If the Looney Toons team had played with plastic blocks that snap together, "The Lego Movie" is the kind of surreal subversion they might have made. Their Looney heirs, the guys behind the original "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller), have turned a 90-minute exercise in product placement into a trippy clarion call for creativity -- for not following the instructions of these fiendishly simple Danish building blocks.
The story -- if you can call it that -- is a riff on "Tron," an alternate world out of sight of our own whose denizens lead an assault on conformity. The characters, ranging from a blind wizard (Morgan Freeman) and "master builder" ninja (Elizabeth Banks) to Batman (a growling Will Arnett), an evil overlord named President Business (Will Ferrell) and his Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) henchman, make the case that it's those who can improvise, invent and see the world differently who are "the special."
Mild-mannered Emmet (Chris Pratt) is just another yellow-faced Lego construction worker who is a model citizen in a planned society. He follows the rules.
"Always return a compliment. Always root for the local sports team ..."
Everybody loves the same TV show -- "Where Are My Pants?" Everybody's "jam" is the same song -- "Everything is AWEsome."
And then Emmet stumbles onto an object of prophecy, "the piece of resistance." That must mean he's the chosen one, "the special." So Wyldstyle (Banks) tries to help him get that "piece" to where it can stop President (actually Lord) Business from destroying the many Lego universes, from Bricksville to the Old West to Middle Zealand.
Jerky computer animation vividly mimics the shiny look and tactile feel of Lego blocks. The movie shows off these blocks as "the Original Transformers," clickable into a wild variety of shapes, from cities to saloons, sailing ships to the plastic sea they sail on.
Slapstick violence befalls the clueless Emmet and those who help him, "master builders" honored for their crazy-quilt Lego designs, making cars, motorcycles, stagecoaches and spaceships on the fly to aid in their escape.
Batman pitches in. The Green Lantern (a needy Jonah Hill) doesn't.
And out to stop them at every turn is the furious and sadistic Good Cop/Bad Cop, a two-faced police Lego both voiced by a foul-mouthed Neeson. ("Darn darn Darney Darn darn-it!")
A clever touch -- the writers note how creative kids slip small, everyday objects into their Lego play as golf balls (Teet-leest), Q-Tips, 9-volt batteries and Xacto knives ("The sword of Exact-Zero!") become exalted props in this universe.
The animation is a plastic-coated blur at times. Many of the jokes will fly over the heads of the intended audience, and the sermonizing about being creative gets repetitive. But from its slapstick physics to its theology ("The Man Upstairs"), "The Lego Movie" amuses and never fails to leave viewers -- especially adults -- a little dazzled at the demented audacity of it all.
'THe leGO MOVIE'
* * *
Rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)
Cast: Voices of Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell
Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes