The Lego Movie
It's understandable for one to be skeptical of "The LEGO Movie." After all, it may as well be called "The BRAND NAME Movie." Plus, it feels the need to trade on established brands in addition to Lego - Batman shows up in this animated feature (voiced by Will Arnett), as well as Superman, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and "Star Wars" characters, and Shaquille O'Neil, and so on. Yet, beyond all that - beyond the surface - lays a fair bit more than a shallow product push. Believe it or not, "The LEGO Movie" is deliriously bugnuts; one of the most off-kilter movies to emerge from the big-budget system in quite some time; whether animated, for kids, or otherwise.
There's a plot at play, but the film does so much to undercut it that relating it in detail seems beside the point. Basically, bad guy President Business (Will Ferrell) is aiming to essentially glue together all the people in the Lego universe. Though computer animated, every single detail and texture here, from the clouds to splashes of the characters, is designed entirely in the form of Lego bricks. That means a slight bit of adhesive, deviously obtained by the President, can allow him to keep everyone literally in place, sating a sort of OCD for maintaining order (and, if you will, for freezing class mobility) he displays.
Naturally, a band of heroes - everyman Emmet (Chris Pratt,) bad ass femme Wyldfyre (Elizabeth Banks), wise sage Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, natch), the aforementioned Caped Crusader, and a few other goofballs - comes together to do battle with Ferrell's President. Yet, it's hard not to see through to the filmmakers undercutting their own story, making fun of that plot, asking us to instead enjoy the gags and animation. The "magical piece" that will help the thing is a nondescript red brick. The weapons used by Ferrell are misplaced household items like Band-Aids. When Wyldfyre catches up on the plot, all the audience can hear her say is script jargon like "background character" and "primary name."
That's almost certainly coming from writer-directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller, who've taken this heavily branded assignment and turned in a "product" that is very much of their own voice. The two have previously directed "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and "21 Jump Street" - two other pictures that re-appropriated genre standards and narrative archetypes to individualist ends. Their pictures are not quite satires ("LEGO", by its third act, takes a deep dive into sincerely emotional territory), or parodies (the filmmakers clearly feel warmth for their characters, and never use them as props-for-gags), but rather, something in between, harder to articulate. They're two very distinct voices, well versed in film grammar (the references here are fast and furious, from "Brazil" to Ken Russell), and re-wiring comedic cinema to their own extremely visual - and extremely skewed - ends.
That's what makes "The LEGO Movie" such an achievement, more than the smuggled-in satirical jabs. These two have essentially crafted a standard big-budget action movie - narrative undercutting notwithstanding - that just happens to have been staged using Lego bricks. There's a large chase scene seemingly modeled after those in Nolan's Batman films, and it's impossible not to laugh as the chaotic cuts and loud soundtrack are accentuated by images of explosions peppered with red-plastic flames. Up until the aforementioned third act twist, this is as convoluted and action-packed as any recent $100 million+ Hollywood sequel, managing to be goofy and eccentric where others were self-serious. If this weren't a "brand-name" movie, that'd be an admirable achievement. As it stands, it's a tiny, toy-sized miracle.