The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Lego Movie

Written by Cat Lester.

Photo from the article In the climax of The Lego Movie we discover - major spoiler warning - that the whole of the Lego universe in which the film has taken place actually exists in the real, live-action world. Emmett is an ordinary Lego mini-figure who has been chosen as the hero by a real little boy, Finn, as he plays with his father’s Lego collection. The boy’s father, it turns out, is the inspiration for the Lego universe’s Lord Business (both of whom are portrayed by Will Ferrell, the former as a live-action character and the latter as the voice only). The father is most upset to find that his son has been messing up his perfectly arranged Lego, all segregated into their own sections according to whichever ‘theme’ they belong, from The Old West to Middle-Earth to Bricksburg, the name of the Lego city invented for the film. Finn is only supposed to play with his own box of Lego, which appears to contain the unwanted leftovers from his father’s collection. The ‘plot’ of the film, in which Emmett and his friends must fight against the conformity and rigidity enforced by Lord Business, is therefore simply Finn playing out and rebelling against his difficult relationship with his father. Upon confronting each other, it is revealed that the mysterious Piece of Resistance that threatens Lord Business’ plan is in reality the lid to a tube of Krazy Glue, also revealed to be the Kragle, the weapon that Lord Business will use to make all the Lego pieces stay in place and form an image of ‘perfection’. In playing with his father’s Lego, Finn threatens to compromise this vision which values admiring the Lego at a distance above using it for its ‘true’ purpose - playing with it. (As Finn points out to his father, they bought the Lego at the toy store and the box recommends ages 8-14.) As such, this is the climax of the film’s dichotomies of playing vs. preserving, creativity vs. conformity, messiness vs. perfection, and childishness vs. adultness. In the end, the father is persuaded to allow Finn to play to his heart’s content and even joins in on the destructive fun, the implication being that playing, creativity, messiness and childishness win out over their opposites. It is these sets of oppositions which I wish to explore further in this Alternate Take, but with a particular emphasis on how it is that the film so accurately appears to capture the childishness of playing, and furthermore how this relates to and is affected by its status as a product of the very sort of corporate business it seems to rally against: the Hollywood system.

The father in the live-action portion of The Lego Movie justifies his keeping Lego to himself by describing it as a ‘highly sophisticated interlocking brick system’, which sounds very serious and grown-up (This is not too dissimilar from Lego’s original description in 1949 as ‘Automatic Binding Bricks’). However, Lego has become much more than just that. Lego is no longer a ‘mere’ system of bricks that can be used to create anything and everything, having branched out into tie-in products of existing popular culture brands such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Marvel and DC comic-book characters, and various other ‘home-grown’ Lego brands such as Bionicle, Pirates and Ninjago. These sets come with instructions for how to build them to the exact specifications shown on the box, allowing users to recreate sets and scenes from favourite film franchises or, in the case of Lego’s own themed sets, prescribed scenarios for you to play with.

Due to both the literally rigid nature of Lego bricks and their ability to replicate famous film scenes or works of art, Lego is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’: the mass-produced plastic bricks are packaged in their millions with intricate instructions so that just about anyone can recreate, for example, Hogwarts castle in their own home. In writing this, I am also reminded of the instructions that accompany self-assembly IKEA purchases; might we even say that IKEA is effectively the adult version of Lego, right down to thousands of customers worldwide owning identical pieces of furniture, and even identical kitchens and bathrooms? Plus, it cannot be denied that IKEA stores look just like giant Lego bricks. However, I do not wish to seem negative about what Lego is like now and certainly do not want to come across as a curmudgeon who wishes for the ‘good old days’. (I would also be a hypocrite to criticise the mass-produced, franchise-led nature of Lego and its use to recreate existing works. I have a set of Back to the Future Lego sitting in my IKEA-clad living room, and I love it to pieces - pun intended). In spite of the popularity of the themed and franchise sets with instructions, Lego still encourages creative play, particularly in its boxes of plain assorted bricks, the only ‘instruction’ in sight being ‘The only limit is your imagination!’ Furthermore, as is suggested by The Lego Movie, just because a lot of Lego comes with instructions does not mean that those instructions have to be followed. (This leaves me with a wild urge to go home now and see if I can dismantle my own grown-up Lego, a.k.a. IKEA furniture, and use the pieces to create something new, but I feel that this would be unwise and that my housemates would be less than impressed.) While Lego bricks may seem on a surface level to be rigid, hard, and only able to lock onto each other in parallel or at right angles, just about anything can be built out of Lego as long as you have enough pieces, a big enough imagination, and a lot of patience.

