Kids' toys and games have a poor track record as the basis for films. Since the broad-ranging "Toy Story" franchise doesn't really count (and with apologies to "Transformers" fans), the bar hasn't been set any higher than "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," "Clue" or perhaps "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra." But, in a minor miracle of pop cinema, "The Lego Movie" changes all that.
In the hands of screenwriter-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the witty team behind "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs"), "The Lego Movie" proves that there's a creative solution for almost any problem, including making a popular but also meaningful film about a product line of plastic interlocking toy bricks. Lord and Miller obviously started by asking themselves, "What's good about Legos? Why are they so popular?" and proceeded to answer those questions with a story built on thoughtful symbolism, crammed with eye-popping imagery, and populated (a la "Who Framed Roger Rabbit") with familiar characters.
It's just another day in Bricksburg for Emmet Brickowoski (Chris Pratt, in hilariously bubbly mode), an ordinary, regular, generic construction worker Lego "mini-figure" in a disturbingly conformist world. With his "prodigiously empty mind," Emmet is content to "follow the instructions" by rooting for the local sports team, drinking expensive coffee and singing insidiously infectious pop song "Everything is Awesome!!!" while he works. But a freedom fighter named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) informs Emmet he might be "the Special" prophesied by a wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman).
The surreal narrative that follows riffs on "The Matrix," with its hero getting his mind blown by alternate realities as he comes to terms with being, just maybe, the only one who can save Legokind. Dastardly President Business (Will Ferrell) wields corporate control over everything (including voting machines) and plans to freeze society into the polar opposite of freedom. Armed with "the piece of resistance" and aided by a team of "Master Builders" who "change everything," Emmet sets off on his Hero's Journey.
A phenomenal and very funny voice cast gives warmth to the impressive plastic-fantastic animation ("The Lego Movie" is -- appropriately, I guess -- exhausting to look at). Lord and Miller also get a charge from irreverent cultural parody, not only those characters allowed to roam free from the Warner Brothers stable (Will Arnett's douche-y Batman), but also sightings of Lego Shakespeare, Lego Lincoln, a "Star Wars" fly-by and a Shaq attack.
Get past the fact that you're watching a feature-length commercial (albeit for a product most can agree is a good one), and further still past that "Matrix"-y surface, and you'll find a thematic remake of "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen": zany episodes (in the Old West, Middle Zealand, CloudCuckooLand ...) provide a clothesline on which to hang social satire and an overriding message that an individual's imagination can trump social and cultural oppression. Throw out the instructions, and make what you want of the world. Plus butt jokes.