Directed by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller || Produced by: Dan Lin, Roy Lee
Screenplay by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller || Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman
Music by: Mark Mothersbaugh || Cinematography by: Pablo Plaisted || Edited by: David Burrows, Chris McKay || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 100 minutes
The biggest Oscar snub of 2014 is Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s feature-length Lego commercial, followed closely of course by Jake Gyllenhaal’s bravado lead performance in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014, which we’ll get to next time), and followed not so closely by Ava DuVernay’s annual Affirmative Action Oscar-bait, Selma (2014). Evidently Warner Bros. didn’t have much confidence in TLM’s ability to garner the relatively easy, borderline handout Best Animated Film Academy Award for some reason, because they released their 100-minute long product placement story way back in February.
The amazing thing about the film that shocked everyone was its incredible heart, touching message, and witty script that turned this would-be animated cash-in into a genuinely good movie. Everything you see in TLM are products, and writer-directors Lord and Miller could’ve very easily gone the cynical, lazy, over-commercialized Michael Bay-route and left it at that. They could’ve cashed their checks and turned in for the season, but they didn’t. They made a wonderfully entertaining and sweet animated adventure that, along with animated hits like Walt Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and Dreamwork’s How to Train Your Dragon (2010), has shown that the world of modern animated cinema has evolved far beyond Pixar.
To be sure, The Lego Movie has its fair share of romantic cliches, predictable plot twists, and obvious formula that have nothing to do with satire or clever tongue-in-cheek screenwriting, but what’s so impressive about the movie is how well the film handles narrative convention in such organic and confident ways. TLM is a story of boy-meets-girl, an average Joe becoming heroic Joe, and a team of good guys overcoming obstacles and defeating evil to save the day at the end (um…spoiler alert?), but these cliches are totally acceptable because they’re well used in conjunction with likable characters, terrific jokes, and fantastic animation.
That first point is the biggest part of TLM’s success: It boasts personable characters that are brought to life by a great voice-cast. Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, and Will Arnett are all hilarious in their own ways, and Arnett demonstrates some particularly side-slitting comedic timing.
While the ending and quickly wrapped loose ends of TLM’s story are somewhat forgettable, the big picture of a crowd-pleasing, family-friendly epic like this is the journey, not the destination. Lord and Miller never bother to write or direct much outside the box, instead choosing to execute the basics of solid movie-making for the ultimate movie-commercial that, in the end, becomes much more than just an advertisement designed to sell over-priced plastic to kids (thought it certainly does that).
As weird as the comparison may be, TLM reminds me of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin (1925, yeah the silent one). Much like TLM, Eisenstein’s classic Soviet masterpiece was originally commissioned as a sort of political advertisement campaign, specifically a socialist propaganda piece for the then recently formed communist government that overthrew the previous Tsarist regime during the Russian Revolution. For those of you who don’t know film history, Eistenstein revolutionized early montage-editing and introduced several cinematic storytelling techniques that are still used today, namely the montage sequence (a rapid series of abbreviated, interrelated takes that consolidate time, e.g. training montages from Rocky  and other sports films). While TLM reinvents little, if any part of the cinematic storytelling medium, it too is a great example of art created from and funded by purely political and economic interests, and it’s every bit as self-aware and self-referential as the fiercest social satire. Both TLM and BP were conceived as endorsements, and they both became much more than that.
As such, arguably the best thing about TLM is how warmhearted and sweet it is from beginning to end despite those blatantly shallow, industrial origins. No one would ever complain about Hollywood’s greedy commercialism if every product they sold us was this enjoyable. The Lego Movie may not be the best animated film ever made, but it’s certainly one of the most easily recommendable crowd-pleasers and satisfying box office hits in recent years.
This movie may not be perfect, but it sure is awesome!
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s heartfelt story boasts a sweet, family-friendly message and never comes across as shallow or contrived despite the fact that every frame in the film is hitting you in the face with product-placement. That’s impressive. Pratt, Banks, Ferrell, Arnett and company deliver great voice-performances and make the most of the hilarious jokes.
— However… not everything is awesome all the time. The romantic subplot is ultimately unnecessary and underdeveloped, and all the characters, while certainly likable and funny, are none too complex.