5 reasons ‘The Lego Movie’ was the best animated film of 2014

Disappointment is in the air, and you know what that means—it must be Oscar season again.

Among the biggest snubs this year were the lack of nominations for Selma, with the Academy’s decision not to nominate director Ava DuVernay being the most disappointing of all. However, the Academy’s issue with diversity isn’t anything new or surprising, as the number of non-white members are famously low.

However, there were other snubs, too. Life Itself, the critically acclaimed portrait of renowned critic Roger Ebert (which Ava DuVernay actually appears in) was noticeably absent in the documentary category. Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get any love for his wonderfully creepy turn in Nightcrawler. And then there’s Gone Girl, aka the Internet’s most talked about movie, which only received a Best Actress nod, while latecomer American Sniper earned a whopping six, including one for Best Picture and Best Actor.

However, the most shocking of all these snubs was The Lego Movie. Now, that isn’t to say that the other films nominated in the Best Animated Feature category weren’t deserving. The Tale of Princess Kaguya earned universal acclaim as a wonder of hand-drawn animation from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. And How to Train Your Dragon 2 ended up being an impressive feminist triumph.

Yet neither of these films (or the others that were nominated) even comes close to the achievement that is The Lego Movie, which did fortunately earn a nomination for Best Original Song. Still, while the snubs for Selma might be the Academy’s most egregious oversight this year, their failure to recognize The Lego Movie, for whatever reason, as one of the Best Animated Features of the year is insane.

Because without a doubt, The Lego Movie was the best animated film of 2014. And here’s why.

1) It had the best voice cast of the year

It’s not uncommon for animated films to put together huge rosters of celebrities to fill out the vocal ensemble. However, while these efforts oftentimes feel like haphazard money grabs, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who were also behind last year’s also hilarious 22 Jump Street) managed to assemble a star-studded cast without it feeling remotely gimmicky.

The movie lives and dies on the performance of Chris Pratt, whose typically goofy persona perfectly fits the lead role of Emmet. Other big name actors deliver equally great performances, such Elizabeth Banks as Wildstyle (aka Lucy), Will Ferrell as Lord Business, Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius, Liam Neeson as Bad Cop/Good Cop, and Will Arnett as Batman, with the latter two being particularly amazing comedic turns. The rest of the cast includes Alison Brie as the unforgettable Unikitty, Channing Tatum as Superman, Jonah Hill as Green Lantern, Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman, Will Forte as Abraham Lincoln Nick Offerman as “Metal Beard,” Charlie Day as the spaceship-loving Benny, Shaquille O’Neal as himself, and finally, Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels reprising their original Star Wars roles of Lando Calrissian and C-3PO.

Getting all these great talents together in and of itself might be a feat, but what’s really amazing is how Lord and Miller perfectly use every one of them. No one is too distracting, or not funny enough. Instead, they all help complete the kind of frenetic, perfect chaos that The Lego Movie manages to achieve without ever going too far.   

2) It appealed to kids and adults alike

Not that the film wasn’t at risk of going too far. The Lego Movie is an assaultive, sensory, mile-per-minute experience that rarely lets up. Fortunately, in the moments that it does let up, it manages to be not only sweet, but quite profound (we’ll get to that later).

This sensibility is exactly why The Lego Movie works so well for all ages: Between the poppy, bubblegum aesthetic and the overall loudness of the film, there are traits that most any kid can enjoy. And it doesn’t matter if kids get that the Oscar-nominated “Everything is Awesome” is meant to be ironic or that Where Are My Pants? is a pretty spot-on parody of network sitcoms. They get that the music is catchy and fun and that the humor is inherently uproarious, and that’s enough. This balance of mature themes executed through a sillier style is smarter than the technique that many kids movies employ, which is to have a bunch of jokes meant for kids, and a few tossed in that only the adults will get for good measure.

However, like Lord and Miller’s previous animated work, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie just works because it’s funny, intelligent, and heartwarming in an ageless kind of way. The Lego Movie is the more mature film of these two, but it is also in many ways a beautiful development on what Lord and Miller started with Cloudy. The key to their work is that despite making “kids’ movies,” they know that children are smart, and a successful children’s movie has to work on an a universal level for everybody involved, kids and adults alike.

3) Its visuals were fantastic

The Lego Movie was not the only animated feature this year to look truly stunning. Princess Kaguya’s more traditional, hand-drawn style was beautiful in a subtler way, while fellow nominee The Boxtrolls went with the always difficult stop-motion animation. And Fox’s The Book of Life, which was not even nominated, certainly didn’t look like any other animated movie to come out this year. The same could also be said for Ireland’s Song of the Sea, which was nominated, but barely available to watch in 2014.

