I never would have thought as I walked into a screening of The Lego Movie on a lark, that I would walk out with a giant smile plastered across my face. I expected a shameless corporate pandering to a base of precocious five-year-olds who wouldn’t know a line of good dialogue if it ran over them with a Big Wheel, and instead got one of the smartest screenplays of the year, loaded with hilarious pop-culture references, rapid-fire jokes, and a surprisingly profound message about the pitfalls of chasing perfection. The Lego Movie also happens to be a feast for the eyes and ears, a bold and brazen explosion of color and sound that dazzles inexhaustibly without being exhausting. That’s the thing about movies: sometimes they surprise you in the best possible way.
In an epic prologue, the evil Lord Business battles the wise and Gandalf-y wizard, Vitruvius, for dominance over a diabolical weapon called the Kragle. Things don’t end well, and it’s foretold in prophesy that a “Special” person will, in the distant future, find the secret Piece of Resistance (yes, the Piece of Resistance) and destroy the Kragle once and for all. 8 years later, we meet Emmet, a construction worker who believes whole-heartedly in lock-step living and a smile on his face, no matter what. Emmett spends his days changing up the structure of his town (because, hey, these are Legos) and singing spirited work songs, until one day he stumbles upon an intruder at his work site. So far, so good.
The intruder is Wyldstyle, an enigmatic daredevil, who informs Emmett that she’s a Master Builder, and can build anything at any time, and with great speed. This skill largely involves Lego blocks, of course, that can be morphed into cars, weapons, even entire cities, in the blink of an eye. Wyldstyle is joined by sundry other quirky Lego characters, including her boyfriend, Batman, who has serious commitment issues, and a grizzled old pirate voiced with pin-point accuracy by the great Nick Offerman. Wyldstyle points out that Emmett has inadvertently discovered The Piece of Resistance (which turns out to be a Lego block) in a pile of rubble, and that it has attached itself to his back, which means that he’s the one true “Special” who can ultimately destroy the dreaded Kragle.
Everything I’ve just described happens in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Maybe it all sounds ludicrous, but I can assure you, it isn’t. Emmett’s sudden catapult to stardom among the clandestine Master Builders leads him and the others on a breathtaking journey to find and destroy the Kragle, all while being chased down like dogs by Lord Business and his minion, the two-faced Good Cop/Bad Cop.
The epic battle for survival spans multiple parallel “universes,” which is simple code for various Lego Lands, where every wall, street, light, car, window and cloud is comprised of Lego blocks. I was was astonished to discover that what I’d thought was stop-motion animation filmed on the most expansive Lego sets I’d ever seen was actually deeply realistic CGI. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite this extraordinary. Every block is rendered in minute detail, each frame splashed in dizzying kaleidoscope colors, and as my eyes moved to all four corners of the screen searching for some hint of lazy betrayal in the animation, I was thrilled to discover there was none. There’s an awe-inspiring moment late in the film where the pirate’s ship crashes spectacularly into the sea. The vessel bobs underwater for a moment before bursting through the surface, and we realize the vast roiling ocean is actually comprised of millions of CGI Lego blocks.
As expert as the animation is in The Lego Movie, however wonderfully clever and whimsical the in-jokes are, as rapid-fire as the laughs come in the sharp screenplay (the knife Lord Business uses to slice the Piece of Resistance from Emmett’s back elicited the loudest laugh in the screening I was at — mostly from the adults), nothing in the movie is as sublime as the moment when the world of Legos collides with our own. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise, but will say that few scenes in movies ostensibly aimed at children have been so touching, so poignant, in their analysis of familial relationships. You’ll know the moment when it happens, and I defy you to think it isn’t the perfect end to one of the best movies of the year.