Finally! A comedy that works. An animated film with a look — a kinetic aesthetic honoring its product line's bright, bricklike origins — that isn't like every other clinically rounded and bland digital 3-D effort. A movie that works for the Lego-indebted parent as well as the Lego-crazed offspring. A movie that, in its brilliantly crammed first half especially, will work even if you don't give a rip about Legos.
"The Lego Movie" proves that you can soar directly into and then straight past product placement into a realm of the sublime, if you're clever enough. This isn't just the funniest PG-rated animation in too long; it's the funniest film, period, in months, since the kid-hostile "This Is the End" and "The World's End" came out last summer. I would like to nominate the screenwriting team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("21 Jump Street," "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs") for the Nobel Peace Prize, even though very little about "The Lego Movie" is peaceful. It is, in fact, a manic wonder, sneaking in so many small, medium and large jokes on the sly, it has an instantly re-watchable appeal.
The setup of "The Lego Movie," also directed by Lord and Miller, recalls both "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and the recent "Wreck-It Ralph" in its mashup of familiar characters and imaginative worlds. (Confession: I always found "Roger Rabbit" a technically remarkable but mean-spirited drag, and consider "Wreck-It Ralph" clever but exhausting. So consider that when considering my response to "The Lego Movie.")
The prophecy dictates that the one who will save the world is a person born with "face of yellow." So says the Yoda-style soothsayer voiced by Morgan Freeman. The hero? An ordinary Lego construction worker, with the classic waist-bendy design and fondness for right angles and orderly skylines of many colors. Emmet is his name, and he lives and resides in the bustling community of Bricksburg. This world's overlord, President Business (Will Ferrell doing the vocals, in full snivel), has nefarious plans for maintaining that order permanently. But a mighty band of resistance fighters has other plans, and pretty soon safe, routinized, anonymous Emmet is mistaken for the saviors' ringleader and mastermind, even though he's never really put much stock in individuality. He's a good little Lego. The way Chris Pratt of "Parks and Recreation" voices this fellow, his sweetness is never in doubt.
The movie flings Emmet, and the audience, into one Lego universe after another. There's a Wild West sequence that owes as much to "Son of Paleface" as anything else. When other Lego favorites are introduced into the action — Will Arnett voices an exceedingly narcissistic Batman — they're given distinct and vivid comic personalities. Liam Neeson is superbly cast as the voice of the quick-change artist Bad Cop/Good Cop, tasked with capturing Emmet and implementing the end of Bricksburg as we know it.
Each facet of Emmet's world is part of an insidiously entertaining mind-control experiment. The citizens of Bricksburg all tune into the same officially sanctioned hit show, "Where Are My Pants?"; everyone sings the same annoyingly hummable hit song, "Everything Is Awesome." (Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo did the score.) This isn't paradise; it's hell. Or both. The satire's extremely deft, and even when Lord and Miller, working with animation co-director Chris McKay, indulge their snarky postadolescent sensibilities with one too many torture sequences, the style of the animation doesn't mistake "realism" for "quality." We're happily and fully in thrall to the stop-motion Lego world writ large, to the point that when a huge change occurs at the climax, it's a bit of a killjoy. We don't really want to leave the Lego world, even for sincerely wrought pathos, and a complicatedly affecting message to parents everywhere.
Nick Offerman pirates his way, merrily, through the role of Metal Beard; Elizabeth Banks is Wyldstyle, the driven revolutionary with the mad motorcycle skills. The sight gags, most of them quick as an eyeblink, are shrewdly timed; considerable credit goes to editors David Burrows and McKay, who really know how to bite off the end of a scene at precisely the right moment.
I suppose it's a bit much toward the end. A little more breathing room en route might've helped sell the heartfelt wrap-up. But most of the way "The Lego Movie" plays like the world's greatest fan tribute, and I can't wait to see it again.
"The Lego Movie" - 4 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)
Running time: 1:40
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun