Animators work with more freedom than other filmmakers theoretically, they can visualize anything but let's be honest: In the past few years, there has been such a glut of big-studio digital-cartoon features made in a conventionally pleasing, market-tested style that animation, in effect, has stopped surprising us. Frozen, much as I liked it, was jammed with overly familiar princess/sidekick/journey-of-redemption tropes. And it's hard to think of the last time a Pixar film made you go ''Wow!'' That's part of why The LEGO Movie is such outrageous and intoxicating fun. It may be a helter-skelter kiddie adventure built out of plastic toy components, but it's fast and original, it's conceptually audacious, it's visually astonishing, and it's 10 times more clever and smart and funny than it needed to be. Here, at last, is an animated comedy that never stops surprising you.
It's also startlingly sophisticated. The directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, have forged The LEGO Movie almost entirely out of digital imagery, but they replicate the primitive, eye-popping high of stop-motion animation, creating a LEGO universe as if it had been built piece by piece. Like Toy Story 19 years ago, the film fools your eye into thinking it's watching real plastic that moves, and the connection to the Toy Story films doesn't end there. The LEGO Movie, likewise, invents a kind of child-friendly meta universe in which the playthings on display are at once objects and characters. The transparently fake LEGO constructions embody the pure spirit of make-believe.
Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) is an ordinary-Joe construction worker, a LEGO Minifigure with a peg for a head. Each day, along with his Bricksburg neighbors, he chews over last night's episode of a sitcom called Where Are My Pants?, gets rooked for designer coffee at 37 bucks a pop, and bops along to the feel-good robotized disco anthem ''Everything Is Awesome.'' The LEGO Movie skewers a fascist entertainment state in which corporations now dictate every momentary pleasure. Using the building-block world of LEGO to parody the creeping conformity of our world, The LEGO Movie proves even more biting than WALL-E, because it has the sauciness to send up its own rise-of-a-hero story line. Presenting, with poker-faced mockery, a white-haired wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and a natteringly contentious group of superheroes from Batman (Will Arnett) to Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) to Abraham Lincoln (Orville Forte), the film wittily satirizes the overblown solemnity of fantasy franchise filmmaking.
You'd expect the hero to be a nonconformist, but Emmet, who has all the personality of a PEZ dispenser, really isn't special. That's part of the movie's subversive cheekiness. Lured by a sexy LEGO Minifigure named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), he falls in with a group of outcasts who think he's the Master Builder i.e., the One who can overthrow President Business (Will Ferrell), the CEO of the nation who is also Lord Business, a Vader-like despot. The film's comedy is very digressive, very free-associational (think Team America meets Family Guy). And though near the end The LEGO Movie takes a leap into outside-the-frame storytelling that may not have been necessary, that leap still neatly channels the film's theme: If you build it, life will be awesome. A