Had you told me a decade ago that LEGO (yes, the Danish interlocking brick system) would essentially corner the market on American animated films, I – having seen too many direct-to-video Bionicle movies in my time – would have laughed in your face. Yet, with the decline of Pixar, that is precisely what has happened. Despite my lifelong affinity for the plastic building blocks, I didn’t expect a single LEGO movie to be good; in fact, I was a vocal critic of the idea of besmirching my beloved toys’ good name with what would surely be an embarrassing cash-grab. Now, with three strong efforts to their name (and another hitting theaters this weekend), my worst fears have still gone mercifully unrealized. For the last five years, LEGO movies have indeed been the most consistently heartfelt, humorous, and visually sophisticated cartoons produced by a mainstream animation studio. (Excepting smaller and foreign fare, that is – which, I’m aware, makes this a low bar to clear.)
I often find too much self-awareness to be an annoyance (in films and myself). Too often, a wink toward the fourth wall or a self-deprecating one-liner serves only to deflate the audience’s investment in a story. (For a prime example of the ill-timed one-liner, pick a Marvel movie at random.) However, for all the meta-textual humor of The LEGO Movie and its two spin-offs, these films’ greatest strength is their ability to maintain a firm grasp on a genuine emotional core, no matter how frenetic the shenanigans get. Perhaps years of attachment to miniature figures much like those onscreen primed me to resonate with The LEGO Movie more readily, but it’s precisely that childlike sensibility, the projection of one’s psyche onto plastic avatars, that these films hit on so successfully. They capture the feeling of a child playing with toys, where everything is at once silly and meaningful. The fact that what we’re seeing is imaginary doesn’t undercut its import; in fact, it allows the filmmakers to get at feelings with the ease and directness of a child. LEGO movies constantly poke fun at the tropes and clichés they’re taking part in, but they are also absolutely earnest about the stories they tell. This paradox is the key to their success: they are at once buoyed by manic satire and anchored in disarming sincerity.
It’s an incredibly tricky balance to pull off, but these are the rare parodies that both mock and epitomize the genres they spoof. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is obviously cobbled together out of spare parts from Star Wars films and kung fu action movies, but it’s also a myth about fathers, sons, and spirituality in its own right. The LEGO Batman Movie simultaneously lampoons the Caped Crusader and looks into his psyche more incisively than almost any live-action incarnation. In its opening minutes, the film mocks the puns, the brooding, and the fetish for flying rodents, but also swiftly lays bare the loneliness these excesses are meant to mask. This whiplash-inducing alternation between mockery and sincerity shouldn’t work, but it does. Instead of distancing us by making a spectacle of itself, the self-reflexive humor of these films gets past our defenses by letting us in on the joke. It pokes holes in the artifice to reveal the reality beneath. The LEGO movies invite us to share their levity, then turn around and invite us to share their joys and sorrows as well.
Surprisingly enough, they’re also beautifully, charmingly animated, brought to life with computer graphics designed to mimic stop-motion. That means a lower frame rate and stiff movements, as every LEGO piece onscreen acts and looks – the films are virtually photorealistic – like a real LEGO piece. This unique style stands out as an exception to the rule of generic 3D cartoons that governs Dreamworks, Pixar, and Disney. The LEGO films also deviate freely from their chosen format, with excursions into live-action or intrusions from non-LEGO elements: The LEGO Ninjago Movie begins with a framing device in the “real world,” and later, its plastic heroes are menaced by a real live cat. (Also worthy of note: a penchant for peppering backgrounds with delightful visual gags. The city of Bricksburg in The LEGO Movie is densely packed with enough joke signage to sustain multiple viewings.) The result feels creatively unfettered, free from constraints of visual and narrative formula, in a way that too few animated films do nowadays. You don’t see too many cartoons that hijack the visual language of 2001: A Space Odyssey to dramatize their hero’s contact with the transcendent.
