The term "brickfilm" denotes a very specific kind of thing. It's a stop-motion animated movie that doesn't use Claymation or posed figures but rather Lego blocks. People have been making brickfilms for 40 years now, believe it or not, but it wasn't until a Lego version of the famous "Camelot" sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that it became something of an industry.
Nowadays, there are Lego games and Lego music videos, some of which bear the stamp of corporate approval. So it isn't surprising that we would eventually have a full-length brickfilm featuring big Hollywood stars. What is surprising is how strange and hilarious it is.
The Lego Movie is made with Legos and it's about Legos. Over the years, the company has licensed its use alongside superheroes, Tolkien and the NBA, and they all play a part here, some larger than others. It might be the most brand-centric film ever made. And yet it is far from cynical, and that may be the most astonishing thing about it, other than the fact that Lego has somehow convinced a studio that kids will love it.
Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) is not in any way special. He's a Lego who follows instructions down to the letter, whether he's on the construction site or just going through his daily routine. One night, he sees a girl on the site rummaging for who knows what. Since his instinct is to follow the rules, Emmet decides to call it in. As he pursues the girl, he falls down a long tunnel. Next thing he knows, he's handcuffed to a desk and being interrogated by Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson) about a strange plastic brick glued to his back.
The brick is the prophesied Piece of Resistance, which must mean that, in defiance of all the evidence, Emmet isn't just not special. He's The Special. The Chosen One. Jesus. Neo. All of it. He's the savior of this Lego universe. But what is he saving it from? It turns out evil President Business (Will Ferrell) plans to glue all the Legos together so they can't make anything unique, different or imaginative.
It would be easy and even justified to bring up the many featured players in The Lego Movie, but it's better that you don't know. Needless to say, the walk-ons are great, and the love triangle is sublimely funny. About that: You knew the girl Emmet was trying to stop at the construction site had to be a major player in this, right? She is. Her name's Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), but she introduces herself as Wyldstyle. But as Emmet starts to fall for her, Wyldstyle tells him she has a boyfriend, who's ... well, let's just leave it at famous.
Emmet's quest is predictable—stop the bad guy—but the way it's assembled (pardon the pun) is not. There are big laughs in almost every scene along the journey, and they're muted only by an obligatory nod to humankind. Even that isn't done poorly, and it gives the film a great final moment, but it probably would be better if the action was slightly more self-contained.
There's not really a comparison to make for The Lego Movie. Rango was absurd and not really designed for kids, but this is more approachable than that. There's also the unavoidable name recognition. By the same token, it's more of a deviation than Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the first film from directing tandem Phil Lord and Chris Miller. That one is too slick and mainstream, with nods to quirky comedy and parents in the crowd. Lego is more strange than middle-of-the-road. That shouldn't be a deterrent, but it's certainly worth acknowledging. The remarkable thing about all of this unusual comedy is how well Lord and Miller sustain it during 100 minutes. That is about 15 minutes longer than the film should be, but the filmmakers still have gas in the tank at the end.
A few weeks ago, we had the misfortune to see The Nut Job, a CGI movie with no spark, no originality and no feeling. The star of that animated effort, Will Arnett, lends his voice to The Lego Movie as well. Ironically, The Nut Job is a lot like the Emmet character in this movie. It follows the instructions to make a palatable, safe movie for kids. It has all the same elements most animated movies do, but the formula doesn't work. By contrast, The Lego Movie throws caution to the wind—at one point "levitating" a character by attaching string to it—and nearly all of it succeeds. The lesson: Sometimes safe sucks. Sorry about that, kids.