CARLSBAD, Calif. — Chris Pratt admits that even he did a double-take when approached to be part of the animated comedy The Lego Movie.
For more than seven decades, the toy bricks from Denmark have been famous for making remarkable creations — but never on the Hollywood screen. Pratt assumed the first full-length theatrical feature (opening Friday nationwide) would be all about a safe story and cashing in on a huge fan base.
"I thought it was all about brand recognition, that they were probably doing the Q*bert movie at some studio and a Connect Four movie," says Pratt, referencing two popular games. "If anyone's heard of it, they are going to make a movie about it. The Kleenex movie — there's money to be made in that movie."
That was before he found out that the writing-directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were behind bringing the Lego world to animated life. Their off-kilter minds are behind unlikely, out-of-the-box hits such as 21 Jump Street, a film comedy based on the 1980s teen drama, and an animated film about raining food (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs).
"We tend to take on projects that seem like a bad idea at the time," says Miller, who is settled in a master suite at the Legoland Hotel.
"All we do is stuff that would seem to be terrible, and we count on low expectations," Lord jokes. "And we exceed those expectations. Honestly, we like the challenge."
The duo's response to the challenge was to come up with a highly irreverent adventure tale featuring a dim-witted hero, Emmet Brickowoski (voiced by Pratt), who comes up against the totalitarian leader of Bricksburg — President Business, or Lord Business (Will Ferrell), as the control freak is called behind the scenes.
There also is nonsensical prophet Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, sending up his authoritarian persona), beautiful Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and even a deep-voiced Lego Batman (Will Arnett). All of these characters appear in a world made entirely of real and computer-generated Legos, where even shower water and smoke appear in brick form.
"I'm glad I didn't have to think about how to pull this off," says Ferrell. "But these guys did. And it works."
Producer Dan Lin encountered skepticism when he started to work on the project five years ago and says the story was a "hard one to crack." Other toy properties such as Transformers and G.I. Joe had existing mythology and built-in characters when they transitioned to films.
The Lego team had to avoid falling into the toy tie-in trap while pleasing the core fan base of kids ages 5-12, their parents and the rabid Adult Fans of Legos (known as AFOLs). But they also wanted to reach teens who have moved on from the toys (known in Lego terms as the "dark ages") with the film's humor.
Lord says that during the film's editing, the concept of flopping crept in. "And we would have been this (toy) company's first failure in 70 years. It got a little nerve-racking there.''
This is not to mention the estimated $60 million in production costs for Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures.
But the team was ecstatic to see that the film's first trailer proved to be a hit with non-enthusiasts. And it stayed faithful to Lego's quirky ethos — especially as the characters adhere to Lego law, such as the inability to bend their plastic arms.
"There was a lot of skepticism out there before that," Miller says. "The first trailer was a big turnaround."
Paul Dergarabedian of the box-office tracking site Rentrak believes that with the trailers and clever marketing, distributor Warner Bros. "will have a hit on its hands." Box-office projections have it winning this weekend with $40 million and potential for a substantial run. Speculation abounds of a sequel being in the works, though producer Lin insists that "the fans will have to tell if they want more. There are certainly more worlds to explore."