Note: This column will discuss some third-act plot twists and general spoilers for The LEGO Movie. If you haven’t seen the film yet, consider yourself warned. (And also, see The LEGO Movie.)
In the nearly 20 years since Toy Story opened and kickstarted a revolutionary new period in mainstream feature animation, most of Pixar Animation Studio’s competition–even at the Walt Disney Company–has taken away the wrong lesson from that 1995 film’s success. A solid majority, though not all, of the computer-animated films that would follow in the 2000s and beyond focus on a few elements present in Pixar’s early work: famous actors, stylized and cutting-edge animation, adult-centric pop-culture references, and fast pacing. By themselves, and together, these elements shouldn’t instantly inspire dread. (Arguably, Toy Story 2 has all of these elements, and is one of Pixar’s early highlights.) However, a great deal of films from DreamWorks Animation, Blue Sky Studios, and other rivals lean so heavily on the aforementioned aspects that they leave out what matters most, and what’s present in almost every Pixar film: a lively, all-around spirit. A few non-Pixar animated films have felt like more than just a handful of elements concocted by a group of soulless executives–How to Train Your Dragon, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and the recent Frozen come to mind. These films all feel as if they were made by people who took the right lessons from Pixar’s early success; now, we can add a new entry to this too-small pile: The LEGO Movie.
Scoff if you like–and listen, seeing as the movie is based on a decades-long series of building-block-centric toys, it’s not hard to see why you would scoff–but The LEGO Movie is not only a legitimately entertaining and marvelously fun new movie, but it wears its Pixar-centric inspiration on its sleeve. Aside from any direct references–about which more in a bit–this film takes its cue from Pixar’s oft-discussed work environment as much as from its finished products. If you’ve ever seen or read a profile about Pixar Animation Studios in the past 15 or so years, the frequent underlying message is, “God, it looks like it’d be so damn fun to work here.” There is an infectious sense of play that emanates from these profiles or even the special features on various Pixar Blu-rays, as we see various and sundry employees puttering around the studio, creating their own personal work space based on whatever bits of popular culture they hold dear to their hearts; using sports and other games as inspiration for various projects; encouraging healthy debate and discourse, even among employees on lower rungs of any given production; and so on. In short, it always feels like to work at Pixar is to play, or to be nudged in the direction of playing first. It’s rare that an animated film from the last 15 years is imbued with a similar sense of fun, but The LEGO Movie, in part because its creators are self-aware enough to appreciate what it’s like to play with toys, is such a film.
The basic plot of The LEGO Movie focuses on Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an easygoing construction worker living a perfectly normal life, to the point where he appears to have no unique thoughts or desires of his own. One day, he falls upon the missing link to a long-held prophecy, thus being anointed the Special, the one person in the universe who has the power to stop the nefarious President Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying the LEGO world entirely. So Emmet’s off on an adventure with a punk-rock heroine, a wizened elder, Batman, a 1980s-style astronaut, a pirate with a deficiency of body parts, a hybrid unicorn-kitten, and more. (And that’s after Emmet is rejected by Superman, Green Lantern, Abraham Lincoln, and other famous faces.) It should be clear by this point that The LEGO Movie is operating on a plane of logic that is as far from mirroring that of the real world. In essence, this movie operates on the logic of an 8-year old. In fact, for about the first hour of The LEGO Movie, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that this is what Toy Story 3 would’ve looked like had its opening 5 minutes been stretched to the length of a feature film.
More so than the first two films, the prologue to Toy Story 3 (or at least, the prologue that’s not set in the real world, as we watch Andy and Molly Davis grow up to the point where he’s headed off to college) taps into what it must have been like in Andy’s mind to interact with all of his toys. Longtime fans of the series smile in recognition at the fact that Woody and Jessie first have to face off with the evil One-Eyed Bart (AKA Mr. Potato Head), and then the Evil Dr. Porkchop from high atop his labyrinthine spaceship. The difference, of course, is that in the first two Toy Story films, we see the reality of the situation: a Mr. Potato Head doll with one eye; a piggy bank standing on top of a toy bucket, overlooking a sea of soldiers with their rifles held above their heads; and so on. In Toy Story 3, the fantasy is reality. As clear as it may be from the outset that this playtime scenario isn’t terribly suspenseful–it’s not as if the actual Woody and Jessie are in danger of sailing off a cliff via derailed train to their doom–it’s somewhat thrilling to see Andy’s imaginative spirit in three immersive, all-encompassing dimensions.
