Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Lego Movie

Alternate Title:  Anything and Everything

One sentence synopsis:    A random Lego figure is recruited to save the entire universe in the company of a massive cast of pop culture characters.


A note before we begin:    I don't make a habit of seeing a lot of children's movies. There never seemed to be much of a point. Children's films are designed for a completely different audience, and while theoretically it should be possible to speak to a film's quality regardless of content, the fact remains that it's a stretch for me to get my mind around the slightly sideways logic and style of a typical kids film. That said, it's not like a children's movie must, by necessity, be of low quality, and I have made exceptions for films like Paranorman or Frozen (to say nothing of Pixar's work) before. I don't tend to read other reviews before selecting my weekly film, but there are occasions where buzz becomes impossible to dodge, and the accolades this film has been receiving made it rather hard to avoid. So while I had no intention originally of seeing the Lego Movie, dismissing it as the children's version of Battleship, the praise it had been garnering, as well as the interest of several friends of mine, led me to make another exception, and buckle down to see what everyone was talking about.


Things Havoc liked:  One of the great issues that afflicts modern franchise movies is that of licensing. The rights to produce a certain movie with certain characters or in a certain world are often considerably harder to obtain than the rest of the film, as so many failed projects and development-hell stories can attest to. So difficult is it to navigate the world of large-scale licensing, that entire movies are made for no reason other than to preserve a lapsing film license (the most recent Spiderman series is a particularly noxious example, but there are others), and thereby ensure the right to make other, ostensibly better films. This is the reason why despite thirty years of near-constant attempts towards this end, there has never been a Justice League movie (next year's Superman/Batman may be as close as we ever get), nor a Wonder Woman film, and is also why so many film series (such as Lord of the Rings) took forever to finally bring to the screen. The Lego corporation, on the other hand, has managed in recent years to circumvent this hellish process by employing their existing toy-set licenses to produce video games and TV shows (Lego Batman, Lego Star Wars, etc...) that employ the characters in question through the Lego master license. Lawsuits aplenty have been filed over this issue, but by and large, Lego has been able to use this system to do what others could not.

Why do I bring up licensing of all things while reviewing this film? Because this is a movie wherein Batman beats up Han Solo and Lando Calrissian and steals the hyperdrive from the Millenium Falcon, so as to give it to Twilight Sparkle and a Mecha-Pirate, who will employ it to save Superman, Gandalf the Grey, Abraham Lincoln, and the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers from the robotic armies of Will Farrel, and his right hand man: Liam Neeson's character from Taken.

The Lego Movie, a February dump-film based around a toy license, is amazing, a triumph of wit and writing and direction and sheer imagination, a movie that presents spectacle and wonder in league with the transformative powers of a child handed a hundred Lego sets and told to make whatever he would. In a year that has already given me Disney's apparent resurrection, it, like Frozen, is a scathing indictment of the state of most Hollywood films, children's or otherwise. For years to come, any film that fails abjectly will be unable to use the excuse that their subject material simply "didn't play well" on film, for this is a movie about Legos that succeeds, beyond all imagination, at providing wonder and hilarity and all the awesomeness that its product is capable of. It is a textbook study in how to produce a film from nothing. It is awesome.

Recapping the plot in a film like this seems almost superfluous, but such as it is, the film stars a random Lego-man, entirely undistinguished, who inhabits a world of multiple dimensions and infinite possibility, but who is generally content to do as he is told and "follow the instructions". Whisked into adventure the likes of which stretches my ability to even describe, he finds himself in the company of a cast of characters that literally nobody but the Lego corporation could produce, with superheroes and sports stars, fantasy tropes and cyberninjas, robotic armies, cat-unicorns, pirates, aliens, and practically every other goddamn thing ever conceived of. Their goal (of course) is to stop the evil Lord Business from destroying the world through conformity and mystical artifacts obtained from God-knows-where, but then that's not really the goal at all. The goal is to provide show-stopping spectacle at blistering pace, and fill in every single gap of more than four-tenths of a second with in-jokes, references, asides, montages, and all of the hilarity that comes with the eighty-six-car-pileup of crossover insanity that this film seems to regard as the basis of storytelling. Subtle and nuanced it is not (except when it is), but then how many of us had time for subtle nuance when we were building X-wing Death-train Battlecruisers from Hell piloted by Godzilla, the Kool-aid man, and the disembodied head of the Barbie Doll your younger sister left in your room?

