Is The Lego Movie just one big ad? It’s so good you won’t care (Column)

…which makes it an even better ad I’ve seen two movies in the past week that made me contemplate deepening adulthood and the phenomenon of getting older. The first was last year’s Before Midnight, the third entry in Richard Linklater’s series about Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), a pair of star-crossed lovers who […]

…which makes it an even better ad

I’ve seen two movies in the past week that made me contemplate deepening adulthood and the phenomenon of getting older. The first was last year’s Before Midnight, the third entry in Richard Linklater’s series about Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), a pair of star-crossed lovers who first met in the 1995 film Before Sunrise. Nearly twenty years and a pair of twin girls later, the couple are just as much in love as they were back when grunge was still ruling the charts. However, the rigours of time have set in and the cracks of resentment are starting to show. Amid their loving and often-hilarious natural banter, there are also bitter fights, accusations and revelations of betrayal.

I found it to be an excellent movie, despite the exhausting arguments, because it made me think of my own relationships and how they’ve grown and evolved over time. Heading into my forties, it’s a gripping reminder that even the best friendships and loves are never perfect – they always need work and attention.

The second film to inspire similar ruminations is, believe it or not, The Lego Movie. Comparing an animated kid flick to a borderline art-house film may be a stretch or even bizarre, but it did just as much to get me thinking about some of the downsides of encroaching age.

The story starts off with a confrontation between the evil Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) as he wrestles with the blind wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) over a mysterious artifact known only as the Kragle. It’s pure absurdity, with Business mounted atop a pair of extending elevator boots that literally boost his stature. It’s also hard to take Ferrell’s voice seriously at the best of times, which makes his casting here perfect.

It turns out that Lord Business is also President Business, head of the Octan Corporation and Bricksburg, a giant metropolis made out of – of course – Lego. He wants the Kragle because it will help him achieve order. The artifact, we learn, has the power to freeze Lego creations in place, thereby preventing the citizens of Bricksburg from rearranging bricks into their own inspired creations.

Into this milieu steps Emmett Brickowski (Chris Pratt), a hapless construction worker who wants nothing but to fit in with his chums. He is a faithful follower of Octan’s “Instruction Booklet,” which contains rules on everything from what foods to eat to what TV shows to watch (the comedy “Where’s My Pants?” is the big hit) to what music to listen to. He understands that he’s a completely unremarkable person, and he likes it that way.

Enter Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), an enigmatic – and acrobatic – girl who sets Emmett’s heart racing. She’s looking for “The Special,” a prophesied saviour who will save the land from Lord Business’s evil scheme, and before we know it the duo head off on a colourful adventure through kooky locations including the Old West and the psychedelic Cloud Cuckoo Land. They pick up allies along the way, like excitable astronaut Benny (Charlie Day), cyborg pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) and yes… Batman (Will Arnett).

The Lego Movie is amazingly subversive for what it is. While it is a thinly veiled, albeit often hilarious commercial for the Danish company’s toys, it also conveys the rather timeless message that creativity and innovation are always preferable to order and following the rules, which applies not just to life in general, but also to Lego’s own products. Following the instructions is great as a starting point, the movie suggests, but people only discover who they are and what they’re capable of when they experiment. It’s hard to be cynical about such obvious commercialism when the fundamental theme is such a truism.

The message was driven home for me with a scene toward the end of the movie where a child and an adult debate what Lego is. “It’s a toy,” the youngster proclaims. “No, it’s a versatile interlocking brick system,” responds the adult. I yelped out loud – as an avid adult Lego fan, it was easily the funniest line in the movie. It wasn’t just an argument about toys, it was a veritable clash between the pros and cons of order and chaos.

For the next few days, I thought about that exchange and the film’s double-layered message in general. I’ve written before, as recently as last week, about how it’d be nice if there were an easy and convenient way to access alternative building instructions for Lego sets, since the company usually doesn’t provide those itself. I often look at my Lego Death Star, which has nearly 4,000 pieces, and wonder what else could be built with it – if only someone would give me different instructions.

And therein is a source of guilt, because such thoughts were unfathomable to me when I was a child. I would have much preferred to sit down and spend hours on my own creations and probably would have bristled at someone else trying to tell me what to build. Indeed, most of the fun of playing with Lego in those days came from trying to recreate Star Wars creations through simple experimentation, whereas today it all comes perfectly packaged with instructions.

The Lego Movie acknowledges that and almost warns against it – or at the very least it attempts to steer back toward those fundamentals. On a personal level, it reminds me of how out of touch with my own imagination I’ve become and how much I wish I could get back to it. That saddens me because in between all the responsibilities of adult life there never seems to be enough time in the day to sit down and turn that Death Star into something new.

Just like Before Midnight is a reminder that relationships take work, so too does The Lego Movie highlight that imagination and creativity also require a conscious investment – at least for some of us – the older we get.

This story originally appeared in Canadian Business.

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