Galaxy Quest is a brilliant spoof of Star Trek. It's also one of the two or three best Star Trek movies. That's how I feel about The Lego Movie, which is both a perfect satire of noisy toy-driven summer action movies, and also an absolutely perfect summer movie in its own right. A few months early.
Top image: Lego Movie poster by Tom Whalen for Mondo
Poking fun at the tropes of the big-budget "tentpole" action movie is like shooting dead fish in a dry barrel at this point. But the wonder of Lego Movie is that it finds new ways to mock the heroic archetypes without ever acting superior to them. If anything, Lego Movie celebrates what it's spoofing, and shows just why these stories about a special hero who saves the world are so meaningful to us.
That's what makes me think of Galaxy Quest — there were many moments during Lego Movie when I felt as though it was subverting our current obsessions perfectly. (Will Arnett's Lego Batman is spot-on, hilarious, and pretty much steals the movie.) And yet, even in the midst of subverting the tropes, the movie also executes them perfectly, and makes you care passionately about the thrilling action that's happening on screen. It's as if the makers of Robot Chicken had crafted a beautiful tribute to The Matrix.
This is largely a spoiler-free review, but here's a brief synopsis: In Lego Movie, a guy named Emmett lives in Bricktown, a dull citadel of conformity where everybody follows "the instructions." (And there's an irresistible theme song, "Everything is Awesome.") Until one day Emmett learns that he's the prophesied savior, who will stop the evil Lord Business from destroying the world.
On one level, it's making fun of the "hero's journey," the "Joseph Campbell for dummies" story of the Chosen One that gives us Star Wars, Harry Potter, Transformers, The Matrix and Buffy. We're told that the prophecy says not just that Emmett will save everyone, but that he'll be the "most interesting" person in the world. But on a larger scale, Lego Movie is satirizing all of our movies where a single dude is the focal point and driver of the action. And yet, even after the film admits the prophecy is bunk, it still shows why it's important and meaningful.
And because Emmett comes out of a bland Truman Show-esque world, his saga becomes a commentary on conformity — and Lego Movie subtly suggests that the "hero's journey" is not actually a rebellion against consumerist conformity, but the ultimate product of it. We all want to believe we're special without doing anything to earn it. But then, with amazing deftness, the movie also shows us why that's okay, and why "conformity versus individuality" — like all binaries — is a false dichotomy that shouldn't be taken to extremes.
And by the time we learn that Emmett really is special, the movie has managed to spin that question into a larger discussion of individualism, and whether it's the ultimate good.
You probably have to see Lego Movie a few times — and not just to wrap your mind around the surprisingly complicated themes. This movie is brilliantly funny and jam-packed with hilarous Easter eggs and insane details, with a lot of gags that probably register more the second time around. It's incredibly frenetic and joyful, just throwing shit in every direction — not unlike a million hyperglycemic kids playing with Legos.
And part of the visual richness of Lego Movie is the way it draws attention to its own artificiality — without undermining the story at all. Flames, oceans and explosions are all rendered in Lego, and the movie maintains a claymation-esque sense that anything can be broken down and reconstructed at any moment. The surroundings are only as real as we believe they are. You can see why this movie needed three directors, because every sequence is beautifully constructed, and more real because it never lets us forget how fake it all is.
A movie about Lego, the build-it-yourself bricks for kids, is sort of perfect for talking about the constructed nature of storytelling. And part of the way this movie manages to spoof as well as perfect the heroic action saga is by telling a story about stories. It's effortlessly meta, in a way that might end up reminding you of Princess Bride. Lots of fantasy stories lately have commented on storytelling explicitly, but Lego Movie goes one further by turning its conflict between anarchy and conformity into a commentary on types of story.
We seem to have reached a moment in pop culture when satires are often the best examples of the things they're spoofing. Probably because of the "copy of a copy of a copy" thing, the best way to get something fresh is often to step back and poke some fun. For example, I've seen a billion "scary house in the middle of nowhere" movies, but the one that sticks in my head is Cabin in the Woods.
The only area where Lego Movie perhaps goes a bit too close to obeying rather than lampshading the conventions of the action movie is in the role of its female hero, Wildstyle, who follows almost exactly the same trajectory as every female lead in every action movie I've seen lately. She starts out super-competent and winds up mostly becoming a love interest, although she gets to play a part in saving the day. And even here, the movie touches on Wildstyle's disappointment that she doesn't get to be the Chosen One, instead of the the bloke.
Right up until the end, Lego Movie manages to have it both ways — it's both a spoof and a real story, it's both fake and real — because it's about the power of playfulness and pretending. Even when you think the movie has finally come down one way or the other on the question of whether any of this is "real," it dodges again. It's a pleasure to see a movie with this much wackiness in the service of ambiguity.
And when The Lego Movie finally does unravel its message at the end, it's perfect and heartfelt and daring and unexpected — all the things that endings of summer movies usually aren't. This movie should be required viewing for the makers of the umpteen toy-hero and superhero films coming our way every summer.