Starring Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks & Will Arnett
Last year, a movie called The Internship came out. It starred Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, and was essentially another one of those conservative Middle-America comedies Vaughn seems to prefer these days, nothing special there. What was different about it though, is the movie was bought and paid for by Google, a 60 million dollar piece of corporate propaganda sold to the public as neutral entertainment. I had a big problem with that, adverts should self-identify and not pretend to be anything else as a point of morality, and it’s what kept me cynical about The Lego Movie, even as the pre-release reviews came in, calling it the best thing since sliced bread.
But the reality is this - The Lego Movie is probably the best piece of corporate propaganda ever made precisely because it doesn’t try too hard to be propaganda. Legos are not treated with an angelic reverence the way Google insisted upon, and most importantly the company entrusted its product to two fantastically talented and creative film-makers and gave them free reign to create something wonderfully ambitious, hilarious and original. Lego’s stroke of marketing genius was to not approach this as a piece of marketing, but as a film and as a story first and foremost. And it means Lego have created the best kids movie since Pixar in their absolute prime, and certainly of this decade so far.
The level of freedom Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are given means this could well be the least restrained and boxed-in mainstream animation ever made, at least in recent memory. The tone of the film feels so at odds with the fearsomely restrained three act-structure of most children’s movies, in which even the great ones feel marshalled to the point of submission, every flight of fancy or tangent jettisoned in service of the whole. Some great movies have been made this way, Pixar’s Ratatouille and The Incredibles, for example, but closest thing I can compare The Lego Movie to is perhaps prime-era The Simpsons. An expertly orchestrated sense of mania, which manages to go anywhere it wants, whenever it wants, but still not sacrifice the core identity and relateability of its characters. It has an ever-present sense of humour, referencing pop-culture without it devouring your film and managing to be genuinely funny from beginning to end (In a way the Pixar films have never managed really) whilst still being emotionally involving and affecting. Upon exiting I was trying my hardest to think of an animation that had done all these things to this high of a standard and the only thing I could come up with was The Simpsons in its absolute prime. Astonishing.
One genius move not getting as much attention as it should from Lord and Miller is the nature of the voice casting. Most animated movies tend to go down the road of hiring the most famous person possible for as many roles as possible, paying Brad Pitt 5 million out of a 100 million budget to come into a booth for about 3 days and phone in a half-assed performance in a supporting role. Here, perhaps because of its relatively modest budget, it turns to sitcom actors, and in particular NBC’s Thursday night creative stronghold of recent years, Parks and Recreation (Chris Pratt, Nick Offerman), Community (Alison Brie) and 30 Rock (Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett) for its casting and reaps the rewards tenfold. Every voice-over performance is utterly hilarious, even Banks kills in what could have been the straight woman role, and the stars they did get, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Will Ferrell, don’t let the side down either. Both Freeman and Neeson getting to play off their respective images hilariously and as for Ferrell? Well I’d argue this is the best he’s been in years.
The Lego Movie is a wonderful breath of fresh air, in this increasing corporate, increasingly bland world of movies we now live in. It’s someone’s vision, purely expressed and realised in the most glorious way possible. It’s really quite close to being a masterpiece. My only hope is that the likes of Fox, Miramax, Disney, Pixar and even Marvel look at this and see how creative freedom is the best thing they can give their film-makers, more than infinite budgets or star names. How being ambitious is something audiences will reward you for, and how taking risks on ideas is why everyone got into this business in the first place. I went into this movie cynical about corporate synergy and came out bewildered by one of the best films in recent years. Here’s to hoping the right lessons will be learned from its success.