But none of these films matched the visual innovation of The Lego Movie. “Though the film is not a stop-motion endeavor, Miller and Lord did draw their initial inspirations from fan-made ‘brick films’ that utilize actual LEGOs to build out their settings and characters,” notes Screen Crush’s Kate Erbland. She continues:

Instead of going full-LEGO, Miller and Lord went for CG animation that mixes in real LEGO sets for some added veracity… They also used a modeling program that approximated the experience of snapping LEGOs together, one so intelligent that it would reject brick combinations that wouldn’t work in real life… Perhaps some of the confusion regarding the realism of the LEGOs in the film is due to, well, the seemingly very realistic look of the Legos in the film, animated or actual… The aim was to make the pieces look as if they had been played with out in the real world, not to make them pristine and perfect. 

As is the case with similar projects, the team behind The Lego Movie also made it a point to capture the various facial expressions of the film’s stars so that those could be translated into their animated character. No, The Lego Movie doesn’t just use standard LEGO faces, and it shows.”

While impressive visuals alone don’t make a movie great, shouldn’t the Academy take the actual animation into account when making their decision? Variety’s Peter Debruge contends that, “The Lego Movie may have been the year’s top animated movie in the public’s eye, earning more than $257 million and placing second highest on Rotten Tomatoes’ (adjusted) best-reviewed list of 2014 with a 96 percent fresh rating, but that doesn’t mean it represents the kind of artistry that the industry wants to celebrate.” Nevertheless, while the perceived artistry in films like The Boxtrolls and Princess Kaguya is present, it seems unfair to say that The Lego Movie didn’t have a visual aesthetic all of its own. And in many ways, the fact that The Lego Movie achieved this despite being computer-animated, and not stop-motion or hand-drawn, actually makes it more impressive.

4) It was unexpected

LEGO, the well-known toy manufacturer, is probably one of the most innovative companies in the world, and assuredly, The Lego Movie helped strengthen that brand. However, if someone had told you five years ago that they were going to put out a movie that was not only more than a 100 minute-long commercial, but which would also deal with complex, nuanced ideas, and end up being one of the best-reviewed films of the year, would you really have believed it? The thing is that The Lego Movie is good on its own, but given its entire context, it’s kind of miraculous. The truth is, all studio movies are advancing a brand in one way or another; no matter how good Frozen or The Avengers are, it’s important to remember that Disney is making these movies in large part so they can sell truckloads of toys.

That The Lego Movie went from being a film that people thought “might actually be good” to being considered a genuinely moving piece of storytelling shows just how much was stacked against it in the first place. And even if it is a 100 minute-long commercial, it’s the most thoughtful and emotionally intelligent 100 minute-long commercial that you’ll probably ever see.

5) It was brilliantly self-aware and satirical  

As mentioned above, while “Everything is Awesome” is an undeniably catchy song, it also functions as a fantastic comment on the homogenization of modern culture, as does the whole movie. At its center, The Lego Movie is a story about conformity and the willingness to be different in a world where everyone wants you to be the same. Just as LEGO the product allows, it urges viewers not to follow instructions and make up their own steps as they go along. Sure, the instructions are there, but The Lego Movie is a battle cry against rule-following. It acknowledges the simple pleasure in dumb sitcoms like “Where Are My Pants?” but suggests that real creativity and innovation are possible in art too. And in the end, the movie’s very existence proves that.

Of course, “thinking outside of the box” is probably the most watered-down, Pollyanna cliche of all, but it’s not as if The Lego Movie isn’t aware of this too. Let’s remember that we’re talking about a film based on a toy company; there are stockholders and CEOs and all other types of creativity-killing people at the center of this thing. However, what Miller and Lord have slyly done is to subvert these interests through the very product they are selling. As with the Jump Street series, which makes fun of traditional action cliches and studio demands while also embracing them wholeheartedly, The Lego Movie knows what it is.

However, by taking something which should only be a soul-sucking, money-generating venture, and making it approachable, poignant, and whip smart, they’ve shown that art can still exist in a consumer-driven society. Yes, the President Businesses of the world will always be out there, telling you to follow instructions and mind the assembly steps (this all culminates flawlessly in the movie’s twisty, unexpected climax). But building pristine, perfect models of life will never be as joyful as experiencing the fluidity and spontaneity that life is really made up of. Never mind that themes of friendship, ingenuity, and leadership also abound. Ultimately, it is the The Lego Movie’s own contradictory nature, and its ability to transcend that, which makes it such a success.

So far, it looks like Phil Lord and Chris Miller are taking their Oscar snub pretty well. But they should rest easy knowing what the rest of us have already figured out: The Lego Movie was the best animated feature of 2014, Academy endorsement or not. 

Photo via Warner Bros/YouTube

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.