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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Lego people star in "The Lego Movie," now playing.

Everything is pretty much awesome in "The Lego Movie"


Underneath the stairs to my childhood house's basement, there was a whole world of Lego sets and ships. It was there that 10-year-old me would set my imagination free, creating massive adventures for my little creations that would traverse the entire house.

Eventually, though, I grew up (though my diet of Cheez-Its, Dr. Pepper and Gushers has stayed about the same). My Lego adventures were taken apart and packed away to make time for new things, like homework, television, computers and girls.

For 100 minutes, however, the joyful spirit of playtime that typically gets packed away when adulthood hits was at pure sugar rush levels during "The Lego Movie." It's not simply the ode to a product that the title hints at. Instead, it's an ode to what that product can inspire: imagination and creativity, and it delivers that message in the most contagiously energetic manner possible.

Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt of "Parks and Recreation" and the upcoming "Guardians of the Galaxy") is a happy-go-lucky construction worker, gleefully living every day by his instructions – even when coffee is $37 and President Business (Will Ferrell) is hinting about global destruction on the TV. But hey, no time for that! As the relentlessly earwormy anthem says, "Everything is awesome!"

He's so mindlessly agreeable and willing to conform to the rules of normalcy that when he's arrested for finding (well, more like falling into) the Piece of Resistance – a mysterious red rectangle that could foil President Business' diabolical plans – his neighbors and co-workers have nothing to tell the investigating cop (Liam Neeson, amusingly playing both squeaky good and chair-kicking bad cop roles). He's not some rebellion leader. In fact, he's not special at all.

That is, until the actual rebellion – led by their blind bearded spiritual captain Vitruvius (God himself, Morgan Freeman) and their uber-capable first-in-command Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) – swoops in and saves Emmet. To them, he's not just special; he's The Special, the most interesting and important person in the universe, as well as a Master Builder who will save all of the Lego worlds, according to the prophecy.

As Emmet notes in a parody of a heroic pick-me-up speech, he is the least qualified person for the role. With President Business and his cronies in pursuit, however, he has no choice but to go along for the ride.

The journey takes him to new Lego worlds – an Old West town, a play on "Lord of the Rings" called Middle Zealand and a rainbow-covered dream world run by the sugary sweet Unikitty (Alison Brie of "Community") – and introduces him to new heroes, like Superman, Green Lantern, Dumbledore, Shaq and the movie's scene stealer Batman (Will Arnett). The movie's version of the Caped Crusader is one of the best parodies of the beloved comic book character, a hilariously grumbling, pompous and often just plain daft "me first" hero who writes "meaningful" brooding rock music in his free time.

The story sounds like the chosen one, "you are a special snowflake" plot – complete with prophecy – that seemingly every children's movie pumps into kids these days. However, it doesn't take long for the writer-director team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller to start subverting the storyline and mockingly flipping it on its head. Emmet isn't special. In fact, what's special and important about him ends up being his ability to be absolutely boringly normal, to follow the instructions and think generically. His actions make him special, not some preordained destiny.

The Lord-Miller tandem only has three big screen credits, but each one thus far has been a hit. It's an impressive feat, made all the more impressive by how thin and cynically Hollywood their films – "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," "21 Jump Street" and now this – sound on paper. They don't take the easy, lazy and expected route. Instead of seeing the limitations of the material, they use it as a springboard, injecting imagination, a cleverly playful and knowing sense of humor, an Edgar Wright-level of reckless energy and a touch of sincere sweetness into each of their projects.

"The Lego Movie" is no exception (and hopefully neither will this summer's "22 Jump Street," the duo's first attempt at a sequel). Merely from a visual front, the film bleeds colorful, energetic creativity. The animation, a hybrid of CG and stop-motion, is inventive and captivating, whether it be something big – like an ocean made of waving Lego bricks or the characters' overall herky-jerky movements – or little details, like the Lego explosions and the various worlds' names staying put in the background, as though they're in a model world. There's always seems to be something to look at.

The hand-crafted (but still polished) look of "The Lego Movie" matches Lord and Miller's anarchic, back of the classroom sense of humor – still intact even as their casts, budgets and expectations get bigger. Their script briskly fires off funny jokes, visuals, characters and ideas left and right, in the foreground and in the background with manic, chaotic glee – all while setting up jokes for satisfying punch lines later.

My personal favorite (other than pretty much anything with Batman) is a running gag involving 1980s space guy Benny, which hilariously ends with the most excitement about a spaceship since the Space Race of the '60s.

The pace is so frenetically fast that trying to catch all of the jokes – along with all the visual details – is like trying to individually catch recently popped confetti.

Moving at the same exhilarating – and admittedly sometimes exhausting – rate is the story. It sometimes plays out almost like the brainchild of a heavily caffeinated kid, feverishly hopping from place to idea to MacGuffin, while the rules shift and contort to its will. Still, it's addictively fun to try to keep up (a second screening confirmed that it's even funnier a second time when you're geared up for the speed).

It fits the story as well, which sneakily tosses in hints – a child-like makeshift sound cue here, some ancient "relics" there – that our heroes' adventure might be a part of a much bigger battle, one about creativity, its shared evolution and how it can't – and shouldn't – sit still. Thanks to Lord, Miller and the surprisingly deep voice cast, it's all delivered with a lot of laughs, invention and a surprising amount of sincere heart for a movie made of plastic blocks.

You'd have to be awfully naive to completely escape the fact that "The Lego Movie" is still, well, The Lego© Movie and that, even as it tells you to use your imagination and break free from the instructions, it has its own sets and properties to sell.

At the same time, you'd have to be awfully cynical to not see the earnest invention in the final product. "The Lego Movie" may technically be an ad – and may be as effective, if even more so, than an ad – but it doesn't feel like one. It's a commercial in the same way the original "Star Wars" trilogy, which fittingly makes a cameo, is a commercial. We want the toys because we feel the creative spark and joy coming from the movie, and much like the characters in "The Lego Movie," we want to create and build our pieces onto it.



Theaters and showtimes for The Lego Movie
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Talkbacks

TosaJim | Feb. 12, 2014 at 10:29 a.m. (report)

Matt does a great job reviewing movies from "his point of view" which is skewed to the 20 somethings that read his column....OnMilwaukee.com should have another option...someone older and less inclined to swoon over a movie like the Lego movie, which I'm sure is good, but maybe not for the older readers. :) It would be fun to have a siskel and Ebert thing going on....

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