The Instruction Manual Goes Out the Window in the Surprisingly Subversive 'Lego Movie'

I'm pretty sure writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller would be the first to admit that The Lego Movie is a shameless cash grab. However good or bad it may be, it is, first and foremost, a 100-minute toy commercial that pulls double duty as a franchise promo machine, with characters from the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and DC universes dropped, sometimes literally, into the movie's increasingly manic chaos alongside NBA players, Shakespeare, and Abraham Lincoln.

But here's the twist: It's kind of terrific. It's a genuinely witty, beautifully animated, and surprisingly subversive treatise on creativity and imagination—a call to chuck the instruction manual, wing it, and see what happens.

Once they've built a foundation familiar to anyone who's seen a Hollywood adventure movie, the filmmakers take their own advice. The hero is Emmet (the voice of Chris Pratt), a relentlessly upbeat construction worker who has guzzled the Kool-Aid in his native Bricktown and spends his days doing exactly what his instruction manual tells him he should do. He's a kind-hearted, yellow-faced Everyman who just wants to go with the flow, even if it's made of plastic bricks. He gets up in the morning, grooves to an infectious earworm called "Everything Is Awesome" (get used to it, you'll be hearing it in your sleep for a while), and never misses an episode of a top-rated and asinine sitcom called Where Are My Pants?

Naturally, a shake-up is imminent. When a job-site accident leaves Emmet in possession of the coveted Piece of Resistance, a strange, red block that affixes itself to his back, he is identified as the Special—the smartest, most interesting guy in the universe. According to a prophecy laid down by Lego wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), the Special is destined to lead a group of free-thinkers called the Master Builders as they overthrow Lord Business (Will Ferrell), a well-coiffed tyrant who masquerades as a politician known as, um, President Business. And therein lies one of The Lego Movie's many mildly subversive tricks: Lord Business doesn't want to destroy the world; he just wants to immobilize it and keep it from changing. He likes things the way they are, and change freaks him out.

It's telling that Lord Business' henchman of choice is Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), a split-personality case who wavers between needing to maintain the status quo and wanting to destroy it. That theme of duality is one that runs throughout the movie; it's a sophisticated CG film that emulates old-fashioned, stop-motion animation, a feature-length commercial that takes us to task for our willingness to accept rampant commercialization, and product promotion that revels at least as much in the limitations of its products as in their potential.

It's that last part that lends The Lego Movie most of its considerable visual inventiveness. In spite of its chunky, lo-fi aesthetic, the animators manage to conjure some incredibly striking imagery, most notably during a sequence that finds the heroes fighting Lord Business' robotic troops on—and beneath—the open sea. The result is that The Lego Movie, quite surprisingly, delivers the increasingly rare pleasure of seeing something new on a movie screen. Everything in Emmet's world is defined by the geometric physicality of Lego pieces; water is stackable, heads pop off, knees don't exist. It's hard to say who has more fun with the inherent rigidity of Emmet's hard-plastic, candy-colored world: the writers or the animators.

Even cooler is how the film's narrative construction mimics the way kids play with Legos; it's a completely deranged jumble of mismatched parts, cannibalized from a dizzying array of franchises, that somehow work beautifully together. Emmet's love interest is a Matrix-esque resistance fighter called Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who happens to be dating Batman (Will Arnett), a self-centered, posturing jerk who hogs the spotlight and occasionally boards the Millennium Falcon to party with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams himself, because what else is he doing?).

It's as manic as it sounds, bouncing from Western to sci-fi to pirate movie and back again, but it's all so clever and good-natured that it never becomes overwhelming. If a third-act segue into live action is a little too heavy-handed when it comes to delivering the film's obligatory lesson, at least that lesson—cool things happen when we embrace creativity and engage our imaginations—is one that's worth hearing.