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Lego Movie: building a better toy film

Toy movies occupy a spot on the respectability meter somewhere between talking dog films and Showgirls.

Even in a business not always known for the most honourable of ambitions, films based on toy lines smack of a crass grab at cross-merchandising.

Since the popularity of the Transformers franchise, Hollywood has increasingly turned to Hasbro toys like G.I. Joe and Battleship to capitalise on their familiar brands.

Chris Miller and Phil Lord, co-writers and co-directors of The Lego Movie, were well aware of the dim reputation of toy movies. But in their short but rapidly ascending careers, the comic duo has turned weak premises like a 21 Jump Street remake and an adaptation of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs into surprisingly fresh, crowd-pleasing hits.

“One day we want to work on a movie that sounds like a good idea from the start,” jokes Miller. “Our success has been based on low expectations.”

The Lego Movie, opening on Thursday in the UAE, is far more inventive and satirical than you might expect. Made with a conscious resistance to the pitfall of toy-based movies, it’s imbued with a childlike playfulness and a subversive mockery of corporate control.

“We actually really enjoy a challenge and get excited by solving a seemingly impossible puzzle,” Miller says. “Each one of those movies — Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie — we were like, ‘That sounds terrible. It’s probably going to be terrible, unless… unless, there is one way you could do it.’”

“That’s basically our entire career,” says Lord.

The concept that Lord, 36, and Miller, 38, came up with was to capture the experience of playing in a deep box of the interlocking plastic bricks. In a world composed of Legos, following the rules, or the instructions, is a way of life. Workers happily sing the anthem Everything Is Awesome, and are pacified by bland state-controlled entertainment, like the TV show Where Are My Pants?

A law-abiding construction worker named Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) inadvertently stumbles across a rebellion against leader Lord Business (Will Ferrell), revealing a ragtag of mismatched characters, from Batman (Will Arnett) to Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte). A battle ensues between lock-step uniformity and creative chaos.

Saying just how much the movie mimics the experience of a child playing with Legos would spoil it. The Los Angeles Times called the film “the first-ever postmodern toy movie.”

“It was as open and infinite as looking at a bucket of bricks itself,” Miller said in a recent joint interview with Lord while the two stepped away from editing their upcoming sequel 22 Jump Street. “Our thinking was: What if this movie is told by an eight-year-old? We really wanted it to feel like it had the whimsy and randomness of being from the mind of a child.”

The Denmark-based Lego Group was approached by Warner Bros. producers in 2007 about making a movie, with an earlier story outline by Dan and Kevin Hageman. The company has in recent years expanded beyond toy sets to build numerous international theme parks, release several lines of video games with Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment and air the Cartoon Network TV series Ninjago (for which there are movie plans, too).

“The last thing that we wanted to do was be perceived as ‘Oh, this is just Lego trying to make more money, just to sell more toys,’” says Matthew Ashton, vice president of creative design for Lego and a producer on the film. “If you look at Lego as a creative medium, it’s very much like modelling clay is in a Wallace & Gromit movie. It’s just a different way of expressing a story.”

Ashton says filmmakers were given wide creative leeway and no featured toys were dictated by Lego: “Then we went through the script and cherry picked what we thought could make good toys and co-developed those things together.”

Miller and Lord met as freshman at Dartmouth College, drawn together by their similar sense of humour. They both had comic strips in the school paper and churned out student videos (a sample: Lord’s Man Bites Breakfast was told from the perspective of cereal).

Lord describes being sceptical about making what could be dismissed as a 90-minute commercial for Lego before they were energised by “a grassroots, bottom-up approach.”

“Then it started to get really exciting and feeling like, ‘Oh this can almost be subversive and cool and feel like we got away with something,’” Lord says.

Though Ashton says the pair challenged the Lego brand in a healthy way, Lord and Miller occasionally needed reminding that The Lego Movie was a family film.

“Our‘Clockwork Orange sequence didn’t go over very well,” says Lord, laughing.

They initially penned a re-education scene for Emmet, with his eyes forcibly held open, after he strays too far from Lord Business’ way of doing things. The Stanley Kubrick reference was deemed “not perfectly appropriate for family audiences”.

Miller and Lord nevertheless chuckle at what they were able to get away with in the movie.

“A lot of people are surprised that we don’t do drugs,” Lord says. “We’re able to access that childlike kind of thinking unassisted.”