanks to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, we have it now: The Lego Movie. And, through all the zaniness there is a rather canny assessment of two warring schools of Lego thought. Yes, my friends, we are about to get philosophical regarding a movie that includes a scene where Batman runs off to party with Lando Calrissian.
The two Lego theologies can be defined as follows:
- While buckets of random blocks have always been sold as a way to bolster the free-wheeling nature of the toy, Lego has over the years introduced more and more regimented and complex (and franchised) construction sets. Buy the box and get the fortress on the front, or the Harry Potter castle, or the Star Wars spaceship. The final products were usually beautiful in their design and ease of execution. (I was a fan of the Centurion space ship that could actually be eased apart a quarter inch to drop out the little crawler shown here.) I had a shelf full of these designs, a special place set aside in the corner of the family rec room.
- Alternatively: Freedom! Armageddon! Creation! Destruction! A robot fighting a dragon on a boat parked next to a beach house. Lego’s longevity has always been couched in the ease (and cuteness) of its ability to be literally anything, provided, of course, the right amount of imagination was supplied. To this point I can recall building many Lego cities, sprawled out across the carpet, that included pirate coves, medieval castles, harbours, communities. Sometimes a wooden train set would get involved. Really, we were limited only by the number of blocks on hand (of which we sometimes managed to run out).
I realize I am probably over-thinking this Lego Movie missive from the start. My brain is attempting to explain why it reacted so positively to what was largely a flashing-light show (in 3D!) with a tacked on father-son message. I’m over here trying to describe the warring philosophies at play. I mean, on the one hand, Lego is meant to be built up, torn down, played with. But on the other hand, some of those completed construction sets look really, really amazing. How do we reconcile those two notions? The kid in us with the existing adult?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I often did that back in my day when I was playing with Lego. My construction dreams usually met the hard realities of inventory. Anyway, let’s start at block, errr, square one. Here’s how the Lego Movie works: we meet our everyman hero, Emmet (joyfully voiced by Chris Pratt), an unremarkable piece in a vast Lego city. He lives in a place where all of the little yellow dudes are running around, following instructions, working on their little jobs and singing the theme song of their planet (“Everything is Awesome”).
The realm is controlled by the villain Lord Business (because what is more evil to a kid than “business”? ), deliciously voiced by Will Ferrell, who wishes to fix Emmet’s world into one of permanent rigid order. To that end, Lord Business collects helpful artifacts (e.g. non-Lego household items) to use as weapons and employs a ruthless robot police force, led by a bad cop named Bad Cop (Liam Neeson, perfect). This is the reality of the first Lego school of thought, one of potential beauty invoked by the strict following of instructions. This is antithetical to any kid who sees one of those giant Legoland displays and immediate wonders if they can play with it. In Lord Business’ world, Lego is glued together, preserving a perfect construction for all time. But still, as any Lego aficionado is aware, the silliness is dying to break out.
The adult me sees the gears going into motion. That dope Emmet stumbles on the “Piece of Resistance” and the love interest, Wyldstyle (“Are you a DJ?”), gamely played by Elizabeth Banks. He meets a hall of heroes – or “master builders” – who appear to protect the various Lego realms. We never get to see where Lego Shaq comes from, but I laughed just the same when he showed up for no reason.
The kid me goes wild at the idea of Emmet being recruited by Batman (Will Arnett, stealing the show), a huge robotic pirate named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman, playing it surprisingly different), and Morgan Freeman, I mean, Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman). We’re talking about a cool mentor, the toughest of allies and a guy who literally has loose cannons on his arm (along with at least one shark). The kid me doesn’t get bogged down in the romance story because ick, but he does relate to the idea that he too can be special, be the hero, save the day, and maybe even change the minds of people around him.
The adult me thinks about the commercialism of the film. The idea that we are actually watching a 90 minute commercial touting the benefits of buying and playing with Lego. The film goes through great lengths to show off all of the different things possible with the product. It makes sure to name check as many of its franchises as it can: Batman, Harry Potter, Superman, Star Wars, Robin Hood, um, Abraham Lincoln. We aren’t asked to particularly care about any of these little guys as they fly across the screen, along with various other projectiles, laser beams, and space ships. Still, I did appreciate the retro 80s spaceman (voiced enthusiastically by Charlie Day) with the helmet that was slightly cracked. I had one of those.
The kid me is happy to see Emmet save the day, for Lord Business to learn a lesson, for the spirit of fun and imagination inextricably bound to Lego, toy and product, to be allowed to fly freely. The adult me wonders what a young kid gets out of a riff on Empire Strikes Back, even as I laugh at Batman’s very quick follow-up dismissal of his relationship with Wyldstyle (“I’ll text you.”).
But mostly, both the adult and kid me are pleased. The Lego Movie is fun and energetic. It tries to be cool, but in a hopeless, goofy way that will never actually be cool. And that’s OK, because that was the great thing about Lego to begin with. Whether you were buying and building the sets, or just endlessly rearranging that one bucket of blocks you got on your sixth birthday, Lego was a unifying creative force, unconcerned with “cool”.
I know, deep down, that the Lego company is happy with the Lego Movie because it means more people will buy Lego. Maybe this should rankle more than it does. Instead I am pleased that we got this reminder of when Lego, imbued with a touch of imagination, really was the very best toy around.
That is, of course, until Duplo gets involved. Duplo ruins everything.