Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Lego Movie

2014, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

It's easy to be cynical about The Lego Movie, ostensibly a 100-minute commercial for a product that, at this stage, needs very little help in advancing sales.  Lego is a juggernaut in the toy market, some stores dedicating an entire aisle to its output, not to mention the fact that Lego stores have begun to pop up in shopping malls the world over.   There are a few competitors to Lego, but over the past few decades Lego has drilled it into kids minds to accept no substitute, to the point where getting a Kree-O set is a disappointment.  In the past decade Lego has taken great pains to expand its scope, particularly by licensing, taking on all sorts of established and popular brands like DC and Marvel Superheros, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and more.  Beyond these obvious sorts of properties, Lego has also developed kits that replicate famous landmarks (one I saw recently, in a gargantuan box of just under 3000 pieces, was a recreation of the Sydney Opera House for roughly $350), which only confirms both at price point and subject matter that Lego has extended itself beyond just appealing to children, sustaining and promoting itself among adult collectors and builders as well.

However, with the proliferation of all these building kits, for the most part gone is the idea of free play.  Instead the richly detailed visual instructions have taken over.  Follow the rules rather than create your own. In may ways, Lego has become 3-D puzzles, where the only real challenge is finding the right piece in a pile, and following along.  Hidden in the Lego aisle, if available at all, are simple kits of just blocks, and encouragement to do your own thing.  The Lego Movie, which could have so easily just been a vehicle for selling new model kits and "gotta get em all" mini-figures, instead wisely acknowledges the reality of Lego's branding, the conflicting ideas of following the instructions versus doing your own thing.

The moment I heard that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were involved, I knew that The Lego Movie was going to be something more than crass commercialism.  Lord and Miller were responsible for the way off-beat, short-lived but cult-favourite cartoon series Clone High, and went on to make Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs not only a surprise hit but one of the best comedy features (animated or otherwise) of the the past decade.  Their comedic sensibility is well honed, and they excel at the surprise gag, delivering laughs from the unexpected as well as toying with cliche and convention.  Even more, they are masters at building a running gag, one that continues to pay off the more it's used.  Even if the film wouldn't deliver on the story, I knew long before even the first trailer appeared that it would be a funny movie.

But there's something to The Lego Movie beyond product placement and gags, there's both a message (or two) and some sentimentality within, and further to that, some great world building, creating a "universe" that I actually wanted to see more of and spend more time in.  The central figure is Emmet, an nondescript construction minifigure who goes with the flow, follows instructions to the letter (err, image) and seems to have no desire for independence.  He lives in a city where it seems everyone is pretty much just like him, until a chance crossing with Wyldstyle draws him into a whole new reality, exposing the walls between dimensions and awakening him to the threat of Lord Business.  Lord Business has forced the different brands of Lego to remain separated, and those who seek to undermine this segregation will be punished.  Emmet and Wyldstyle meet up with the crazy and blind wizard Vitruvius, who unveils the prophecy that the wielder of the Piece of Resistance, (naturally Emmet) will be the one to stave off Lord Business' evil plan to destroy the universe through stagnation (by literally gluing pieces in place).

The band of rebels (joined by 80's Spaceman Benny, cyborg pirate Metal Beard, a cutesy hybrid unicorn/kitten Unikitty, and Batman... Wyldstyle's boyfriend) are all "master builders" and Emmet, being the "chosen one" of this piece, should be preternaturally gifted at building objects, but he constantly disappoints and questions his own validity.

There's heavy shades of the Matrix at play here, and I can't really tell if it's overtly intentional or if it's just retreading the same heroic prophecy-type story elements.  While it's definitely a tale we've seen before, it's not been seen quite this way, where the characters are constantly undermining seriousness of their journey by acknowledging the cliche of it without fully undercutting the intensity of their plight, it still means something to them.  Emmet's journey is one of finding self confidence and learning to think for himself, exploring creativity and problem solving.  As far as character journeys go in these types of films, it's a good one for kids (and most adults too).

The plot sticks firm to "stopping the bad guy's plan" until midway through the third act where it side steps into a stimulating meta story that explores the main theme even further.  There's more than an acknowledgement that Lego, for all it's increasing fanciness and complexity, is still just a toy, a building block system meant to stimulate children's creativity.  Lord Business represents an adult's sense of conformity and compartmentalization, and how oppressive that worldview can seem to children.

The animation in The Lego Movie is phenomenal.  There have been animated Lego features and television shows (Ninjago, Chima) but they're stripped down, feeling like animation.  The Lego Movie feels like the characters are living mini-figures inhabiting environments completely and plausibly built out of Lego.  The level of detail is dizzying, every brick seem accounted for, and it can take a while to visually adjust to the film's environment, but it very quickly defines itself as a unique place.  There's a kinship here to Wreck-It Ralph, where in that film it interconnects videogames into a shared universe.  Here, it's the many realms of Lego colliding, both sensibly and nonsensically, and is responsible for part of the film's charm.

The voice cast is stacked with great talent.  Burgeoning superstar Chris Pratt takes the lead as Emmet, who's close to an extension of his Parks and Recreation character, kind of dumb, but sweet and excitable.  Charlie Day is perfect for the ever keen-come-disappointed 80's spaceman who just wants to build a spaceship, dangit.  Morgan Freeman plays the delightfully daffy wizard Vitruvius, well against type, while Nick Offerman usually recognizable timbre completely disappears under Metal Beard's pirate speak.  Alison Brie is the perfect choice for the cutesy Unikitty who's bottling up her rage, and likewise Liam Neeson shuffles between the temperaments Good Cop and Bad Cop.  Will Ferrell revives Mugatu from Zoolander for his Lord Business, and Elizabeth Banks has a lot of heavy lifting in the love triangle between Emmet and Batman, as Emmet's master builder mentor, and sufferer of Vitruvius.  And one can't forget Will Arnett's Batman, smug, cocky, and a bit of a dink, with a shallow emotional side... Batman's demo tape is brutally funny.  And rounding out the heroes are Channing Tatum's Superman suffering the clingy-ness of Jonah Hill's Green Lantern, and the possible conflict of interest with Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman.

This is a tremendously enjoyable film, super funny, visually exciting, with a variety of moving parts that make a richer whole than most children's entertainment.  Yes, it's a 100 minute sales pitch for plastic bricks, but it's also a rich little universe both that's at once big and small that's worth spending time in.