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Little blocks, big screen: meet the makers of The Lego Movie

It’s one of the most successful toys in history, but will it translate into success at the box office? The makers of The Lego Movie think they’ve built a winning formula, writes Kavita Daswani

 

WHEN FILMMAKERS Phil Lord and Christopher Millerwere first brought the idea to work on a Lego film, they were, as Miller puts it, “a little bit sceptical about doing a movie based on a toy”.

But then the duo (who had previously worked together on hit movies such as Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street) started watching what are popularly known as “brickfilms” – shorts based on Lego characters and pieces typically filmed in someone’s basement.

“And we realised we could do it in a way that could use Lego as a medium and not as a commercial to sell toys,” Miller says.

The result, four years on, is The Lego Movie, an animated extravaganza that fulfils their ambition to create a film that looks like a Lego play set has come to life.

The film centres on Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an average, easygoing construction worker, who is told that he is The Special; anointed as the saviour of the world. His nemesis is President Business, voiced by Will Ferrell, a corporate chieftain and ruler of the world.

Along the way, Emmet meets up with characters who help him in his quest.

Among them are: Wyldstyle, a fiery renegade and activist (voiced by Elizabeth Banks); a brooding Batman (voiced by Will Arnett); and the God-like Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman). On the other side, President Business has his henchman Bad Cop/Good Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson).

Miller said that although the idea was to create a Wizard of Oz-like entourage – with this cast of unique characters going off on a mission – the inherent creativity in the Lego world allowed the filmmakers to explore a huge range of possibilities.

“With a bucket of Lego, you can tell any story,” he says. “You can build an airplane or a dragon or a pirate ship – it’s whatever you can imagine.”

Lord and Miller – who conceived of the story and wrote the script (along with Dan and Kevin Hageman) as well as directed the film – were brought onto the project by producer Dan Lin, the Taiwanese-born CEO of Lin Pictures who had been Warner Bros’ senior vice-president of production.

Lin – who produced the two Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law, and Gangster Squad, for Warner Bros – says he was moved to acquire the Lego rights because he wanted his two sons, aged five and nine, to be able to watch something their father had worked on, and to be involved in making a film that embodied Lego’s core principles of creativity, imagination and fun that the entire family can participate in together.

Lin found though, that Lego was originally reluctant.

“They are one of the most successful toy brands in the world,” he says. “No matter what, every year their business increases 25 per cent. They knew that if the movie doesn’t do well, it can affect their brand.”

Lord and Miller agree that movies based on toys and games have had a checkered history (Battleship, anybody?), and that there is an inbuilt cynicism around the genre. “People bring their own negative feelings in the door of the movie theatre in the first place,” says Lord. “They are already sceptical, as it seems so clearly a commercial idea. But we’re lucky that people bring a lot of positive feelings about Lego to begin with.” And at a screening for 1,000 Lego employees in Denmark, Lin reports, people were coming up to him afterwards with tears in their eyes, because the filmmakers nailed the sensibility and aesthetic.

The story was key, as was choosing actors that could bring to life characters that are essentially blocks of plastic, with a limited range of movement.

Pratt, an up-and-coming actor who is best known for his part on the hit TV comedy Parks and Recreation (and has also been seen in Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty) says he could easily connect with the role of Emmet. “It’s right in my wheelhouse to play a guy who is not special, a normal, everyday kind of guy with a big heart, who dreams of being extraordinary,” he says.

The 34-year-old Pratt also could relate to the premise: at 17, he was selling coupons door-to-door; and at 19 he was virtually homeless, living in a van on the Hawaiian island of Maui, before being “discovered” while working as a waiter by actress-director Rae Dawn Chong who cast him in her short horror film, Cursed Part 3.

“I hadn’t put any thought into what I wanted to do,” he admits. “My friend’s parents asked me what I wanted to do, probably because I was living in a van, and I said I wanted to be an actor, with no sense of irony or cynicism or perspective, or any critical analysis on the chances of me becoming an actor, or analysing the complete lack of pro-activity on my part of doing anything to be an actor. Two months later, I was in LA, being an actor. So I could really relate to Emmet, yes.”

At its core, The Lego Movie’s story is a remarkably touching one. “It’s hard to make a movie that is both funny and emotional, that has something to say and is clear to the audience,” Miller says. “We kept tweaking it and changing it as far as we could until somebody told us to stop.

It’s really about a human dynamic. The way the adventure folds out is supposed to be reminiscent of how children play, and that’s why you can have Batman and Abraham Lincoln in the same scene.”

Miller and Lord also made a point of keeping the film’s pace fast; the core group of seven characters traverse a multitude of Lego worlds – the Wild West here, a pirate ship there – and pack the film with sly, sometimes even subversive humour. More specifically, The Lego Movie takes gentle jabs at the more ridiculous aspects of pop culture, setting itself in a world where everyone follows instructions and plays by the rules, with President Business demanding this compliance to assure his world domination.

“We figured out that the success of the brand is not top down, it’s bottom up, it’s what people do with it,” says Lord. “It’s not dictated, it’s populist. The hardest thing to do with an animated movie is to not make it feel synthetic, to feel like it’s handmade, where you can sense the human hand in it.

That’s what we wanted to make here.”

The film is a combination of computergenerated imagery (CGI) and actual Lego bricks – there were at least 15 million involved in production “We don’t want people to be able to tell the difference between what was real and what wasn’t,” says Miller. “We wanted it to feel like a real Lego set had come to life.” To that end, even the digital Lego pieces were given small scuffs and dings, making them appear as if they had been played with in the real world.

 

The Lego Movie opens on February 6

 

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