As such, the dichotomies listed above are inherent in Lego itself, and have thus been naturally transposed into The Lego Movie. The film appears to champion diverting away from the instructions in order to promote creativity and variation, the alternative being a rigid, Orwellian setting in which everything will be identical, stuck in place, and ‘perfect’. This message seems to have been very effective with children and adults alike; I have heard reports from parents of their children returning home after seeing the film and immediately tearing up all the instructions that came with their own Lego, while in adults the film seems to have tapped into a nostalgia for their own childhoods - before the domination of themed sets, franchise tie-ins, and video games, when (in the words of the now grown-up model from this 1981 advert) Lego was ‘simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message’, rather than the other way around. (Though it should be noted that franchise-themed sets like my own Back to the Future Lego also hold their own nostalgic value for adult fans.) However, as much as the film attempts to champion these pro-imagination, anti-instruction ideals, there can be no getting away from the fact that the film remains a Hollywood production driven by the desire to make a profit --" furthermore, it is not just any Hollywood production, but ‘yet another’ soulless cash-grab attempting to capitalise on the popularity of an existing toy. As such, some critics have questioned whether the film can be considered a work of art, a toy commercial, or both. Yet another set of oppositions can therefore be added to the above list: art and commerce. It is how the film manages to negotiate the fine line between the two which is worth exploring in further detail.

Within The Lego Movie these two elements are represented by the aforementioned Lord Business (also known as President Business in the context of Bricksburg) and the master builders - the Jedi-like group of individuals (most of whom are fictional and real ‘celebrities’ such as Batman, Superman and Shaquille O'Neal) who are able to visualise and build amazing structures out of whatever random Lego pieces they have to hand, and who assist Emmett in defeating Lord Business. Lord Business’ totalitarian regime is nicely surmised for us when Emmett naively lists some of the things that Lord Business controls within Bricksburg - voting machines, all history books, surveillance - and as we see him go about a normal day of his life: he follows instructions to the tee, resulting in no variation in his morning routine, and likes everything he is told to like from the infectiously (and sinisterly) catchy pop song ‘Everything is Awesome’ to chain restaurants and the fictional sitcom Where Are My Pants? (an all too on-the-nose send up of bafflingly popular real American sitcoms, but I won’t point fingers or name names). All of this oppressive regimentation is still not enough for Lord Business, who plans to make everything as perfect as he imagines by using the Kragle to spray super glue all over the whole Lego world, fixing it in place forever with no chance for variation, creativity, or independence of any kind. He hides this plan behind the façade of Taco Tuesday - ‘Free Tacos for everyone!’ - in order to distract the citizens of Bricksburg from his real intentions. (To reference the Frankfurt School once more, Lord Business’ use of popular, vacuous entertainment and free tacos to distract the masses from his evil plan is extremely reminiscent of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s theory of the culture industry - the use of popular culture to manipulate mass society into docility and passivity. Very heavy stuff for what many will sadly dismiss as a ‘mere’ children’s film.)