It is true that, for all their aesthetic novelty, LEGO movies tend to hew rather closely to the more well-worn themes of modern children’s cinema. They most ardently praise the values of earnestness, openness and teamwork, which are all well and good, though hardly underrepresented in the landscape of today’s popular culture. Masculine posturing is comically skewered, though females can do little wrong. (I do not deny that inflated male egos, my own among them, could frequently do with a good puncturing. As a trend, though, this gets a bit one-note.) All three films have a bone to pick with paternal figures, from President Business (representing the father of The LEGO Movie’s young narrator) to Batman (adoptive “padre” to Robin) to Ninjago’s amusingly callow Darth Vader analogue, Lord Garmadon, and in each case the father comes around to the wisdom of youth. Nevertheless, it is gratifying that this motif manifests less as rebelliousness and more as a tender yearning for reconciliation – not a “screw you, dad!” but a gesture of love and acceptance toward fathers, even in the context of difficult or strained relationships. The moral cosmos of the LEGO movies is a fairly balanced one, founded on a consistent interplay of theses and antitheses building (forgive me this punnery) towards synthesis. They push back against blind conformity, but also against radical individualism. Oppressive rules are condemned, but neither is anarchic freedom uncritically glorified. The worth of tradition is questioned and qualified, but ultimately reaffirmed. Each individual is praised for being personally special, but what is common to all is celebrated.
Fittingly enough, as it set the precedent for The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Ninjago Movie to follow, The LEGO Movie is the fullest and most profound expression of the LEGO movie ethos, both as a moral statement and an artistic achievement. It is one of those rare, perfect films where everything is in alignment, where drama and theme are synchronized flawlessly – it is a film that lives out exactly what it preaches. As is their modus operandi (they were also behind Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street), directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller take a bad idea on paper and make a go of it anyway. Indeed, to watch The LEGO Movie is to watch a reflection of the process of making The LEGO Movie. The first act, set in the sunnily Orwellian consumerist dystopia of Bricksburg, is a biting satire of vapid commercialism, where every day unthinkingly follows the same formula without variation. In other words, it is a reflection of what The LEGO Movie could be – a rote, lifeless promotional video. This gives way to the zany creativity of the second act, as hero Emmet is thrust into a melting pot of different genres and falls in with a group of “Master Builders,” paragons of individual freedom who can rebuild the world in their image. Allegorically speaking, the first act is an obvious stand-in for the Hollywood studio system, and the Master Builders of the second act are the artists who want to create within that system. Yet when left to their own devices, the Master Builders are so caught up in their personalized visions that they cannot work together to form anything cohesive. The two extremes are united in the third act, which suggests that individual expression should not be suppressed, but also that some instructions must be followed for a common good. The conflict is between conformity and creativity, and The LEGO Movie – as its creators did while making it – upholds the importance of both.
What truly elevates The LEGO Movie to greatness, making it a modern children’s classic worthy to be mentioned alongside the likes of The Lion King or Toy Story, is its last act, which finds a transcendent resolution to the conflict between conformity and creativity. Our plastic hero, following his archetypal Campbellian journey to its end, transcends his existence through an act of self-sacrifice (this is where the 2001 imagery comes in – also notice how Lord Business’ ship is coyly referred to, in passing, as a “black monolith”) and gets a glimpse of the forces that govern his cosmos. We find that the whole story has taken place in the imagination of a young boy, playing with his father’s LEGO collection. The entire film is recontextualized as an expression of a son’s relationship to his father, though various hints and double meanings have cleverly clued us into this dimension. The father is referred to as “The Man Upstairs,” a common euphemism for God. His dictatorial toy avatar, Lord Business, threatens to put rebellious citizens “to sleep” – which, of course, sounds like fascism and what a father might say to a misbehaving child. The father represents what is old; the child represents what is new. The father is culture, tradition, commerce; the child is creativity, innovation, artistry. These two forces are always clashing with each other, but they are both necessary. For a life to be meaningful, it must be informed by the past and oriented toward the future. In time, father and child are pulled in opposite directions, but we look forward to their reconciliation and union in eternity.
The third act of The LEGO Movie opens the film up in two directions – upward and downward, if you will. Looking up, it becomes an imperfect reflection of our relationship to the Father and Son who created us and guide our stories. Looking down, it becomes a reflection of our relationship, as creators made in the image of the Creator, to the stories we tell and the things we make. In the end, The LEGO Movie posits that tradition and innovation can only work together properly when both are oriented towards a higher, transcendent reality. It’s a worthy aspiration for any story – or, perhaps, for all stories.
And this is all in a movie about a highly sophisticated interlocking brick system.