The LEGO Movie never should’ve worked. Who wants to sit through what could only be a two-hour commercial from one of the biggest toy companies on Earth? The diminishing returns from its flood of spinoffs and rip-offs show how easily it all could’ve gone wrong.
But LEGO’s clever video games suggested there was some possibility there. And directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller specialize in making bad ideas sing. Still, no one could’ve predicted The LEGO Movie would be one of Hollywood’s greatest achievements of the past decade. Its success is partly due to the witty, hilarious script. And then there’s the surprisingly sincere emotion revealed in the last-act twist. There’s also the talented voice cast, including Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Chris Pratt, and Elizabeth Banks. Plus, there’s the sheer joy that goes into filling the movie’s colorful, detailed worlds.
The LEGO Movie is a tribute to imagination, not just for its story of the Master Builders fighting Lord Business’ plot to force conformity but for its own existence. There’s so much creativity here that it’s impossible to catch it all in one viewing, and here are a few surprising details that you might’ve missed.
The detailed LEGOs show years of wear and tear
The LEGO Movie‘s attention to detail goes into every frame, even when there’s nothing onscreen but a single character. After all, these LEGO figures don’t come mint out of the box — each of them is covered in the subtle little nicks and scratches that any well-loved toy would accumulate.
We first meet our hero, Emmet (Chris Pratt), with an extreme close-up on his eyes, allowing us to see the almost microscopic scratches in their painted-on finish. Benny the 1980-something spaceman (Charlie Day) looks like he really could’ve been around since 1980, with the sticker on his chest almost worn off, his missing face screen, and what may or may not be teeth marks. Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), the leader of the Master Builders, has slight tattering in his cloth cloak, as well as wrinkles and flakes in his rubber band headband. The creators have even discussed how they simulated fingerprints on the LEGOs even though they couldn’t actually reach out and touch them through the computer screen.
The LEGO Movie simulates stop-motion animation
The LEGO Movie was able to become a creative work of art instead of just a toy commercial at least partly because LEGOs have been inspiring creativity for years. There’s a whole genre of "brickfilms," homemade stop-motion animation created by photographing LEGO sets and splicing the individual frames together to create the illusion of movement. While everything in The LEGO Movie is high-tech CGI except for the stop-motion credits, a lot of that work goes into making the advanced animation appear low-tech.
The animators accomplished this stop-motion look in several subtle ways. For example, frames are missing from many scenes to simulate the trademark "herky-jerky" effect of stop-motion. When Master Builder Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is introduced using an electronic scanner to find the Piece of Resistance that could save the world, the lights on the scanner flicker between frames, just the way they would if you took dozens of photographs of them over several hours. The few times we get to see smoother animation, like when an unseen puppet master lowers a ghostly Vitruvius on a screen, they foreshadow the human hand controlling the heroes’ adventures.
The animators adapt an old trick for the LEGO world
Animation can be hard work. In the hand-drawn method, you have to redraw each character 24 times every second. So it’s only fair animators should cheat a little bit, and sometimes, they actually get better, livelier animation out of it. Looney Tunes‘ Chuck Jones introduced one popular technique called "smearing," which simulates the motion blur of live-action photography by stretching the characters move across the screen.
LEGOs aren’t really flexible enough to stretch that way, but The LEGO Movie‘s animators found a way to make smear animation work for them. Pause at the right moment in certain scenes, like when Benny finally gets to build his spaceship, and you can see the characters replaced with long LEGO bricks as they streak across the screen. Plus, pay close attention, and you’ll notice a more traditional version of the animated smear with Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) as he spins his head around to switch personalities.
The focus simulates the effects of really photographing LEGO-sized objects
As a CG-animated film, The LEGO Movie doesn’t actually use a physical camera. Nevertheless, the virtual "camera" is calibrated to capture the look of amateur brickfilms.
LEGOs are tiny little toys, and that can screw around with a camera’s focus. You get all kinds of strange effects, where one minifigure is in sharp focus while everything around it is blurry, or sometimes you get prismatic flares that bounce off the lens or reflect off the out-of-focus blobs in the background. You can get out your own camera and any LEGO-sized object at home and see what we’re talking about. You may end up seeing images an awful lot like what you see in The LEGO Movie.
These effects are flaws in the engineering of the camera (after all, they’re mostly used to film real people, who are a whole lot bigger than LEGO people), but those imperfections make The LEGO Movie feel much more believable than more polished filmmaking ever could.
The LEGO Movie cast plays off their personas
Stunt casting in animation is nothing new. But The LEGO Movie raises it to an art form. There are some big stars here, but they’re not just hanging around to put their names on the posters so parents will buy tickets. Many of them are having a great time sending up the personas they’ve developed over their live-action careers.
Morgan Freeman has played wise mentors in movies like Seven and Bruce Almighty, where he literally plays God. Vitruvius fits right in with those characters, but he’s also accident-prone and possibly senile. In recent years, Liam Neeson has graduated from prestigious dramatic actor to Hollywood’s ultimate tough guy, and there’s no one in the LEGO universe tougher than Bad Cop, to the point where he embarrasses himself more than anything else.