In stark contrast to Lord Business, the master builders are underground rebels attempting to find the Piece of Resistance and thwart his plan. They value individualism and creativity, not needing instructions or even other people to help them build marvellous creations. They are fighting to tear down the walls that Lord Business has built in order to segregate worlds based on their ‘theme’, therefore allowing the ordinary people of Bricksburg to mingle with cowboys, spacemen, pirates and even party it up with Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon. The possibilities are endless. The summation of the freedom championed by the master builders can be seen in Cloud Cuckoo Land - a place that seems like a mash-up between a children’s birthday party, a sweet factory and a night club - the secret realm in which they hold their meetings and is, supposedly, completely free of any rules, restriction, oppression, negativity and consistency. It is in this idealised world embodied by the master builders that the film most effectively depicts the simple joy of playing, and what I see as a particularly childlike form of playing. In Cloud Cuckoo Land - specifically, inside a giant pink dog’s head structure made of Lego - we see the most bizarre collection of characters immortalised in Lego form who we might never have expected to see in a scene together: Abraham Lincoln (on a jet-powered flying chair, because, why not?), Professor Dumbledore, Gandalf the Grey, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, William Shakespeare, a robot pirate and a cat-unicorn hybrid. And indeed, thanks to both the endless possibilities that Lego permits you to build and the prevalence of franchise tie-ins, a child at home can create a similar pop-cultural mash-up with their Lego. In an interview, The Lego Movie’s co-directors Lord and Miller explain how they were inspired by their own children playing with their Lego in this way:

‘…it was really important to us that we had a lot of different universes and a lot of different worlds colliding that had never collided before. Because that’s sort of the way kids play with Lego. They have them all in a bin. My son especially will put Batman and Chewbacca and a cowboy together on a spaceship.’

Video games such Disney Infinity and the sandbox mode in Lego Marvel Superheroes similarly allow players to create their own situations and narratives where familiar characters from different films and franchises meet (within the restrictions of copyright and licensing, of course). This type of playing is, in turn, reflective of the way children are often prone to play when left to their own devices and imaginations and which I was reminded of at a recent conference at which the PhD researcher Philip Waters presented. Waters’ research involves observing children playing in nature, without any toys or props other than what they can find in their environment, or interference from adults. Waters presented some videos of children playing in this way outdoors: in one clip some children were creating their own narrative involving characters from Harry Potter, in which the ‘leader’ declared himself both Harry and Voldemort (how that would work, I’m really not sure, but perhaps my adult imagination is no longer big enough to comprehend this); in another, two children never actually get around to playing because they are too busy arguing over which characters from several different films they will include in their game. One of the films, it is interesting to note, was Rise of the Guardians (Ramsey, 2012), itself a mash-up of famous mythical children’s figures such as Santa, Jack Frost and the Easter Bunny - how’s that for meta?

The Lego Movie itself can be largely considered the result of the filmmakers simply playing with toys and is really no more than a big-budget Hollywood version of stop-motion animated Lego fan-made films. (Just search YouTube for ‘Lego stop-motion’ and you will see what I mean.) In order to pay homage to films like these, stop-motion animation was used for the film with a blend of CGI to enhance and further mimic this style. The filmmakers went to great lengths to replicate the feel of building with real Lego pieces during production, explaining that only Lego bricks that exist in reality were used in the film, and each Lego piece was replicated digitally so that the animators could literally build the film brick-by-brick - the only difference being that they were building inside a computer. Tiny details also make all the difference in convincing the audience that these are real Lego pieces being played with, such as the crack on Benny the spaceman’s helmet (apparently a common issue with the real 1980s spaceman mini-figure), the fact that Vesuvius’ staff is actually a half-eaten lollipop and, if you look really closely, the human fingerprint which is often visible on Emmett’s body. The results are impressive: the film has a tangibility to it, enhanced by the use of 3D, that gives one the impression of watching real Lego pieces from a child’s toy box come to life. Out of the many, many things that The Lego Movie does brilliantly, the effort and clear love for the craft (both the crafts of filmmaking and Lego-building) shine through in the way that it wonderfully captures the simple joy of playing.

