“The LEGO Movie” is more than a feature-length product placement

Colin McLaughlin

At the end of the first act of “The LEGO Movie,” the skilled warrior Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) tells average construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) about the multiple worlds in the LEGO universe. There’s The Old West, Middle Zealand, Cloud Cuckoo, Hogwarts, Gotham and “a bunch more that we really don’t have time to get into right now.” For kids, this is a humorous nod to the numerous play sets LEGO has produced over the years. For adults, it’s an acknowledgement. 

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“21 Jump St.,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”) know that their newest film is, to an extent, a vehicle for product placement, but they’re not going to include LEGO sets without a story or joke based reason. It is this attitude and self-awareness of the silliness of the LEGO property that elevates “The LEGO Movie” as a heartfelt but hilarious adventure. 

Emmet is as traditional a LEGO as can be, right down to the yellow head and hands (the newer LEGO sets use actual skin tones for the minifigures now). A chance encounter with Wyldstyle and a mysterious object known as “The Piece of Resistance” reveals that Emmet is in fact a Master Builder — a LEGO who can manipulate the world around him at will to create fantastic and original constructs. Emmet’s discovery draws the attention of Lord Business (Will Ferrell), LEGO city’s maniacal president who is bent on freezing the entire universe so that all of his beautiful models will stay in their proper place. Business sends Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) after Emmet and Wyldstyle, and the two heroes are forced to flee to the other worlds in the LEGO universe.

The film utilizes a similar style to the direct-to-video LEGO films. The 3D animation is a convincing stand in for stop motion, and almost every shot in the movie looks as if it was constructed entirely with LEGO bricks. Unfortunately, it is impossible to enjoy the craftsmanship of many of the locations because of the frenetic action. The chase scenes are expansive and often take the characters through miles of LEGO real estate, but the action is cut so frantically that it is easy to get lost in the shuffle. Emmet, Wyldstyle and the other Master Builders often construct new vehicles and weapons on the fly, and it is sometimes frustrating to be unable to follow the building. 

Like Lord and Miller’s previous collaborations, “The LEGO Movie” is packed with recognizable appearances, which range from single-lined cameos (Will Forte as Abe Lincoln, Channing Tatum as Superman, Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman) to full supporting roles. None of the featured LEGO properties feels wasted, each one plays into a joke or into the story. Arnett’s Batman character is especially impressive in that Lord and Miller took what could have been a gimmick that played off of the character’s pop culture relevance and made their toy version of the character feel unique. Bruce Wayne even ends up playing into the plot late in the film. Liam Neeson also stands out — his instantly recognizable Irish brogue is so well suited for VO work that Lord and Miller had him voice two characters: Bad Cop and his mild-mannered alter ego, Good Cop (he switches between them by turning his double-sided head). 

The real triumph of the movie is that it captures the essence of the creative silliness of playing with LEGO sets.  The mix of numerous properties works so well because the world of the film is constructed with a sense of child-like imagination where it makes perfect sense for Batman and Dumbledore to team up with Han Solo to fight evil.  Emmet has always valued following the directions (which are printed as actual LEGO instruction books), and clashes at first with the other Builders’ tendency to create original constructs from scratch. The real conflict in the film is between the conflicting definitions of what LEGOs can be – a conversation late in the movie debates the status of LEGOs as toys for children or “sophisticated interlocking brick systems” – and the movie’s ability qualify both answers is one of its greatest strengths.

Movies based on children’s toys rarely have much on their minds beyond selling more products. “The LEGO Movie” pleasantly surprises with a heartfelt and hilarious adventure tale in what could have been a 100-minute long mess of non-stop product placement. Lord and Miller have crafted an energetic adventure that is humorously self-aware without losing its emotional core. Like their previous effort in “21 Jump St.,” Lord and Miller have taken a property that doesn’t look promising on paper and made something greater than the promise of its premise.