Before making The Lego Movie, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller made 21 Jump Street, an adaptation of a police procedural about two cops who go undercover as high school students to stop teenage crime. To follow that up with an animated family film sounds like quite a jump, but the two movies have something in common: both take what sound like cheap attempts to cash in on pieces of pop culture detritus and turn them into warm, funny, genuinely involving comedies. The Lego Movie exists to sell Lego sets, and it succeeds. The temptation for many filmmakers would be to stop there, but Lord and Miller have gone further to make an hour-and-a-half long toy commercial that's actually worth watching.
The appeal of The Lego Movie begins with its visuals. The film uses computer-generated animation to bring the blocky, jointless denizens of its world to life, but there's a charming jerkiness to the way they move that more closely recalls stop-motion animation of the kind found in The Nightmare Before Christmas than, say, the smoothness of Disney's Frozen. There isn't one part of the movie that's dull to look at, and several that reinvent the look of cinematic cliches. At one point, a large object crashes into an ocean, something most people have seen in one form or another in action movies beyond count. But when the object hits the water in this movie, the be-dotted surface of the sea, made entirely out of blue sheets of Lego, bursts outward in a choppy, angular wave that's playful and surprising. Even if the rest of the movie were a bore, the visual creativity alone would make it worth seeing.
Luckily, the meat of The Lego Movie is engaging and funny. Our hero is Emmet (Chris Pratt), a cheerful construction worker having trouble establishing his own identity. One day after work he has a chance encounter with alternative outsider Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and soon finds himself in the center of a movement to stop the nefarious President Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying the world. The plot moves very, very quickly, blasting from one standby Lego setting (the wild west, medieval fantasy world, outer space) to another with the breathless intensity of a six-year-old boy raised on Hollywood action movies making the story up as he goes. The movie throws jokes and pratfalls at the audience almost faster than it can react to them. Pratt, who plays the irrepressibly happy Andy on Parks and Recreation, is a great fit for the lead role. He never seems less than delighted to be saying his lines and makes sure the energy level doesn't dip below its manic, frenzied high.
The Lego Movie also takes great advantage of the many licensing agreements The LEGO Group has made over the years. Batman (Will Arnett) has a role as Wyldstyle's grouchy boyfriend. Gandalf and Dumbledore compete for the title of most learned wizard in the room, and The Simpsons' Milhouse shows up as a member of the resistance high command. Sure, they're all in Lego form, but it's rare to have so many pop cultural figures gathered in one place. The giddy inclusivity brings to mind South Park's "Imaginationland" episodes, but The Lego Movie doesn't depend on this novelty to support itself. It's always rushing to the next joke, the next visual, the next twist in the story.
The final twist in the story is particularly loopy, and adds a meta-textual layer too inspired to spoil here. All this movie needed to do was sell toys. It will do that- kids who see it are going to be asking their parents for Lego sets for Christmases uncounted to come- but Miller and Lord have worked hard to make it entertaining for the rest of us, too.