Phil Lord and Chris Miller had heard the concerns in Hollywood about a movie based on the enormously popular Lego building toy. The writer-directors even had misgivings themselves, despite being lifetime fans of the Danish brand.
"At first we thought, 'Oh, I don't know. A movie based on a plastic brick?' " says Miller. "But we thought that maybe there is a way to do an interesting story as crazy and random as the toy itself. And we thought, we'll pitch this crazy idea and if they don't want to do it, then fine."
The duo has a reputation for turning crazy and random into box-office hits: They were behind Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street. So producer Dan Lin signed them up, giving the green light to write and direct the first studio Lego film, due Feb. 7.
In the 3-D computer-animated world of The Lego Movie (a second trailer drops Nov. 1), everything on the screen is a Lego. The duo plays to the legion of fans built over the past 50 years, yet they also follow their pledge of total randomness.
"In a weird way it's sort of the most commercial thing we could do, and at the same time this is gonzo, punk-rock anti-establishment kind of movie," says Lord. "It's the tension and marriage between the two that really excites us."
The oddball story ("sort of The Wizard of Oz meets The Matrix," says Lord) sets the toy universe in the town of Bricksburg, where the uptight CEO President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) and his crazed alter ego Lord Business (Ferrell) seek to take over the world and crush the free-form creativity expressed by rebel Master Builders such as the mystic Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman).
Meanwhile, the tough-as-nails Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) mistakes the exceedingly dim Lego-dude and construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) as the savior of the world, known as "The Special."
"We've basically made a movie about totalitarianism for kids," says Lord.
Also in the mix are classic Lego toys such as Bricksburg's crime-fighting Batman (Will Arnett) and Benny the Space Guy (Charlie Day).
The plot is a riff on the way fans enjoy Lego blocks, whether they follow the prescribed kits or simply use the pieces for free-form creations. The movie creators also strictly followed the rules of the existing toy universe - characters are not able to bend their arms, while the hands are fingerless and rounded.
"We definitely felt we wanted to honor the intense loyalty and passion people have for Legos," says Miller.
Another challenge was keeping the simple stenciled Lego toy faces rather than adding animated features such as lips and eyes.
"It was definitely something we had to convince people about," says Lord. "There was no confidence at first that you can tell a whole movie with facial features this simplistic."
But the end result, the filmmakers believe, is a story with heart that has been building excitement. Pratt feels it when he speaks to his test audience - his extended family. "When I run it past my brother and sister with kids, they are like, 'This is going to be the biggest thing ever.' Kids love Lego (toys) that much," he says
Carrying the major motion picture has left the Parks and Recreation star feeling a lot like "The Special."
"This character, maybe more than any I have ever played, is closest to who I am," says Pratt. "It's just a bewildered idiot who is not exactly sure why he's been given an opportunity to do something great. And he's hoping he doesn't screw up."