Indeed, this film almost defies the capacity to review normally, as the acting and plot are either nonexistent or inconsequential. We can however discuss other aspects, such as the music, an techno-rock score featuring contributions by the Lonely Island and the Electric Light Orchestra. The music is as frenetic and high-speed as the film itself of course, but that's the proper choice for a film that is essentially narrating the imaginary adventures of a child's mind. Meanwhile the animation, generally designed to resemble stop motion Lego work winds up looking like some weird cross between Robot Chicken and a Dreamworks production, alternating between static slides and elaborate animated set-pieces with rapid frequency. Voice acting, primarily by Will Ferrel, Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman, and Hunger Games' Elizabeth Banks, is spot on in every case, as it is for the dizzying array of cameos and stunt voices for the literally dozens of assorted characters the movie pulls out of its toy chest. Morgan Freeman, as always, has the best voice in film, and uses it to savage comedic effect (picture Morgan Freeman's most God-like voice telling someone that he is an idiot), while Chris Pratt, whom I've never seen outside of bit parts before, nails his everyman main character with a bubbly enthusiasm that becomes almost deranged given the insanity that surrounds him. Characterization, meanwhile, is excellent. These are the characters we've seen a million times before in a million different settings, but unlike the films or media in which they are normally portrayed, this version seems to be aware of the prevailing memes and trends that surround them in the rest of the world. Thus, this Batman is something of a brooding caricature, playing guitar solos titled "My parents are DEAD!" and building "only with black blocks, and occasionally, very dark grey". A weird cat-unicorn thing encountered in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land is straight out of an Adventure Time pastiche, complete with anger management issues buried beneath a veneer of fanatical cheeriness. Recurring gags with Green Lantern, Superman, Morgan Freeman (whose character's name is a wonderful in-joke for classics nerds of all people), and some kind of weird 1980's Space Guy (that's actually his name) are wickedly funny, and in all cases betray an incredible sense of self-awareness

But the strongest point is the script, one of the sharpest I've ever seen, which treats the fourth wall like a theoretical concept at best, and the audience like a group of people about to die from understimulation of the senses. Direction, by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo behind 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, involves removing the brakes from the film and replacing them with rocket motors. Yet somehow it all manages to hold together, despite the perfunctory pace with which important plot elements are introduced or thrown aside, and the bewildering complexity (and frankly, surprising depth) that the narrative twists itself into. The film's goal is plainly to find an excuse to barrage us with awesomeness at every turn, and yet for all the insanity of the script, not only does the story make sense, not only does every one of the innumerable disparate elements of which it is comprised wind up tied rationally together, but the film actually manages to make a solid, even sentimental point by the end, one that I was not expecting when the film began. Playing misdirection with the audience, the movie disguises its true message underneath an initial, more obvious message, both of which work, both of which are family appropriate, and both of which, ultimately, lend meaning to everything we've seen.

How in the hell did they do that?



Things Havoc disliked:  I can't pretend the movie is perfect. The initial message is a bit clunky in its handling, being a fairly obvious theme of "be imaginative and find the special qualities within yourself" that I assume most kids could get after the first five times it's repeated. The backstory that we are given before the story proper starts could also perhaps have been handled a touch more cleverly, given the rest of the film. Indeed the movie does take a bit to get really rolling, as it has a style all its own, and this can lead to the first ten minutes seeming just... weird, perhaps even inaccessibly so. It fades quickly, but this is the sort of movie you do need to give a chance to.

A plot this chaotic cannot help but have some holes in it, particularly in the light of some of the revelations we are privy to by the end, and some of the characterization, particularly that of Elizabeth Banks' "Wyldstyle" (just accept it) seem a little unsophisticated. Normally that's not a word I would allow to creep into a children's movie review, but the rest of the movie displays such wonderful self-awareness that when it suddenly turns around and pretends that the notion of "believing in yourself" is new and fascinating information to anyone in the audience, it can't help but feel like a let down. Indeed, there are several moments when the movie cuts back the pace a bit, perhaps simply to allow the audience to catch their breath, but with each one, the movie's usual crispness seems to fall away, as though, like a shark, it needs to keep moving in order to live. We are, after all, talking about a children's movie, and perhaps these pauses in the action enable the adult part of our brains to become self-aware of that fact again, dialing back our enthusiasm as we re-assert mental control. You might argue this is a problem of the viewer more than the film, but a movie this bonkers has to know it's going to be working against the more discerning eye that us adults are offering it, and while it manages to overcome our stultified inertia most of the time, that only makes the moments when it does not all the more glaring.



Final thoughts:   More than two years ago, I saw a film called Real Steel, which many hated, but I praised for being, in essence, a child's dream (of gladiatorial robots) brought to life. The difference between it and the other movies of similar subject but less skill was one of passion, heart, and love, of filmmakers who understood not only that certain things are awesome, but also understood the reasons why they are awesome, what it is that they represent to the child in all of us, what renders them so enduring. Like Real Steel before it, the makers of the Lego movie, given an assignment to make a film about Legos, chose instead to make a film about what it is that Legos actually represent, what it is that made them one of the most enduring children's toys of the 20th century. Armed with infinite license, legal and otherwise, to do whatever they wanted, the film they produced is an absolute joy, exciting and funny and rapturous in all the ways that most toy-license films (GI Joe, Transformers, Battleship) are not.

If this is the sort of thing I've been missing by steering clear of children's films, then perhaps it's time I changed my policy. Because while I hesitated to go and see a movie based on a toy line, in a very real sense, the Lego movie's title is itself misleading. This, as it turns out, is not a movie about Legos. This is a movie about sheer wonder.

And there's always room in my schedule for that.

Final Score:  8.5/10

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