It is therefore in their encapsulation of the freedom and joy of playing that the master builders are presented, along with the naïve, disillusioned Emmett who falls between the two camps, as the film’s ‘good guys’. With this being said, there are many negative aspects to these characters that make them not quite as awesome as they at first seem. For all their positive aspects and good will, it has to be said that the master builders are kind of jerks. This is evident in many aspects of their behaviour, including but not limited to: the fact that they are willing to sacrifice Emmett’s life instead of handing over the Piece of Resistance; stealing Emmett’s ideas and passing them off as their own; and their unwillingness to work together as a team or consider the qualities, abilities or feelings of anyone else (displayed by their haphazardly built submarine, not letting Benny build a spaceship, and their ridiculing of Emmett’s double-decker sofa which then goes on to save their lives). They also share many qualities with the stereotypical hipster: anti-mainstream, anti-establishment, anti-consumerism, disparaging of anyone who is pro_- these things, ahead of the curve, and holding the mantra ‘I liked X before it was cool.’ (The ghost of Vesuvius utters this about Emmett in the film’s denouement.) This is not to say that possessing any of these qualities is bad, but with regards to the master builders it makes them somewhat hypocritical. Take, for example, the fact that many of the master builders are Lego celebrities, particularly superheroes like Batman and Superman. In the Lego universe within the film they may seem unique, however in reality they are simply replicas of pop culture icons, with thousands if not millions of identical Lego versions of themselves existing in shops and the bedrooms of children and comic enthusiasts all over the world. The fact that so many master builders are celebrities also appears to have a negative effect on those who are not; take Wyldestyle (whose real name turns out to be Lucy), the ultra-cool girl who introduces Emmett to the wider Lego universe. A joke is made out of the fact that she has changed her name multiple times due to being insecure, and while it is never explained why she feels this way, we might guess that this has something to do with the pressure of living up to being surrounded by celebrity master builders and being the girlfriend of Batman (who, in taking the legendary character to his humorous extreme, is the biggest jerk of them all). Unikitty is another example of a master builder who suffers what can only be described as emotional trauma: in her instance on excluding any kind of negativity from Cloud Cuckoo Land she represses all negative emotions in herself (Freud would have a field day), resulting in her exploding in a fit of rage. As for Cloud Cuckoo Land, it might seem initially like a paradise of freedom in comparison to Bricksburg, however one gets the feeling that spending more than just a few minutes in the saccharine, multi-coloured and completely chaotic land would be insufferable, leaving one longing for the regimented order of Bricksburg - no wonder Batman grumpily says ‘I hate this place’ while being flanked on either side by a bopping clown and a crocodile. The destruction of Cloud Cuckoo Land is presented as a sad moment in the film, however let’s not forget that Finn, the live-action boy, is controlling all of this. In the live-action portion of the film the father brushes off Finn’s complaints by pointing to Finn’s specially designated cardboard box of Lego which seems to contain the discarded, random pieces for which the father has no use. The pieces are, significantly, the bright colours we see in Cloud Cuckoo Land and the box has a cloud logo on it. Cloud Cuckoo Land can therefore be read as being deliberately over-the-top and insufferable due to Finn’s resentment for it, and it’s destruction a sign of Finn rebelling against the higgledy-piggledy leftovers that his father has left while keeping all of the best pieces for himself.

