If you would have asked me a couple of years ago about the prospects of The Lego Movie, based on the world-famous Lego line of plastic construction blocks and toys, I would have probably rolled my eyes and said, “Really? Is Hollywood that short of real ideas?” Had you told me a little later that the filmmakers behind the big-screen reboot of 21 Jump Street and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs were working on it, I might have shrugged and said, “That’s kind of interesting,” but I would have seriously doubted whether they could make it viable.
Flash forward to late January 2014, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are seated at a press conference being held at the Legoland amusement park in Southern California, where they are enjoying the acclaim and delight of the dozens of journalists assembled to interrogate them. The press corps can be a cynical lot, but not this time, because The Lego Movie is a genuine achievement, a clever and even brilliantly realized fantasy that makes its toys come to full life in a zany, breathless and pop culture-soaked adventure that takes some surprising and well-earned turns into poignancy and meaning as well.
The Lego Movie follows Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an unremarkable Lego figure who finds himself mistaken for The Special, an extraordinary little person who holds the secret to saving the Lego universe from the ruthless President/Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who hates change of any kind and wants to freeze the Lego multitudes in place once and for all. Emmet is joined on his quest by WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), her boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett), the mystic Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), the cuddly Unikitty (Alison Brie) and a team of Master Builders that include Superman, Green Lantern, Gandalf and other Lego characters out of pop culture and history.
“We wouldn’t have been interested in it if it was like, ‘We want to sell these toys! Come help us sell these toys!’” says Miller when asked how much influence the Lego company itself had in making the movie. “They’re doing really well as a company, so they didn’t need a movie. They had the same level of skepticism about a movie that we did, and so everybody agreed that it sort of had to be a film first and a film that was about something. So they were really very supportive of us and let us make the movie that we wanted to make.”
“The movie’s about somebody who realizes that there’s something within him that’s special,” says animation co-director Chris McKay. “And maybe he didn’t recognize it or maybe the society that he lives in didn’t recognize it, and I think that’s something that everybody identifies with. Whether you’re a titan of industry or a man on the street, you have that feeling that people don’t recognize your full potential and that there’s something really unique about you.”
McKay had to bring scores of Lego pieces to life in a way that made them seem like the real thing – of which there are many in the movie – while also utilizing modern-day visual effects technology. “The most difficult thing was getting a story that made sense and was entertaining,” says Miller when asked about the challenges of making the film. “But from a technical standpoint, I think getting the CG to look photo-realistic and be full of thumbprints and scratches and dust and dandruff, and making you think that it was a real Lego set that matched up with all the real Lego things that are in the movie so that couldn’t tell was probably the hardest part.”
Joining Lord, Miller and McKay at Legoland were Pratt, Banks, Freeman and Arnett, with Pratt – whose career is going nuclear right now with The Lego Movie opening and Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World on deck – describing how he related to playing a tiny little plastic figure: “There wasn’t a lot of back story because you know exactly who he is when he starts off. He’s this kind of sad, lonely character who doesn’t feel like anyone thinks he’s special, and through the course of this movie, he’s given an opportunity to do something very extraordinary and test himself and prove that he can believe in himself, and also become less lonely by inheriting this family of Master Builders. It’s like, in terms of ‘doofus with extraordinary things happening around him,’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know how to do that.’ It’s happening in my real life!”
For Arnett, the task of voicing Batman was different; here was a character with almost too much back history for his own good. “I had the easiest job in the sense that everybody knows who Batman is,” says the Arrested Development star. “But what was fun was taking that iconic character who is such a part of the fabric of popular culture and changing the rules to him a little bit. That was fun and funny to me, because he’s not necessarily the Batman that we’ve all become accustomed to.
“We were trying to see what would make us laugh and what we liked about all those (past) Batmen,” he recalls about getting the voice just right for this somewhat narcissistic take on the Caped Crusader. “So the first couple of sessions, we spent a lot of time finding that voice and what was kind of working and what wasn’t. We kept hitting on that the more serious Batman took himself, the funnier he was, and that’s where we ended up.”
The best part of playing the rebellious WyldStyle (whose real name is Lucy) for Banks was getting to avoid the usual gauntlet that female actors have to run for live-action movies. “Most of the time on a movie set, the girls have to be there two and a half hours before the boys have to show up,” remarks the actress, last seen as Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. “So getting to sleep in was great, and not caring about the hair and makeup and all that was great.”
She adds that voice work has other benefits as well. “In the booth, I do most of the recordings barefoot, for two reasons: partially because we’re not allowed to make any other noise — like you’re not even allowed to wear a watch that ticks because they hear everything — and plus I like to be really grounded and bounce around and jump around…it’s a really good workout, actually.”
As with other members of the cast and crew, Banks has children who are enamored with Lego toys like generations before them. Everyone on the panel (except Morgan Freeman, who jokes that his youngest child is 41 years old – but still recalls his kids playing with them) shares either their own memories of playing with Legos or watching their kids go crazy with them. It’s that shared experience of this deceptively simple toy (trivia: some 560 billion Lego pieces have been manufactured since the company started in 1949) that makes The Lego Movie enjoyable for Master Builders of all ages.
“They’re a really cool toy,” says Phil Lord. “And one of the reasons is that they’re a left brain toy and a right brain toy at the same time. They engage the creative side and the engineering side, and that’s one of the things that inspired us in the first place.”