This past weekend not only saw the first blockbuster of 2014 finally hit theaters, but also the first truly great movie of the year. And it wasn’t the WWII action-adventure epic starring George Clooney and Matt Damon (holy hell was The Monuments Men a terrible movie). No, it was a movie about Lego.
The Lego Movie stunned industry pundits by assembling an astounding $69.1 million debut at the box office—the best of the year so far—while also earning raves from critics, with a 95 percent approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes. To put that in perspective, only two Oscar nominees for Best Picture, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, scored higher. Yep. The Lego Movie: Better than American Hustle!
It’s the kind of surprise success that inspires scores of think pieces attempting to pick apart—brick by brick, if you will—how a film based on toy building blocks came out of nowhere to become the toast of Hollywood. (A few favorite headlines: “The Lego Movie: Did It Make You Cry?,” “Can The Lego Movie Really Be THAT Good?,” and “Fox Host Calls Lego Movie ‘Anti-Business.’”)
Sifting through the pieces, here’s why The Lego Movie clicked with moviegoers:
It’s freaking freezing out. It’s cold. Really cold. Snow is falling. Wind is blowing. Cars are getting stuck on Atlanta highways for days at a time. It’s not like families are going to spend the weekend at the amusement park. Family films frequently tend to perform better than expected because, when analyzing box-office prospects, pundits often forget to take one key thing into account: families need something to do.
Since Frozen was released back in November, it’s been slim pickings for parents at the cineplex. So slim, in fact, that Frozen continued, right up until this weekend, to be either the number one or two movie at the box office…three months into its run. Its dominance is owed to the fact that a) it’s frozen outside (hey-o!) so families keep coming back for repeat outings, b) it’s really, really good (like, incredibly good), and c) the only real supposed-rival family film released since—The Nut Job—wasn’t.
Knowing that another frigid weekend was ahead and kids still needed to be entertained, parents raced to theaters to see The Lego Movie. Not only did the fresh option mean they wouldn’t have to sit through Frozen for a twelfth time—though that sounds like heaven to me—but the rave reviews for the film probably excited them to see it more.
It’s Lego! Listen, no one is cheering Hollywood for its groan-worthy insistence on mining every single brand name, franchise, and toy for box-office cash. (There were, at times, Stretch Armstrong and Ouija board movies in the works. Seriously.) But it’s next-to-impossible not to be charmed by the idea of Lego on the big screen. Internet culture and the Buzzfeed generation have combined to make nostalgia as much of a dominant force dictating the success of entertainment product as marketing. The triumph of Frozen, which audiences swooned over for its resemblance to the modern Disney classics like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, speaks to that.
Most people have their own personal connection to Lego: getting their first set when they were 5 or 6, playing for so long the bricks would leave impressions on their thumbs, buying sets for their own kids, nephews, nieces—what have you—when they were older. For them, the release of The Lego Movie is akin to discovering an old container of their own childhood Lego pieces in the attic of their parents’ house. The movie’s mere existence is a warm and fuzzy feeling, made warmer and fuzzier at the reassurance by critics that the beloved brand hadn’t been bastardized by Hollywood, that the movie was actually really good.
Simply put: if you were a father who played with Lego and you had a kid under the age of 10, you were gladly piling them into the minivan and taking them to this movie this weekend.
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are recycling fiends. It may seem weird at first to hear that The Lego Movie—a PG-rated, animated charmer—is from the directors of 21 Jump Street—a raunchy, R-rated comedy romp. But on second thought it actually makes perfect sense. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller not only wrote and directed Lego and directed Jump Street, they wrote and directed 2009’s Oscar-nominated animated film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. The throughline with all three films: they’re all based on cherished, already-established properties with rich, almost hallowed histories.
In each case, Lord and Miller have managed to pay homage to the property the film was based on while at the same time reinventing and bringing them to the screen in a whole new, fresh light. Did anyone really think that an R-rated comedy reboot of 21 Jump Street starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill could really be as inspired as Lord and Miller’s film was? Or that their Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs would end up being such a lovely buffet of whimsy and sly humor?
The duo has worked their same magic on The Lego Movie, building a film that’s wacky and irreverent, cinematically dazzling (the CGI is great!), imaginative, unexpectedly moving, and with a script packed jokes firing off at machine-gun pace. For as cute and energetic as the film is, that there crystallizes the success of The Lego Movie to a singular element: it’s awesome. As they say in the film, everything is awesome.