Conversely, there are many positive aspects to Lord Business’ totalitarian regime. In demanding that everyone follow instructions (which are, it should be pointed out, conceived by imprisoned master builders) the people of Bricksburg work together to build amazing structures - it just so happens that these structures are banally repeated over and over with no variation. Though the instructions he demand everyone in Bricksburg live by are somewhat restrictive - dictating what songs, television shows and restaurants people should like - many of them are also simply common sense that everybody should be adhering to anyway: shower, wear clothes, exercise, and obey traffic signs. It is in this way that the regime can be likened to religion. Film Crit Hulk touches upon this theme in his review of the film, however I would like to briefly expand upon this, specifically in relation to Christianity. What Hulk does no go into is the similarity between these sensible instructions and the Ten Commandments. As an Atheist myself, I do not believe in God, nor most of the content of the Bible, yet I still follow most of the Ten Commandments. The reason for this is, I hope, obvious: regardless of whether or not I follow the Christian faith I am fully aware that committing murder, adultery or theft, to name a few, is morally corrupt. If not for any other reasons, to do any of these things would be selfish and do harm to another person, or persons. It is simply sensible advice, regardless of which deity one does or does not believe in. Similarly, not all of Lord Business’ rules might make complete sense, but those that do are adopted even by his enemies, the master builders. (I know this because the master builders wear clothes, but I am only assuming that they also wash and obey traffic sings when they’re not in the middle of trying to save the world.) The point is that everybody should probably follow most of Lord Business’ instructions within reason and as long as they fall within the basic remit of ‘being nice to other people’. What is missing from his regime is the freedom to not do them, or to do other things instead, i.e. what the master builders claim to be fighting for. However, as outlined above, the master builders can be just as restrictive as Lord Business; Batman only builds things out of black or very, very dark grey Lego, while Unikitty only works in pink and bans all negativity from Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Of course, in the middle of all this you have Emmett: the character with who unites the binary oppositions of Lord Business and the master builders. Emmett has been following the instructions his whole life (and is literally chasing a pamphlet of instructions when he stumbles across the Piece of Resistance). He follows the instructions so well, in fact, that he has no personality of his own. In meeting the master builders Emmett is encouraged to divert from the instructions and open up his creative side a little bit. The result is that Emmett is able to absorb the positive aspects of the master builders without becoming snobby elitists who cannot fathom the concept of teamwork. He is also able to enlighten them to the benefits of conformity, working together and following instructions, as he comes up with the plan to infiltrate Lord Business’ headquarters by building a spaceship according to the instructions and blending in as robots. In other words, Emmett is able to display how good things can come from something that seems restrictive and corporate. The song ‘Everything is Awesome’ might be a catchy satire of overly-produced, overly-cheerful pop music, but listen to the lyrics and it also carries this message: ‘Everything is awesome when you’re part of a team […] we’re all working in harmony.’ However, when we consider the film in its context as a Hollywood production it is not at all surprising that the film gives equal weight to the positive and negative aspects of both the ideologies of Lord Business and the master builders, and does not entirely shun ‘the instructions’.

In an interview discussing the possibilities of a sequel to The Lego Movie, Lord and Miller said, ‘One of the problems we made for ourselves is the brand of the movie is originality. So it's really hard to sequelize that.’ Indeed, The Lego Movie does feel very much like something original that no one had ever seen before. Part of this may be down to nobody expecting a film based on a popular toy to be so good. (In fairness, the Transformers series [2007-] don’t exactly set a high bar.) However, branding the film as ‘original’ will inevitably result in some criticism. Apart from the fact the film is based on an existing property and features dozens of famous characters, it also follows a fairly basic hero’s journey. While the film does satirise the hero’s journey by revealing that Vesuvius’ prophecy was made up and that Emmett is not the Special after all, he goes through a zero-to-hero arc none-the-less, and the message that ‘anyone can be the Special’ isn’t exactly anything new. The /Filmcast’s review pointed out the film’s adherence to the typical hero’s journey as a flaw with the film, and contradictory to its overall message that one should divert from the ‘instructions’; however, my response to this criticism would be, what did you expect from a mainstream Hollywood film, the main purpose of which is to make a profit? Being based on a toy and primarily aimed at children, one can surmise that the film has made most of its revenue from the sale of ancillary products. Despite the fact that the film turned out to be much better than anyone expected, the film’s status as a production of a Hollywood corporation and its sole purpose being to make money are evident within the film.

