Indulge me for a spell as I tell you why The LEGO Movie works, why it is certified Fresh with a shocking 95% on Rotten Tomatoes (for reference, Oscar front-runner American Hustle is locked in at 93%), while pushing beyond what is most obviously captivating about it: its humor, a perfect blend of sly satire and see-what-I-did-there pop culture gags cultivated through years of making… oh, you know, every adorably clever cut-scene you’ve ever sat through in a Lego video game.
For 29 years, Legos were, as one character in the film puts it, “a highly sophisticated, interlocking brick system.” Beyond that, they were what you made of them. Want someone to walk around in them? Find a thimble, call it a man. Then, in 1978, came the introduction of minifigurines (one of whom winningly plays a big part in the film by wanting nothing more than to build an old-fashioned spaceship), like analog Sims that builders could move around through thirty years of already-constructed Lego cities and Lego worlds like all-powerful Lego-Gods. With the introduction of licensed figurines, they could even make Star Wars characters, on the bridge of a meticulously built-to-scale Millennium Falcon, do and say whatever they wanted.
The best thing Lego ever did for its branding, not that the corporation ever needed much help, was get in on that joke. Lego Han Solo is not real Han Solo – he is blocky, yellow, cute. Since Lego Star Wars in 2005 (it seems like much longer, right?), and through countless licensed adventures that have adorablized some of the biggest blockbusters of the past fifty years, Lego has rebranded itself through video games as a hip enabler, letting you be Batman while also, at the distance afforded by Lego cuteness, being silly about how absurd Batman’s dark streak can be.
And yet no Lego video game would ever put normally harsh critics in the mood to combine forces for a 95%! Even Frozen, one of the most beloved animated films since Pixar’s heyday (which, sad to say, is no longer “always”), is sitting just outside the 90th percentile, asking The LEGO Movie through the keyhole if it wants to build a snowman.
Humor goes a long way towards disarming critics and audiences who are inherently wary of what, given its name, could have easily been a feature-length Lego commercial. That it is not simply product placement, that it is sly and aware about things like corpratization and, as the characters in The World’s End would put it, “starbucking,” that its running gag about Superman (Channing Tatum) resenting the very presence of Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) serves both as the kind of off-beat character work Lego has established between long-running characters and as a commentary on the shade thrown by studio Warner Brothers towards Lantern since the failure of his big-screen debut (almost like the studio saying “No Hal, you’re grounded and you don’t get to play with Clark today!”), while also bringing about a mini-21 Jump Street reunion, makes The LEGO Movie alarmingly funny in clever ways. But many kids movies have been alarmingly funny in clever ways since Aladdin and Shrek opened the door to pop culture references only adults would get being seeded through films made ostensibly for their children, which is now the modus operandi for most animated features. And so something else must be going on here.
That something is structure. The gift The LEGO Movie, a joke-machine featuring an every-plot structured around a simpleton, Emmet, singled out as “The Special” for completely arbitrary and silly reasons that defy exposition, bestows upon us (besides its obvious good humor) is its ability to step outside itself in its third act while keeping itself stable and truly funny and also finding new, deeper resonances. The key here is that The LEGO Movie, as it expands its canvas to new Lego worlds and beyond, is still a movie begging the same questions it posed at the outset – as we go through Emmet’s morning routine, this is a film about the benefits and startling limits of following instructions; Act 2 complicates this by showing both sides, the creative and the logical, having victories and losses large and small (Uni-Kitty particularly shows that complete freedom, when enforced, can be just as limiting, and yes we just used a character called Uni-Kitty to explore deep thought, which is part of what makes the film wonderful); and Act 3 follows this debate to its logical conclusion.
Compare this to the films The LEGO Movie shares the most DNA with structurally, and we begin to see why this unexpected turn in the third act has won audiences over and not, as has often happened when a third act in a kids’ movie gets preachy, turned them off. Happy Feet and Rango serve as strong templates for The LEGO Movie in that both start off as contained narratives about a fixed community fighting for one thing (the tradition of heartsongs; water) before being thrown slip-shod through a series of expansions and reveals that make the films about so much more. Rango gets away with its spectral visit from psuedo-Clint Eastwood and its turn toward the cost of human destruction mostly because, in a way, it was always a meta-film about the intrinsic limitations of genre constructs – maybe, in this way, it learned its lessons from the film that preceded it.
I think there are definite lessons to learn from Happy Feet, a joyful, hilarious film that uses Robin Williams in all the best ways, and that also has deep, unforgivable structural problems. Whenever a film has gotten too big for its britches since, I have diagnosed it with Happy Feet Syndrome. It’s not that I don’t admire ambition in children’s entertainment; the world’s admiration for Pixar films and The LEGO Movie shows that challenging narratives in animation get all the praise they need if done right. Happy Feet is ambitious, but without being able to hold to a cohesive whole. Every act forgets what the previous act was about. By the time Mumble is captured and the story becomes about the ways we humans destroy the lives of penguins and other Antarctic creatures through our own interference, the film has almost completely forgotten that it started as a penguin musical in which characters sang Boyz II Men songs as a way to convey that tapdancing was not an appropriate way to express one’s heartsong. No matter how many times I watch the film knowing the turn towards environmental solipsism is coming, it never proves to be an easy or comfortable transition. Happy Feet, in trying to provide perspective, attempts to take a step back from its story, and in doing so, takes a huge step backwards in the story department.
Compare that to what we see when Emmet, our sad everyman, lands in a new, unexpected world (obviously doing summersaults to not spoil this for you), and we begin to be able to judge how directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, already ballyhooed for the way they turned 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs into self-aware yukfests, take what could have been a funny, mildly self-aware product placement, and turn it with unexpected nuance into a complex, structurally-sound treatise (with undercutting elements that add some vinegar [a talking cat poster] to what ultimately turns out to a rather sugary message about belief in oneself) confident in its ability to get across not just what makes Legos (available at your local toy store!) great, but what makes them great in different people’s eyes. It is a film in which Batman can have a self-authored heavy metal theme which consists of the lyrics “darkness… no parents;” an unexpected cameo from recent high-profile Disney acquisitions can seem remarkably uncrass; and a climactic father-son bonding moment is allowed to be moving; and all of these elements can marry perfectly without tipping the film too far into mean-spirited parody or maudlin sentimentality. As with any Lego construction, we can bicker about the pieces used (I for one, for instance, would not have started the movie with the prophecy scene; it starts the film on the wrong foot and doesn’t make much sense considering what the film becomes), but on the whole, the final construction is something to behold – immaculate, meticulous, well-thought out, awe-inspiring. Ultimately The LEGO Movie is not merely a fun film; it is a film made all the more fun for its commentary on how and why we construct fun out of nothing but colored blocks and passive yellow faces.