To create and preserve, or to destroy and rebuild? As a child, you probably struggled with these profound impulses while messing around with Legos. That tension lies at the heart of "The Lego Movie," which doesn't at all feel like the extended toy commercial you might be fearing. Instead, it's the smartest, funniest and most dazzlingly inventive children's movie to come along in years.
Computer-animated in a stop-motion style -- with more than 15 million individual "bricks" -- "The Lego Movie" unfolds in a bright, multicolored world of those familiar dotted blocks and little yellow figures with U-shaped hands. Among them is Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt), a happily conformist construction worker who uncovers a dark plot: The tyrant Lord Business (Will Ferrell) plans to glue the entire Lego universe together, and only the Piece of Resistance can stop him. If Emmett wants to fight for unfettered creativity, he must throw away his instruction booklets and become a visionary Master Builder.
Directed by Chris Lord and Phil Miller ("Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"), who also helped write the screenplay, "The Lego Movie" shines on almost every level. The details are enchanting: Legos are used to create everything, including water, smoke and explosions; it's a brilliant collaboration between the virtual animation studio Animal Logic ("Happy Feet") and the Claymation craftsman Chris McKay ("Robot Chicken"). The characters sparkle, too, particularly the puppyish Emmet and his punky love interest, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). "The Lego Movie" also allows two legendary voices to get silly: Morgan Freeman, as the nonchalant guru Vitruvius, and Liam Neeson, pulling triple duty as the two-faced Good Cop/Bad Cop (and his dad, Pa Cop), are having an audibly excellent time. Will Arnett plays Batman as an insufferable Goth-rock poseur.
If anything, "The Lego Movie" is the rare children's movie that suffers from overambition. It's crammed a little too full of ideas, meta humor and conflicting narrative themes. There's also a death scene that, while played partly for laughs, may startle young viewers. All of that, however, still adds up to just a quibble. "The Lego Movie" is as much fun as, well, 15 million Legos.
PLOT In a conformist Lego world, one small figure fights for unfettered creativity.
RATING PG (action, some Lego violence)
CAST Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks
BOTTOM LINE One of the best kids' movies in years, with dazzling animation and a sparkling voice cast. It's more fun than you can shake a brick at.