I really wanted to hate The Lego Movie. It’s like the movie checked off all my hate boxes in advance:
- Based on a toy that has no narrative, and thus no reason to make it into a movie? Check.
- Contains a character named Lord Business, thus allowing it to look like it’s critiquing the capitalist system that it inherently serves? Check.
- Made by filmmakers whose chummy relationship with the press always makes me slightly skeptical of initial responses? Check.
- Got a huge amount of pre-release positive buzz, even from film critics who usually hate everything, and who especially hate corporate stuff and kiddie stuff? Check, check, CHECK.
So I sat down to watch the movie, thinking to myself, ‘Self, this is probably a pretty good movie. Phil Lord and Chris Miller really are the guys who seem to be making a career of making good movies from bad ideas. But Self, let’s be real: the hype for this movie is too big, and as a result you’re going to walk out underwhelmed. And Self, let’s also be real: you’re going to find a lot of socio-political stuff in this big budget toy commercial to pick apart.’
But a funny thing happened on the way to the closing credits of The Lego Movie: everything was awesome (just like the infuriatingly catchy song in the movie says). The Lego Movie is actually just as good as everyone was saying, and it manages to avoid the most whorish aspects that naturally come with a movie like this. I mean, it’s whorish - expect Lego sales to spike this weekend - but it’s tastefully whorish. And with a really positive message in that whorishness.
More than all of that, The Lego Movie is an absolute joy. Lord and Miller have packed the film with an infectious energy and a lot of knowing comedy that manages to be self-aware without being snarky or ironic. In many ways The Lego Movie is a riff on standard adventure film/chosen one tropes, but it’s not parody. It is to those cliched story beats what a Lego Millenium Falcon is to the real Millenium Falcon: a charmingly scrappy recreation that has the shape of the real deal but gives you the freedom to do whatever you want with it.
What they want to do is make a paean to diversity in play. This is a movie that acknowledges there’s no right way to build a Lego set - some people like to dive in with the bricks and create new things, while some people like to make whatever the instructions tell you to make. Both are valid, and having some flexibility - sometimes you need to follow the instructions! Sometimes you need to just jam bricks together! - is what life is all about. This sounds like some kind of a middle of the road homily when I write it out like this, but in the film it’s a truly thrilling revelation.
We could put on our grumpy hats and start frowning about how this movie is actually corporatizing and monetizing imagination and play, the things it celebrates, but you’d have to be a really cynical jerk to get that out of The Lego Movie. This is an actual kiddie movie masterpiece, a film that’s not just as good as our highwater kiddie movie marks, but is better than two out of the three Toy Story films. It’s that good.
The Lego Movie sums up a lot of our pop culture right now, but it also serves as a statement for where we are creatively as a society. The best toys in the Toy Story movies tend to be the original ones, but we don’t live in an original world anymore. We’re no longer inspired by movies or music, we remix them. I’m an old fart and don’t like this development, but it’s the reality of our culture. By its very nature The Lego Movie is one big product placement, but it also contains other product placements within itself - the DC heroes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, Star Wars all show up during the course of the film. And they logically should, because Lego makes very popular licensed toy sets. But Lord and Miller manage to make these incursions feel not only natural but joyful; these are elements of our shared culture and they feel more like the fun nods to then-current pop culture in 1940s Looney Tunes than contractually mandated appearances. That’s key, because that’s how regular people use movies and music in remix culture, as both shorthand to a meaning but also as a way to bring the warmth of something we love to something else. And this is how kids play - there are no walls between the adventures of Han Solo and the pirate captain, because you can just smash them together at any time.
That’s what sets The Lego Movie apart from the Toy Story films. The Pixar movies have the sweetness of older people looking back at their playtime, while The Lego Movie has the raucous excitement of playtime. There’s no distance between the concept of play and the movie itself, which operates solely on kid logic. Like Toy Story there’s a larger universe in The Lego Movie, and the Legos are aware of builders above them and mysterious hands. But the Legos in this movie aren't perceiving the world around them as being a kid's room. Imagine if the Toy Story movies took place entirely in the reality that opens Toy Story 3 and you have a sense of what The Lego Movie is, from start to finish.
I wanted to hate The Lego Movie because I wanted to be able to take a stand against the corporatizing of children, the co-option of our culture by brands, the trend in movies towards valuing a recognizable IP over a good story. But The Lego Movie refused me these angry pleasures. Thankfully it gave me other pleasures - the pleasure of a beautifully made film, the pleasure of liberating fun that isn’t mindless, the pleasure of hope and joy. The Lego Movie is a great movie.
I wanted to hate The Lego Movie, but I ended up truly loving The Lego Movie.