As mentioned several times already, the film features Lego versions of several superheroes, all of which are from the DC universe. One can imagine that Lord and Miller would have liked to mash-up pop culture even further by including Spider-Man and other Marvel characters in the film (just as a child would be able to at home). However, the film is produced by Warner Bros., the very same company that holds the film rights to DC Comics, while Marvel are owned by Disney. Although Lord and Miller deny studio interference and, as quoted above, attempted to include as many famous characters as possible in order to replicate the feel of a child’s collection, the film’s ability to be as truly expansive as the directors might have liked is undoubtedly hindered by issues of licensing and the studio’s desire to not endorse the products of a rival company. The fact that one of the film’s main purposes is to make a profit results in further contradictions. That the film is based on a toy results in the ability to produce even further toys based on the toys from the film (which is based on a toy - still with me?). In spite of the film’s seemingly anti-instruction message, the toys based on the film come with instructions of their own so that you can build your very own versions of everything in the film - even the rebels’ chaotic paradise, Cloud Cuckoo Land. However, unlike the merchandise and marketing associated with other Hollywood franchises - I’m looking at you, The Hunger Games - this is not as contradictory to the message of The Lego Movie as one might first think. Some children might have gone home after the The Lego Movie and tore up their instructions, and that’s fine. However, we must remember the wise words spoken by Emmett to Lord Business during the film’s finale: ‘Look at these things that people built. You might see a mess… what I see are people, inspired by each other, and by you. People taking what you made and making something new out of it.’ It is therefore perfectly fine for children to go home and build Cloud Cuckoo Land, the Batmobile or whatever they please by precisely following the instructions. It’s also fine (and, I would argue, encouraged) for them to then take what they have built and add to it, remove things from it, and mix it up with something else; as Emmett says, they can be inspired by what they have seen in the film and create something new.

One also cannot help but imagine that Emmett’s words are Lord and Miller’s message to Hollywood. Much has been made by the press in recent years about the reliance in Hollywood filmmaking on sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, and basing films on existing properties --" in other words, on following the instructions. Hollywood filmmaking has been declared stifling and airless’, afraid of new ideas, and as good as dead. The Lego Movie might, on the surface, seem like just another Hollywood cash-grab, but what it really shows is that wonderful, new, and surprising things can be made by taking a well-known and ‘safe’ structure, and diverting from it and building upon it. Lord and Miller also showed that they could do this with their similarly surprising take on 21 Jump Street, a film remake of the 1980s teen series. What nobody expected was that the film would turn out to be a brilliant send-up of both the action and teen genres, while still managing to be a genuinely good entry in each. When they then made the sequel, 22 Jump Street, they repeated this formula but also added a hilarious satirisation of Hollywood sequels into the mix. With just these three films, Lord and Miller have established themselves as auteurs of ‘making something great out of something that could have otherwise been kind of rubbish’. (As a side-note, a similar argument about creating new, exciting things out of old Hollywood formulae could be made about one of my other favourite films of 2014 so far, Edge of Tomorrow [Liman, 2014]. What seemed from the marketing to be just a hybrid between Groundhog Day [Ramis, 1993] and any other run-of-the-mill Tom Cruise sci-fi-action flick uses the theme of repetition and variation within the film itself to create something that feels wholly original, new, and wonderfully enjoyable.)

This is not to say that there are not some legitimate drawbacks to The Lego Movie’s adherence to Hollywood formula. As much as it tries to deviate, it still falls into some of its trappings, particularly to do with the representation of gender. Lego itself has been criticised in recent years for its introduction of the ‘Friends’ sets which was designed to appeal to girls: predominantly pink and purple colours, doll-like female characters, and narratives based on female stereotypes such as baking and beauty. Combined with other, ‘normal’ Lego sets’ emphases towards sci-fi, fantasy and superhero themes, and the inclusion of only boys in the adverts for these, the message sent was that girls were excluded from all Lego, except the one small corner of it which was specifically designed for them. It is therefore disappointing that Wyldestyle is the only humanoid female character with a key role in the film, and while she might seem to be a ‘strong female character’, at the end of the film she asks Batman’s permission to break up with him and date someone else. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, has one line while Superman, Batman and even the Green Lantern get several. Girls and women are also excluded from the live-action storyline which focuses on a father-son relationship; the mother remains out of sight making tacos, while the inclusion of the sister in playtime is seen as an invasion. That The Lego Movie does so much right makes its lack of diversity all the more disappointing.

