At this point, chiding a movie for ripping off The Matrix feels like something recycled and uninspired in itself—an argument aimed, for 15 years, at countless films resembling an actioner already culled together from preexisting texts. Still, it’s nearly impossible to endorse The Lego Movie without first observing that it owes almost all of its plot to the Wachowskis’ culture-quaking hit. Written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the film focuses on Emmet (Chris Pratt), a lowly construction worker whose life is just like that of the rest of his Lego-ville lemmings, until a black-clad babe named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) extracts him from his realm and brings him to Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), an all-knowing god-wizard who tells him he’s “The Special.” Having found the curious Piece of Resistance (très intelligent), Emmet must fight back against the Agent Smith-like Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson) and free the whole Lego universe from a brainwashing force, embodied by the Instruction Manual-adherent President Business (Will Ferrell). The Matrix similarities are so extreme that one might take The Lego Movie as an all-in-jest homage, but Lord and Miller have not created a Toys “R” Us twist on the Spaceballs formula. Thus, appreciation of the film lies, perhaps aptly, in the pieces built on a pillaged foundation.
One of the most seemingly frivolous, yet ultimately memorable, pieces is a catchy track called “Everything Is Awesome,” which, as instructed, is the favorite jam of everyone Emmet knows, and calls to mind our own pack mentality when it comes to inane, earworm-y pop. Other elements have a meta nature that’s far less implicit, like Batman’s (Will Arnett) endowment with a very Christian Bale-type growl, and the Lego universe’s realms themselves—lively, inhabited visualizations of popular Lego playsets, like “The Old West” and a Tolkien-esque place called “Middle Zealand.” Some of the knowing humor is truly funny (Green Lantern and Superman, frenemies and two of many “Master Builders,” are giddily voiced by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum), but The Lego Movie’s self-reflexive triumph is the very notion of world-building. Like last year’s Wreck-It Ralph, this is a state-of-the-art CG rendering of an iconic, retro pastime, complete with similar passages between the pastime’s sub-worlds. Here, though, we get to see, often in glorious, low-tech-meets-high-tech fashion, the structures before us being assembled and disassembled, as if we’re watching the animators craft a work in progress. Considering that Lego is 65 years old, it’s a surprisingly novel visual experience.
President Business’s hoarding of human-world “relics” like the “Kragle,” a scratched-up tube of Krazy Glue with which he plans to “perfectly” freeze the Lego population, links to a development that many viewers probably won’t see coming. Both upending the narrative and revealing plot holes only the filmmakers could fully explain away, it’s a twist Christopher Nolan might devour, but one most of us shouldn’t strain too hard to wrap our heads around. What matters isn’t the climax’s urge to yank out the rug or boggle the brain, but its ability to instill an aesthetically formidable flick with necessary heart. All told, there’s an ageless warmth to The Lego Movie akin to that of the Lego brand itself. And while it can’t lay claim to whipping up an original story, the film earns plaudits for razing the Western concept of a “Special” and promoting a common specialness, conveying to kids, specifically, that everyone and everything is special—and kinda awesome too.