As it turned out, however, the movie surpassed even the most optimistic expectations, premiering with an estimated $69.1 million, nearly $50 million ahead of its nearest competitor. That makes it the biggest opening of the year to date, and the second biggest February opening ever, behind only "The Passion of the Christ" (which debuted with $83.9 million in 2004). That's also higher than the $65.4 million earned by 2012's "Battleship," the last big toy-to-movie adaptation, during its entire North American theatrical run.
What were the building blocks of "The Lego Movie"'s blockbuster success? Here are some of them.
The Script: Co-writing/co-directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller have a track record with both family-friendly animation (the "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" movies) and with pop-culture savvy movies that offer clever twists on familiar genres (the "Cloudy" movies again, and "21 Jump Street"). Plus, they know how to write jokes for kids and grown-ups in the same movie. By all accounts, they've crafted a story with appeal to every generation that's played with Lego toys, which is pretty much everyone alive.
The Brand: Unlike, say, "Battleship," Lego has been beloved and ubiquitous for decades. In recent years, they've increased goodwill by opening Lego retail stores and by creating short-film pop culture parodies that look like YouTube-sized dress rehearsals for "The Lego Movie."
The Cast: In addition to TV comedy pros like Chris Pratt, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Will Arnett, Cobie Smulders, and Alison Brie, the movie features such all-stars as Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell (in a dual role), and Liam Neeson. It even has "Star Wars" stars Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) and Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) reprising their famous characters. Execution aside, it's easily the most impressive voice cast of an animated feature in ages.
The Marketing: Lego and Warner Bros. have been especially creative with the marketing of the film. There are no fewer than 17 new Lego playsets associated with the movie, not to mention new character action figures. Viral marketing has allowed fans to place themselves in the trailers and even their own vehicle designs into the finished feature. Much has been made of the presence of familiar pop culture figures, including Batman (Arnett) and Superman (Channing Tatum), put together on the screen years before Warner Bros. will accomplish the pairing in a live-action movie. In short, the marketers did a fine job of reaching out to the geek community as well as to kids and families.
The Pre-Sales: According to Fandango, the movie has generated some of the biggest ticket pre-sale numbers of any animated movie since "Toy Story 3." Again, the notion of an "event movie" in February is rare, but the marketing managed to build up that kind of anticipation for "The Lego Movie."
The Reviews: The film has something like a 95 percent fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that most critics were charmed. Not that kids care about positively unanimous reviews, but that's the sort of recommendation that helps convince parents to sit through the movie as well.
The Word-of-Mouth: "The Lego Movie" earned an A grade at CinemaScore, indicating that audiences found the movie to be near perfect and would enthusiastically recommend it to others. That's important, given the movie's iffy premise -- an epic set in a toy universe, with many unfamiliar characters and a hard-to-explain plot.
The Timing: The opening of the Winter Olympics on Friday night may have hurt the film a little (sales picked up on Saturday, however), but otherwise, the movie's timing couldn't have been better. February is usually a bleak month for new films anyway, and its competition this week among new releases was a war drama for older audiences ("The Monuments Men") and a young-adult horror novel adaptation for tween and teen girls ("Vampire Academy"). And neither of those movies enjoyed the strong reviews or word-of-mouth that "The Lego Movie" did.
Plus, "The Lego Movie" not only had the family audience to itself this weekend, but it should own the demographic for the whole next month, until Fox's cartoon "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" opens four weeks from now. If it continues to build on its successful premiere, "The Lego Movie" will prove to Hollywood that you can have a blockbuster outside the summer season or the year-end holidays.
As long as you make a movie that pleases both audiences and critics, you can open it at any time of year and still have a hit.