If anyone can out-manly Neeson, it’s Nick Offerman, who took machismo to Paul Bunyan levels as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation. He takes it even farther here as Captain Metalbeard, a badass pirate cyborg. And Charlie Day may be hyperactively unhinged as Charlie Kelly on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but even his character there might be freaked out by his manic performance as Benny, especially when he starts racing through the cosmos screaming, "Spaceship! Spaceship! Spaceship!"
The LEGO Movie is full of fun cameos
The LEGO Movie features plenty of stars in fun cameos. Harrison Ford couldn’t be bothered to play Han Solo again (at least since the barrels of Disney money that brought him back for The Force Awakens weren’t involved), but that really is Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and Shaquille O’Neal as himself.
Superman and the Green Lantern get a few brief scenes reimagining Lantern as Supes’ obnoxious fanboy, a running gag that’s twice as hilarious thanks to the comic chemistry between Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill of 21 Jump Street fame. A third Jump Street star, Dave Franco, cameos as one of Emmet’s coworkers, and so does Keegan-Michael Key of Key and Peele. The directors also reteam with the star of their breakout hit, Clone High, with Will Forte once again playing Abraham Lincoln, this time with a space chair.
After years working with Joss Whedon on a Wonder Woman movie that never got off the ground, How I Met Your Mother star Cobie Smulders finally gets to play the Amazing Amazon here. And the Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone drops in to play Shakespeare and a handful of other background characters.
Liam Neeson plays Bad Cop, Good Cop, and their dad
Liam Neeson’s late-career move to lowbrow action movies hasn’t given him much chance to show off his range, but The LEGO Movie gives him plenty — so much so you may not have realized some of his characters are him. He’s able to make Good Cop and Bad Cop seem like totally different characters, even though he plays both of them. When Lord Business erases the Good Cop side and Bad Cop hastily scribbles it back on with a marker, Liam Neeson even creates a voice for Bad Cop as Good Cop that’s distinct from either character.
And we haven’t even gotten to Neeson’s greatest act of vocal transformation. As he prepares to use his superweapon, the Kragle, to freeze the world, Lord Business tests Good Cop’s loyalty by forcing him to freeze his own parents. His dad is a sweet little old man who sounds nothing like the Liam Neeson we know. As it turns out, though, that’s exactly who he is. The power of acting!
Lord Business finds a new place to keep his coffee cups
Will Ferrell plays The LEGO Movie‘s villain, Lord Business, aka President Business, the ruler of Emmet’s hometown, Bricksburg. When the time comes to fight the Master Builders, he changes into his power suit, with light-up boots twice as tall as he is and a helmet topped by flame-shooting horns. Like everything else in the movie, it’s possible to build the suit out of real LEGO blocks, but some of them are used in some unexpected ways.
If you look closely, you’ll see those intimidating horns are topped by coffee cups. It’s a surreal and funny little gag, but it also makes sense to the character. Lord Business is a child’s idea of a grown-up (literally, as we find out near the end), and the coffee cup is a perfect symbol of adulthood — something kids can’t have but that adults are always drinking. And it’s appropriate for Lord Business specifically, the drink of choice to kickstart corporate go-getters in the morning and keep them conscious throughout the day.
Captain Metalbeard’s design hides a visual pun
Nick Offerman’s Captain Metalbeard is one of the movie’s strangest LEGO creations. We learn that the Master Builder was reduced to nothing but a head and some organs in a failed attack on Lord Business’ stronghold. After getting absolutely destroyed, Captain Metalbeard replaced his missing body parts with all kinds of thematically appropriate LEGO pieces. One hand is made of two cannons, and the other has a shark and telescope mounted on its wrist. His left leg includes an anchor and a wooden barrel, and he’s got a ship’s steering wheel attached to his elbow. But the designers hid the cleverest part of their creation in his chest, which is made out of totally different kind of chest — one of the old-fashioned wooden trunks where pirates hid their treasure. It’s a nice little gag that you might’ve missed the first time around.
Some of the names in The LEGO Movie get pretty literary
No one goes to The LEGO Movie expecting highbrow, edifying entertainment. After all, it’s just a kiddie cartoon movie, and it may be packed with cultural references, but most of them — Star Wars, Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — don’t exactly belong in the halls of learning.
There are some surprising exceptions, though. The Master Builders’ secret hideout in the fantastical world of Cloud Cuckoo Land traces its origins back to the classical literature of Ancient Greece. In his satirical play The Birds, Aristophanes reveals that birds had been the original gods, and the hero Pisthetaerus convinces them to retake their divine status by building a city in the sky. When translated into English, the city is called … Cloud Cuckoo Land.
And "Vitruvius" may sound like a generic fantasy name, but it actually comes from another ancient source. A true master builder, the historical Vitruvius was a Roman architect who designed the empire’s war machines. He also wrote the definitive text De Architectura, which has inspired countless scholars and artists, including Leonardo Da Vinci, who created one of his most famous sketches, The Vitruvian Man, based on Vitruvius’ theory of the perfectly proportioned human body.
