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Saturday, December 20, 2014         

MOVIE REVIEW


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Lego your assumptions

Clever writing and animation will delight viewers of all ages

By Peter Hartlaub

San Francisco Chronicle

POSTED:


It's easy to walk in with low expectations for "The Lego Movie," a film so saturated with product placement that every single scene doubles as a toy commercial. Adding to the cynicism is the early February release date, a time when quality family cinema is typically as plentiful as tulips on a freeway median.

The movie is a wonderful surprise, cleverly written and executed brick by brick with a visual panache. Filled with humor and action, the Warner Bros. movie pulls off an emotional finish that rivals some of Pixar's best work. You can argue, and not sound completely crazy, that this is a better film than one or two recent Academy Awards best picture nominees.

There were early signs that "The Lego Movie" might rise above mediocrity. It was directed and written by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who seem to specialize in stealthily making quality films, including the charming "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and a satisfying film remake of "21 Jump Street." Lego has a history of nurturing the brand; the company's video games have mostly been excellent in recent years.

‘THE LEGO MOVIE’
Rated: PG
* ** *
Opens today

But the first big-screen Lego movie has the feel of a passion project — where smart people were given a lot of resources and allowed to execute the craziest thoughts that came to their head. "The Lego Movie" is a PG film, but its closest comparison is the work of "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The single musical number, "Everything Is Awesome," is so effective, you'll wonder why Lord and Miller didn't make more.

"The Lego Movie" begins in the middle of a generic Lego city, where construction man Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) lives a lonely but upbeat life as one of the most boring Lego mini-figures. He is mistaken for a savior by love interest and rebel leader Wyldstyle, who is in a relationship with Batman.

(That love triangle is one of many insider nods for Lego-loving kids and adults. As anyone who has played with the toy can tell you, a construction worker is at the bottom of the Lego caste system, while only Lego Boba Fett is cooler than Lego Batman.)

As the friends work to save the city from the schemes of conformist tyrant Lord Business, the movie settles into a nice blend of sly rapid-fire humor and over-the-top action sequences that all seem hatched from a 9-year-old's imagination. With plastic brick people instead of flesh and blood, the filmmakers get a bit of a pass on the violent and racy content. If a real-life construction worker gets beheaded, it's unspeakably gory. A man photocopying his naked butt is lowbrow and obscene. When these things happen in the Lego world, it's kind of cute.

Lord and Miller offer a lot for adults — from unexpected pop culture nods to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it joke about failed Lego play sets. But that humor is rarely patronizing. So many lazier family filmmakers have dropped a line from "Taxi Driver" or a double entendre, counting on the joke sailing over kids' heads. Part of the uniqueness of "The Lego Movie" is that children and their chaperones can enjoy it on much the same level.

I felt a hint of worry about two-thirds of the way through, realizing that the movie's high marks for style were not matched by its substance. For all its in-the-moment satire and entertainment, the lack of a human heart became harder to ignore.

That's the last and best surprise from the makers of "The Lego Movie." We shall say no more, except that the finish exceeds the pleasures of the unexpected ending in "Frozen." This is becoming a wonderful trend in kid-friendly films: Making sure the adults walk home smiling as well.






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