Movies based on toys, or cartoons from the ’80s designed to sell toys, tend to suck like Electrolux.
THE LEGO MOVIE is a happy exception to this rule. It’s worth talking about how they accomplished that trick.
They didn’t do it with snazzy special effects and big-name actors. Just about every film based on toys has great CGI explosions and big actors who aren’t so big that they won’t cash a giant check: BATTLESHIP had Liam Neeson, TRANSFORMERS had Megan Fox, G.I. JOE movies have had the Rock and Bruce Willis.
What makes this movie about interlocking bricks any different?
Reason Number 1: The Humility to Make Fun of Yourself
You don’t see the other toy movies doing this. They try hard–too hard–to be serious, and real, and only tangentially related to all the toys they want your kids to buy.
THE LEGO MOVIE has the guts to poke fun at itself, not once or twice, but during the entire film. Relentlessly. Brutally. Hilariously.
Reason Number 2: Subverting and Smashing Conventional Storytelling
This is the real secret. THE LEGO MOVIE picks up typical Hollywood structure by the throat and body slams it to the asphalt.
A normal action movie features a cartoon hero (Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Bruce Lee or Bruce Willis) who’s tough and cool in Act 1 and doesn’t change by Act 3. In fact, this hero doesn’t change, suffer or grow in any of the sequels.
Instead, the writers of this movie picked a hero who’s an Everyman that the prophecy says will become great and powerful, and save the world … except he never really gets those powers, and the prophet (Morgan Freeman!) admits in the end that he made it all up. There is no prophecy.
In parallel, the screenwriters take Batman, who stands in for your typical cool/tough hero, and show that he’s actually a hot mess. Is he still tough and capable? Sure. But you see the real man behind the façade, and it’s funny and insightful.
The villain is where the writers truly nail it.
In a typical action movie, there’s a cartoon villain doing evil things for no apparent reason other than he’s a villain and that’s what they do. Then in the finale, the hero kills the villain in a dramatic one-on-one gunfight, swordfight or fistfight.
Not this time.
The villain in the Lego world is President Business, whose secret identity is Lord Business, and his evil plan is to freeze the Legos into position with his super weapon, the Kragle (Krazy Glue) while the hero is the only one who can stop him with the Piece of Resistance (the cap to the Krazy Glue).
The writers make the bold choice to break POV here, to switch over to the real world for the first time, showing a little boy playing with a city of Legos in the basement. It’s a museum that his father set up, with signs everywhere warning against not touching what has been perfectly constructed based on the exact instructions.
These aren’t toys, his father tells him. They’re interconnecting plastic construction modules.
In real life and the Lego world, the hero doesn’t win by killing the villain, who has the upper hand. There’s no miracle comeback by the good guys.
The Lego hero echoes the language of the little boy and convinces Lord Business / Dad in Real Life that he doesn’t have to do this, that he’s the most amazing and talented person, who could build anything, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.
There’s an acid test for any story, when you’re trying to figure out who’s the hero. Sometimes, it’s not obvious.
In this movie, the person who makes the biggest leap is the villain, who gains insight and makes the decision to reverse course and allow his son (and daughter) to play with what had become a Lego museum, a no-fun zone.
A brave and brilliant choice, and to me, that’s what makes the movie different.