The fantasy is, similarly, reality in The LEGO Movie. As writers-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who also co-wrote and co-directed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a sure sign that this film was worth anticipating) up the stakes for Emmet, his new squeeze, and the rest of the good guys facing off against President Business and his literally two-faced henchman (Liam Neeson in one of his best roles in years), one thing is clear: the logic driving this story is that of a child’s. And as it turns out in the third act, this is no potentially hollow theory: the entire film is the product of a young boy’s overactive imagination. He sees his own father–also Ferrell–as President Business, a rigid and unfeeling figure who only wants LEGO figures to match the design on the box. The so-called Piece of Resistance that Emmet’s become fused to is really just the cap to a Krazy Glue bottle that Ferrell’s character plans to use to keep all of his LEGO figures in place permanently. This reveal is not only entirely welcome–it explains why this story is relentlessly fast-paced and manic, for one–but it leads to an ending that enforces the same message that’s been present in Pixar’s work environment, and at the end of Toy Story 3, for a very long time: that it’s as important to have a playful spirit as it is to follow the rules.
We leave Andy Davis at the end of the Toy Story trilogy as he effectively chooses to grow up, leaving his childhood toys behind with a little girl who’s clearly as quirky, energetic, and playful as he once was. Andy was once the type to throw his toys into all sorts of deliberately unrealistic scenarios; now, it’s Bonnie’s turn. In a way, though, his momentary struggle in handing over his Sheriff Woody pull-string doll to Bonnie is expanded upon in The LEGO Movie. When that film transitions from animation to live-action, unveiling what’s really going on in this strange world, Ferrell lumbers into the frame and snappishly explains why his “toys” aren’t to be handled by his son, in fear that he’ll ignore the instructions and do whatever he wants. But when the father, called the Man Upstairs by the toys, realizes how his son has incorporated their argument into these toys, he appreciates the error of his ways. Following the rules isn’t inherently a bad thing, even when it comes to something like constructing and playing with children’s toys. But following the rules all the time only makes those toys something dull and uninspired.
This ineffable and loose spirit of fun, the idea that we have no idea what’s coming next in a movie, is represented in many of Pixar’s films, up to and including the last Toy Story film as well as Monsters University. It’s not often that a Pixar film feels rigidly attached to the familiar beats of the standard Hollywood script; even if one of Pixar’s films adheres to the three-act structure that so many screenwriters follow, there’s still a sense that anything can happen within each of those acts. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lord and Miller, who also directed the raunchy and hilarious 21 Jump Street and are directing the upcoming sequel, have a similar sensibility. Both Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The LEGO Movie are infused with a delirious sense of humor, breakneck pacing, and a playful attitude. Like the best of Pixar’s films, these movies balance crazy humor with heartfelt emotion; unlike many recent computer-animated films, the inevitable turn into such emotion never feels forced or condescending. With The LEGO Movie, watching Ferrell’s live-action character and his son embrace, reaching a detente about this childhood touchstone, is surprisingly touching because of the honesty inherent in this battle: the children who grew up to make movies about toys need to remember to let go of those toys so their own children can get to play.
Play is, above all, the message of The LEGO Movie, just as it’s a cornerstone of what makes Pixar, still the standard-bearer of modern animation, so special. (Though it should be said: if anyone can qualitatively stand on the same ground as Pixar without copying their formula, it’s Lord and Miller. Warner Bros. should hire them to make a new Looney Tunes movie, and position them as the Chuck Jones to Pixar’s old-school Walt Disney.) It honestly feels like a week doesn’t go by anymore without a new computer-animated film being released into theaters, hoping solely to make enough money to pay off its production budget, instead of legitimately entertaining adults and children alike. We hold Pixar to a different standard–as has been discussed in this column in the past–and so it’s nice to see, every so often, a non-Pixar film be unleashed on audiences to general delight. The LEGO Movie is a ridiculous-sounding movie, but its level of self-awareness, its humor, and its generous spirit are a pleasure. Here’s a rare non-Pixar film with Pixar-like DNA in its blood.