Keep your eyes on the background
In the densely populated world of The LEGO Movie, you can’t afford to take your eyes off the screen for a second, or you might miss something hilarious. While Lord Business shows off his collection of human artifacts, he tosses away the "Cloak of Band-Ayeed." You may want to focus on his tense conversation with Bad Cop, but don’t ignore the background, where the Band-Aid lands on some poor robot’s face and gets another one stuck when he tries to help him get it off.
Plus, when Emmet and Wyldstyle escape Lord Business’ goons by smashing through a portal from Bricksburg to the Old West, the new setting is introduced with a giant title in the sky. In most movies, this would just be a visual device. But look in the background as the heroes ride into town, and you’ll see there really are giant words hanging in the air behind them.
Also, Bad Cop’s parody of police show clichés involves taking out his frustrations on a metal chair. Even when he’s not in the interrogation room, one of his robot lackeys brings him one to throw around. And if you watch the background when his "scuba cops" fail to find the Piece of Resistance after sinking Emmet’s submarine, you can see a tiny chair fly out of his flying car in the distance.
Classic LEGO sets make split-second cameos
When Lord Business took power, he closed off all the LEGO worlds that had once been able to interact with each other. We get to see a few of them — Bricksburg, The Old West, Cloud Cuckoo Land, and Middle Zealand — but Wyldstyle explains that there are many more. As she does, a few of them flash by so quickly it’s almost impossible to take them all in at once, but diehard LEGO fans will want to try their best anyway.
They’re all based on fondly remembered LEGO sets, including preschool-oriented Fabuland line, the Barbiesque LEGO Friends, a tie-in with the Wachowski sisters’ 2008 Speed Racer movie (Speed appears again as part of Metalbeard’s doomed expedition to Lord Business’ fortress), and Pirates’ Cove from the Legoland theme park. Fans will be especially happy to see the cult favorite Bionicle toys, a sci-fi fantasy world that comics and direct-to-video movies expanded with a surprisingly complex mythology. Not all the fans appreciated it, though. Some of them took Wydstyle’s description of it as one of "a whole bunch of others we don’t need to mention" as a personal insult.
Pause at the right time for the full Laws of the Sea
During the attack on Lord Business’ tower, Captain Metalbeard disguises himself as a copy machine when he hears some of villainous minions walking by. Unfortunately, one of them decides to try the old "photocopy your butt" gag, and Metalbeard breaks character to blow him away. He explains that the robot broke the first Law of the Sea — "never place your rear end on a pirate’s face."
For barely a second, the screen flashes to the full laws, but unless you completed the world’s most advance speed-reading course, you’ll need your pause button to decipher them all. Laws two through five are "never put ye hand in a clam’s mouth," "always abandon a lost cause," "never wear a dress on Tuesday," and "never release a kraken." That last one’s a clever play on Liam Neeson’s iconic line from the trailer for Clash of the Titans a couple years earlier, which he gets to riff on himself when he orders his men to "release the Kragle."
The Think Tank is the LEGO world’s version of the minifigure display wall
The LEGO Movie‘s last act pulls off one of the best-executed plot twists in recent memory. It reveals that our heroes really are LEGOs and that their struggle with Lord Business reflects the relationship between a LEGO-loving kid named Finn (Jadon Sand) and his uptight dad (also Will Ferrell), who takes his playtime far too seriously and refuses to share his meticulously built city with his son. The revelation recontextualizes a lot of what we’ve seen before — the obsessive instruction-following, the Kragle (actually Krazy Glue with part of the label worn off), and the cosmic force the characters call the Man Upstairs, who’s literally just a man from upstairs (he keeps his LEGOs in the basement).
However, some of the connections are easy to miss. Lord Business gets his instructions from kidnapped Master Builders who are trapped in the Think Tank — stacks of jail cells too small to move in. You may miss it out of focus behind Finn and his dad, but the Man Upstairs keeps his minifigures in the kind of clear display rack many real-life LEGO collectors use, which looks suspiciously like the Think Tank.
The LEGO Movie score is by a New Wave legend
A lot of talent went into The LEGO Movie, including one behind-the-scenes player who may have escaped your notice. The musical score was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, a true cult hero of the ’70s and ’80s and frontman of the New Wave band Devo. One of the true oddities of a deeply odd subgenre, Devo was a high-concept act based on sci-fi and the concept of devolution, and the members were hard to miss with their matching yellow jumpsuits and red plastic helmets. Weird as they were, Devo briefly touched the mainstream consciousness with their single "Whip It," and other tracks like "Mongoloid" and "Jocko Homo" have become classics.
A cartoon score might seem like an odd career move for Mothersbaugh, but this is far from his first. He also scored all 13 seasons of Rugrats, Lord and Miller’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and many live-action movies, including Thor: Ragnarok, Happy Gilmore, and several Wes Anderson films.