Saturday, July 26, 2014

"The Lego Movie" Is Awesome

The main protagonists in The Lego Movie recall those in The Matrix.
The Lego Movie is the best film based on a toy or game since Clue. In and of itself, that doesn't mean much – the likes of Battleship, Dungeons and Dragons, and the Transformers and G.I. Joe franchises don’t set the bar very high, and stretching the concept to include films based on video games doesn't help raise it any.

It’s more telling to say The Lego Movie is a good film period, but it’s worth comparing the film to these other toy-based entries. Doing so helps spotlight the accomplishment of writer-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street), two guys who have made a habit of churning out the unlikeliest of good movies.

This could’ve easily been an awful endeavor, but Miller and Lord clearly put a lot of thought and hard work into making a movie that doesn't just feature Legos, but that gets at exactly what makes them so popular and then develops a worthwhile story around that. Lego sets come with directions, but anyone who played with them as a kid knows the best part was mixing up the pieces, joining pirates with knights and star fighters and using your imagination to create something original. The Lego Movie starts with that idea and then expands upon it.

As odd as it might seem to believe this, The Lego Movie is a film with a lot on its mind. Overall, it’s a critique of everyday fascism and a treatise against conformity, a film that stresses individualism, creativity and thinking for yourself. At the same time, it functions as a critique on counter culture movements, suggesting that individualism doesn't mean isolationism, that marching to the beat of your own drum is great but that teamwork is needed to affect change.

I know it sounds pretty heady for a kid’s movie, but there’s also a lot of fun to be had here. The film has a very witty and funny script, and the main story is the type of adventure a child might dream up. It focuses on President Business (Will Ferrell) and his evil plan to end the world with the help of an overzealous henchman Bad Cop/Good Cap (Liam Neeson, having a blast) and a weapon known as The Kragle.
Batman is Emmet's romantic competition. He's also a bit of a douche. 
Lacking an understanding of imagination and creativity, President Business has slowly indoctrinated the masses in his town of Bricksburg to always follow the directions, using mindless entertainment like the hit tune “Everything is Awesome” and the hit TV show “Where Are My Pants?” to lull the populace into becoming complacent consumer drones not that far removed from the characters in The Stepford Wives or Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Standing in opposition to President Business are the master builders, Lego people who believe in freedom, being unique and using your imagination to build whatever you want. They are led by wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and badass babe Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), but their numbers also includes Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie), and countless pop culture references like Shaquille O’Neil (Shaquille O’Neil). They wait in the shadows for the emergence of The Special – the smartest, most talented, most interesting person in the world – a Lego person who will find the mysterious object known as the Pièce de résistance and defeat the evil overlord once and for all.

Stumbling into the middle of all of this is Emmett (Chris Pratt), a mediocre, run-of-the-mill schlep who gets the Pièce de résistance stuck to his back and is assumed to be The Special. Parents will be reminded of The Matrix (comparisons between the two films can be found here), but kids may be thinking more about Kung Fu Panda. Either way, the film turns the whole “chosen one” trope on its head, suggesting anyone who believes in themselves can be special, that there is no one chosen one.  For a great examination of this idea and the troubling gender politics of it all, check out this thought-provoking read.

As if the film wasn't already overflowing with ideas, a third act twist that recalls a similar development in Happy Feet adds even more thematic dimension. (If you are the type who doesn’t want spoilers, it’s best not to read the next three paragraphs).
Professor Business means business.
After Emmett sacrifices himself to save the master builders, the film transitions to live action, and it is revealed the entire adventure has all come from the imagination of a little boy who is playing with his toys.

Scratch that; he’s playing with his dad’s toys. Ferrell plays the dad, and if that doesn't make it clear enough that he is the boy’s inspiration for President Business, the father’s insistence that his son keep away from his toys and not imaginatively build whatever he wants certainly does. To the father (known to Emmett as The Man Upstairs), Legos are not toys, they are a “highly sophisticated, interlocking brick system,” and he is in the process of gluing them together like he would model planes (The Kragle is actually a tube of Krazy Glue with a few letters scratched off). The entire thing plays like an indictment against a generation who look at toys as collectibles to be looked at but not played with.

This section also flirts with some interesting notions about imagination and creativity, about how stories and characters can begin to take on a life of their own. Although most of the film would seem to take place inside a child’s head, there is the fact that Emmett jumps off the table. It’s all very Pirandello, and while it’s not the focus of the story (as it was in the wonderful Ruby Sparks), it is in there.

Serving this many ideas so well goes a long way toward making me, as a viewer, OK with the fact that the whole movie is basically one long commercial. I’m naturally inclined to dislike this type of all-consuming product placement, but when woven so well into the fabric of the story, it’s hard to be all that annoyed. Plus, I mean, come on. Lego’s are super fun.

I’ve gotten this far into this review without mentioning the zippy animation, and that’s just ridiculous, because as dense as this film is thematically, it’s even more so visually. The frame is constantly packed with visual splendor and the animators have a lot of fun populating the world with all sorts of nostalgic nods. Of particular note is the way this team has so hilariously rendered Lego water and fire.

In addition to being the best toy-based movie since Clue, The Lego Movie is the best animated film since Wreck-it-Ralph, and flat out one of the best films of 2014. It’s really funny, crazy beautiful and absolutely brimming with inventiveness and ideas. I’m tempted to say those adapting toys to movies should take note, but really anyone making movies should do that. This is great entertainment for all ages. A