Readers of the blog know I like Lego. It’s a great toy, arguably the best single toy investment you can make for a child. Unlike a video game, its operating system doesn’t go obsolete in three years; every Lego brick you buy today is compatible with the same company’s products going back decades — and they’re not going to change that in the future. It rewards creativity, teaches spacial and structural awareness, and can be combined in so many different ways that you can never say you’ve beat the game.
And then, as an adult, you can stick with it and turn it into a genuine art form. Years of experience, an adult’s funding and patience, and that little kid inside of you that still shouts “THIS IS SO COOL!” — all joining together to show kids that art can be fun, and their fun can be true art.
Well, there’s a movie out this weekend that’s based on the toy. I got to see the press screening last weekend with Wamalug (the Washington Metropolitan Area LEGO Users Group), so I’m here to give you my review.
I’m no stranger to Lego-based movies. In fact, my friends and I used to do a lot of stop-motion animation with Lego parts before college and, well, life started interfering. We even created what might still hold the record as the longest brickfilm (a stop-motion film using Lego bricks), a 75-minute Star Wars parody, Episode √2: The Great Disturbance, back in 2004.
I go through that not to promote work a decade old but rather to show what I consider a proper Lego movie. Namely, a movie that uses actual Lego. So I haven’t been interested in any of the Lego video games; I have trouble even using a CAD program to design models in order to figure out what parts I need to order to complete my masterpiece. It’s just not the same when it’s not the real brick.
So you can imagine that I’m not too impressed with a Lego film that uses computer-generated graphics. I’ve seen the animation. Come on. And if you’re producing cartoons that don’t actually use the conceit of recombining bricks, what’s the point of using the Lego brand? It doesn’t even make a proper commercial for the sets, so just go with a normal cartoon style and leggo my Lego.
And that brings us to The LEGO Movie. I saw the trailers. I wasn’t impressed. It seemed to do a better job of displaying the capabilities of the toy, but . . . well, it just seemed dumb. So I went into the theater expecting to be bored.
I was so wrong.
This is where I have to pause, though, for ethical reasons. I was given free merchandise, and the press screening was complimentary. None of these were given as an incentive for this review, but they were implicitly expecting me to promote the movie. However, I never give a good review if I don’t actually believe in it. (This has come up before.) And I was never told to only say good things; if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have praised it on live TV.
There are plenty of grade-school level jokes in there, but there are some great moments for adults. And if you’re an adult builder — wow! There are some great little bits in there just for us. This was clearly written by people who understand the brick as well as the art.
And the animation is not only careful to stick (most of the time) to the actual capabilities of the real bricks, but is actually so well done that at the start of the film I did a double-take because I thought it was the real thing. Unlike the Disney animations, this specifically uses — even celebrates — the concept of combining bricks. This isn’t animation based on a toy line like G. I. Joe or Transformers; this brings Lego to life.
But it doesn’t stop there; it goes on to have not just one but two messages, delivered so well that they don’t even feel preachy (and I’ve got a low tolerance for preachy entertainment).
The first message is about creativity, and uses the medium of Lego to illustrate it in a near-perfect manner. The main character, Emmet, has to learn to move beyond the instructions that have governed his life and build from his own imagination, learning to see the parts around him as vehicles for ingenuity. It’s a clear reference to taking the step beyond the individual Lego sets and making your own creations, but teased out with character growth and humor that it inspires the audience rather than lecturing at them.
The second message is an even trickier one, that many stories have tried to tackle over the years: What does it take to be “special”? It’s not an absolutely perfect attempt, but it comes close enough for me to be pleased. I won’t give away what happens, but the audience isn’t just given a wishy-washy “everyone is special in their own way” message. Instead, we’re told to take that extra step to take action, and not ignore our talents.
Some of you, mainly those who are experienced with setup/payoff techniques, will find this next bit to be a spoiler, just because of what I’m talking about. So if you want to go in completely unspoiled — and it’s worth it — come back and finish this later.
And even better — there’s a twist in the movie, something none of us saw coming. I saw parts of it getting set up in the movie, but I didn’t expect them to go the route they did. Again, I don’t want to give it away, but there’s a twist within the twist . . . and it turns out that the real message in the movie isn’t for the kids. This movie is marketed toward kids, but the real targets of the story are the adults. (And I’m not just saying this because they’re the ones who will buy Lego products for their kids.)
Don’t believe me? Watch the movie. Tell me where I’m wrong.
In Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, he takes some time to talk about the nature of fairy tales. I talked about this in my very first post on this blog. He wrote that they are there to remind ourselves that ordinary life — the stuff that we experience day after day after day — runs the risk of dulling our senses. “They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
Tolkien echoes this in his more famous essay decades later, “On Fairy Stories” (which I haven’t done a blog post on but totally should).
“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic.”
(I highly recommend reading the whole thing. In fact, it’s required reading for aspiring authors, as far as I’m concerned; but, if nothing else, you should at least read a few lines later to see that even the great Tolkien proves Godwin’s Law.)
In The LEGO Movie, we find a story within a story, and it uses the twin messages of creativity and the nature of being special to perfectly illustrate what Chesterton and Tolkien wrote about so long ago. Stories are a method for us to sit back, marvel at the fiction, and then realize that there are fantastic marvels to be had even closer to home — if only we can shake off the ordinary and realize the world is extraordinary.
I absolutely, highly, and unreservedly recommend this movie. I don’t care if you don’t like Lego (and why not!?) — just go see it. Round up your kids, your siblings’ kids, the neighbors’ kids, or random street urchins if you feel the need for camouflage, but go see it. They’ll enjoy it, and so will you.