Contemporary Hollywood is built around projects that studio types like to describe as “pre-sold,” meaning that they have titles and stories that prospective audiences instantly recognize, and brands that require no effort to explain. Your superhero movies, your sequels, your remakes and reboots all fall into this category, as do adaptations of mega-selling (but not, I fear, merely bestselling) books. And so does what you might call the “tie-in” film — a movie that doesn’t so much adapt a story as attach one to some preexisting pop-culture property, like a board game, or a theme-park ride.
Of all the varieties of pre-sold cinema, it’s easy to regard the tie-in as the crassest and most artistically bankrupt. And sometimes (cough, Battleship, cough) the results vindicate that assumption. But there are exceptions: There was no reason to expect any kind of creative spark from the original Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, but then Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski turned Disney’s shameless ride-sploitation into an unexpected pleasure. (Then, alas, came the sequels.)
The same feeling, of suspicion melting into delight, has come over just about every critic to review The Lego Movie, which is set in a world built entirely out of Denmark’s most famous interlocking export, and populated by yellow-faced hominids familiar to anyone whose childhood included at least one visit to a Toys “R” Us. That the movie is essentially 90 minutes of propaganda for a global toy conglomerate is clearly a strike against its existence. But that those 90 minutes are brilliant fun is undeniable as well.
The plot is part pastiche, part send-up, and part jam session. It has the structure of a quest narrative, in which an everyman named Emmett Brickowski — a construction worker in Brickopolis — must embrace his prophesied destiny as “the Special” and rally his world’s “Master Builders” to thwart the dictatorial Lord Business’s plan to freeze the entire Legoworld in the amber of Krazy Glue. There’s a love interest who initially looks down on Emmett’s ordinariness, a MacGuffin (the “piece of resistance”) for everyone to chase, a Gandalfesque wizard supplying orotund advice, a Scottish-burred evil henchman — the works.
But then — presumably because Lego has created sets, at one point or another, for just about every story imaginable – there’s also a growling Batman and a gaggle of rival superheroes, pop-ins from Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare, a cameo from Shaquille O’Neal, a visit from C-3PO and Lando Calrissian, and then a host of more random supporting players (a pirate named Metalbeard, a giggling unicorn–kitten hybrid named Unikitty, a 1980s-vintage astronaut) to round out the Master Builder cast.
The talent assembled for their voices, meanwhile, is remarkable — from Will Ferrell blustering as Lord Business and Liam Neeson growling as his right-hand man, to Will Arnett’s pitch-perfect parody of the Christopher Nolan Batman’s rasp, to Anthony Daniels and Billy Dee Williams showing up to voice their Star Wars characters, to a longer roster of comedians and stars (Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks, Jonah Hill, and so on), to his Shaqness as himself. And as they did in another, somewhat different pre-sold project — 2012’s 21 Jump Street — the filmmakers, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, simply stuff the film with jokes. Actually, laugh-out-loud, funny-as-all-heck jokes.
As the villain’s name suggests, they also stuff it with ideological themes, but in a way that’s clearly calculated to confuse potential critics, left and right. This is, obviously, a deeply corporate production, so the fact that its bad guy is a corporate overlord named “Business” seems like a kind of self-critique — or, more accurately, a preemptive attempt to disarm or seduce viewers who don’t want to feel like they’re simply surrendering their children’s imaginations to Big Lego.
But the plot’s twists and turns are also designed to disarm conservatives inclined to bristle at an anti-capitalist message. Some such bristling has happened, on Fox and elsewhere, but more sophisticated right-of-center writers, such as Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist, have pointed out that The Lego Movie could just as easily be read as a libertarian message movie instead. Lord Business’s world is, in a sense, a consumerist dystopia, with $37 cups of coffee and the same pop songs and sitcoms playing on an endless loop. But it’s ultimately more collectivist than capitalist — a micromanaged monoculture, a corporatist Nanny State (“Everything is awesome,” runs the hit song, “everything is cool when you’re one of the team”) where true creativity earns banishment or worse.
So there’s a touch of Atlas Shrugged in the story, with the Master Builders standing in for the visionary, unappreciated inhabitants of Galt’s Gulch. Except that the movie also critiques libertarian excesses, through a visit to the rule-free, value-free, happy-clappy “Cloud Cuckooland,” and in its insistence on the value of ordinary Legofolk like Emmett as well as Legoland’s visionary Howard Roarks.
So its true values, then, are obviously Burkean, or maybe Oakeshottian . . . okay, no, I’m kidding. Its true values are still corporate: It’s just trying to wrap its pro-Lego propaganda in as many clever concealing layers as possible, to flatter our intelligence with one hand while it grabs for our wallet with the other, and — perhaps most important — to smooth away the tensions inherent in a product that’s pitched as a spur to kids’ creativity but comes with rigorous instruction manuals.
Oh, yes, I see right through you, Lego Movie.
And yes, okay, I kind of can’t wait to see you again.