Before concluding, it is interesting to compare The Lego Movie’s with another film about toys: the Belgian/French/Luxembourgish stop-motion animated film A Town Called Panic/Panique Au Village (Aubier and Patar, 2009); however, where The Lego Movie’s depiction of this is affected by its status as a mainstream studio production, A Town Called Panic’s is affected by being precisely the opposite, i.e. a low-budget, foreign-language, independent production. (I preface my discussion of A Town Called Panic by urging readers to seek out the original French-language version of the film with English subtitles, rather than the dubbed version. As I will describe, the film is completely bonkers, an effect which is brilliantly enhanced by the French dialogue and can simply not be captured by much too normal-sounding English dubbing. To watch the film in English would be akin to if Pingu’s made-up honking gibberish language that makes it so great was dubbed with perfect English.)

<i>A Town Called Panic</i>
A Town Called Panic

To accurately describe the narrative of A Town Called Panic is, unlike The Lego Movie, not particularly easy. While The Lego Movie’s narrative is reasonably straightforward, A Town Called Panic has been described by critics with drug-related words and phrases: hallucinogenic, Toy Story on absinthe, Magic Roundabout on speed, and so on. The story begins with a horse, a cowboy, and an indian living in a house together. It is Horse’s birthday, and Cowboy and Indian have forgotten to get him a present. They make a last-minute order for fifty bricks to build him a barbeque but accidentally order fifty million. From here, things escalate in a seemingly random sequence of events that involve the walls of their house being stolen by underwater creatures with names like Gérard, a giant penguin-shaped tank that can fling massive snowballs to any point on the globe, and farm animals that go to piano lessons and listen to heavy metal (but not at the same time). The film doesn’t really have a beginning, middle or an end - the whole thing is just bananas, as if it is all taking place inside Cloud Cuckoo Land, without the Lord Business-like tightly-structured narrative to keep it from going off the rails. Like Lego, Panic’s characters and sets are based on what I assume are real toys, but even if they aren’t they certainly look like the real deal: generic and cheap children’s figurines that you can buy in any toy shop, and (like Lego) you probably have kicking around in a toy box somewhere in your own, your parents’, or grandparents’ home. And, like The Lego Movie, other everyday objects are used in equally creative and baffling ways --" the substance inside a fire extinguisher is cotton wool, while characters drink coffee from life-sized mugs three-times the size of their own bodies. It is in the film’s madcap pleasures that it is just as accurate a portrayal of the joy of childish play as The Lego Movie, but in such a different and complimentary ways that the two films represent two sides of the same coin, and two very different types of filmmaking.

By way of a conclusion, I have an admission: The Lego Movie made me feel bad. The day after first seeing the film I caught a glimpse of my own Back to the Future Lego and realised that I never play with it. By only keeping it on display, keeping it as a fan of the film series rather than a fan of Lego, was I denying it of its true purpose? I began to imagine a Toy Story-like narrative in which my Doc and Marty mini-figures resented me for condemning them to a life bereft of playing. While I do not have children, I saw myself as the father from The Lego Movie, alienating his son and putting his own pleasures first. It was only when thinking about the film further, and in writing this piece, that I came to terms with my guilt. The father and Lord Business are not bad people because they want things to be constructed perfectly according to the instructions and preserved only to be looked at (Lego even has lines of adult-oriented products for this purpose, such as Lego Architecture); they are only bad people because the put those desires above the needs, desires and points of view of others. For now, I don’t play with my Back to the Future Lego, but I will quite happily share with others when the time comes to it (and if they say please and promise not to lose any of the pieces). If The Lego Movie has taught me anything, it’s that one thing is not inherently more awesome or important than another, whether an ideology, a method of filmmaking, the needs or desires of another person, or any of the sets of oppositions I listed at the beginning of this article: playing vs. preserving, creativity vs. conformity, messiness vs. perfection, childishness vs. adultness. In actuality, when we come to a compromise and work together, everything is awesome.

This Alternate Take was published on July 31, 2014.

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