By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Just when animation is showing signs of growing stale, when a formulaic chestnut like Frozen is the best Hollywood can offer, along comes The Lego Movie to show what's still possible.
All it takes is imagination that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's instant classic displays in spades. The Lego Movie doesn't simply put imagination into practice but celebrates it, makes it integral, in a late development so uncharacteristic for an animated film that it's a wonder unto itself. Curses on anyone who'd spoil the path Lord and Miller send their movie down, so cleverly sentimental and consistent with the movie's theme that it's unprotestable. Movies have drawn tears from me with technical perfection, others with poignancy. This one does it both ways.
The interlocking bricks, blocks and characters of Lego toys would seen unlikely tools for a breakneck adventure, unless you've seen the toy company's stop-motion Star Wars and DC Superheroes satires, or fan-created YouTube treats like a Blues Brothers car chase. Anything is possible with innovation and patience. Lord and Miller, the punny minds behind the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs franchise, take up that challenge with numerous CGI embellishments that aren't glaring cheats. Like last year's Wreck-It Ralph, The Lego Movie maintains its retro charm under state-of-the-art conditions.
The plot could be concocted by a kid with too much time and Legos on his hands. In a lockstep society where according to the peppy earworm Everything Is Awesome but really isn't, a comfortably dumb factory worker named Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt) is content to live by the instruction manual provided by President Business (Will Ferrell). Everything is corporate, regimented and under constant surveillance, defending against the parallel world prophecy of a "Special One" to come, spelled out by funky wizard Morgan Freeman to the prez's alter ego, Lord Business.
To everyone's surprise Emmet is the Special One, the greatest of all Master Builders, to be aided by a radical named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) in a quest to locate the Piece of Resistance that can save the Lego universe. They'll be pursued by the president's black-ops expert, Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson, being silly), and assisted by Wyldstyle's boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett), in the movie's funniest example of Lego's capacity for plastic culture clashes.
The Lego Movie looks like no movie before it, thanks to an essentially cubist design already established that no other project could successfully pitch. The essentially static nature of the toy inspires remarkable movement; ocean waves rolling like endless deep blue escalators, a construction site collapsing in a right-angle heap. The traditional Lego character's lack of mobility becomes a running gag, without knees or elbows, only a swivel neck and feet typically pegged in one place. Their round heads are allowed more fantasy; thinly drawn eyebrows and lips expressively curl, with snap-on hair for slo-mo head shakes. As stiff as the characters are, their vocalists play loose and frisky, including cameos from Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill and a couple of Star Wars icons in the mix.
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The jokes fly at a pace demanding viewers to either refrain from laughing (highly unlikely) or see The Lego Movie again to catch all the wondrous sights and amiable wit sliding by the first time. And to again be moved by cinematic climax, when sensory delight gives way to emotional depth and the essence of imagination is revealed. Not many films achieve that. For The Lego Movie it's a snap.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.