Block party

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 5, 2014

If you had to pick a toy to make a movie about, a pile of low-tech Lego bricks might not be your first choice, with no obvious storyline attached to them or even characters, apart from those stiff little square-haired figurines.

But after six years in the making, The Lego Movie is finally hitting the big screen this week, with the Danish manufacturer of the blocks having inked a lucrative deal that could see it overtake fellow toy- maker Hasbro as the biggest toy brand in Hollywood.

Speaking to reporters at the Legoland theme park in Carlsbad, California, the film-makers and voice stars of the animated feature hope the movie will resonate with children as well as adults who, like themselves, have their own memories of playing with the building blocks.

Christopher Miller, who directed and co-wrote the movie with Phil Lord after both worked on the 2009 animated movie Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, says "the fact that Lego is such a beloved brand and has such positive connotations was really helpful" in recruiting big names such as Will Ferrell and Morgan Freeman for the project.

"Will said that his sons told him he had to do the movie," he says of the 46-year-old Anchorman star, whose three children are aged four to nine.

The inventive story centres on a Lego minifigurine named Emmet, an average Joe who is mistaken for a hero and swept up in a quest to stop an evil tyrant from destroying his world.

The tyrant is voiced by Ferrell, with Emmet played by actor Chris Pratt from the television show Parks And Recreation, and a supporting cast that include Freeman, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks and Liam Neeson. The film opens here tomorrow.

As its release date approaches, the cast say they have had to contend with an unusual level of excitement from the younger members of their family.

Arnett, a comedic actor known for his roles on television shows such as Arrested Development and 30 Rock, had taken his two boys, aged three and four, to Legoland for the day.

"Both of my kids are here today, making somebody's life miserable," he says, laughing. "And any time kids come here, you hear this frequency of, like, 'Eeeeeeeee!', of them freaking out. My boys have latched onto that and they're in that mode.

"And, yes, because I'm involved in the movie, Lego's been increasingly on their minds. All they want to do is build Lego all the time.

"At 6.30am, half an hour before we were to leave Los Angeles today, my three-year-old came into my room with an unopened box of a new Lego set and said, 'Can we build this?' And I said, 'Well, no, we're getting into the car to go to Legoland, we're not opening up a new box', and he's like, 'But can we do it now?'"

Banks, 39, and a mother of two children aged one and two, reports that she is getting "a lot of ticket requests" for the premiere, which she will be taking her young nephews to.

"Everyone wants to go to the premiere and be the hero to their seven-year-old."

Even though Lego's main target audience for its toys are those aged five to 12, the actors and directors hope that the movie, which is a comedic action- adventure with a bit of romance thrown in, has something for grown-ups too.

Pratt, who is saving the special movie edition Lego sets for when his one-year-old son grows up, says he has wanted to work with Lord and Miller ever since they wrote and directed Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, which featured his wife, actress Anna Faris.

"She did a voice in it and I was able to see how these guys worked and continued to polish this movie until the final movie was just so awesome, densely packed with comedy of all kinds that appealed to adults and kids. There's physical comedy and there are hilarious ironic jokes that would go over a lot of people's heads.

"The laughs per minute are very high. I like to call it LPM, and they operate at very high LPMs."

While the directors Lord and Miller might have been excellent at what they do, veteran actor Freeman, 76, did not expect to be spending so much time with just the two of them. This is the first animated feature he has put his voice to.

"It's not fun," he says, half-joking about acting alone in a recording booth. "I thought there would be a cast of actors and we would be interacting. But, no, it was just these two guys (the directors) and me.

"On the first day, I was really pretty much lost. I mean, I need a set, I need costumes... I'm not as nearly versatile as I thought I was. But by the second or third time, I got the hang of it."

Then there is the unique look of the film, which used computer-generated techniques designed to look like stop-motion animation, as well as about 15 million real Lego bricks and pieces to create this photo-realistic make-believe universe.

Lord and Miller do not want viewers to be able to tell the difference between the real and the computer-generated (CG) bricks.

"Everything that we did in CG, we wanted it to have nicks and scratches and dust and thumbprints and irregularity, so that you cannot tell what's real and what's not," Miller says, although he adds that using actual bricks was simply impossible for certain big action sequences - "because, no offence, but they're very expensive".

Getting the story, tone and animation just right was crucial to securing the blessing of the Lego company.

Six years ago, producer Dan Lin flew to Lego's headquarters in Billund, Denmark, to convince the company to let him and Warner Bros studio make the film.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the toy manufacturer was reluctant at first, as it was already doing extremely well with a core business that had shown itself to be virtually recession-proof.

Its executives eventually agreed and secured the company a sweet deal that includes a percentage of the gross revenue that the studio will receive from the movie - a package that surpasses the deal that toy company Hasbro made for the Transformers, G.I. Joe and Battleship movies that were based on their products.

In addition to selling millions of video games for Lego Batman and other titles sold for Warner Bros' gaming division, the company also has two hit Cartoon Network series airing in the United States - Ninjago: Masters Of Spinjitzu and Legends Of Chima - and has signed deals with various studios to bring other popular movie characters into its toy and video game properties, Hollywood Reporter says.

But none of this made The Lego Movie any less of a daunting prospect, both as a storytelling and a technical challenge.

At the press conference, Lin describes the collaboration with the toy manufacturer as "really a creative push and pull in how far can you go in making it funny for both adults and kids, while also appealing to the Lego audience".

The blank slate presented by the bricks themselves was, moreover, a blessing and a curse.

"The great thing about Lego, and also the hard thing about Lego, is that there's no story or characters. So Chris and Phil created all new characters for this movie. Because when you're playing with Lego, the experience as a kid is you're creating your own characters and your own story."

But Lord says it all worked out in the end, with the company's "master builders" helping to create models for the film and working closely with the film-makers.

"We're lucky because Lego is a really creative brand. We got inspired by the values of that company - innovation and creativity and free play.

"That isn't to say we didn't try to do things that they told us weren't okay but, by and large, we all had the same goals."

The Lego Movie opens in cinemas tomorrow.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 5, 2014

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