Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reviews: The Lego Movie


            The Lego Movie is everything you would hope for from a movie about Legos. That is, if you’re the kind of person who hopes for anything from a movie about Legos. Even if you aren’t that kind of person, it’s everything you would have hoped for, if only you had known just how good this sort of movie can be. Here is anarchic, freewheeling creativity with surprising depth and frenetic, subversive humor paired with real heart.
            Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a breathtakingly average Lego construction worker; a little lonely, but otherwise gleefully and obliviously happy in his staggeringly normal life. In the Lego city where he works, everyone follows the instructions, watches the same stupid sitcom, drinks the same overpriced coffee, and listen to the same super-catchy dance tune (“EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!”).
            Then, at the end of another day’s work, Emmet runs into an alluring and mysterious young lady, who accidentally leads him to a mysterious object that marks him as the messianic ‘Special:’ “the brightest, most talented, most interesting person in the universe” (“uh…yes! That’s me!”). This launches him into a larger world of evil conspiracies, secret resistance movements, and an ancient prophecy…or does it?
            You see, The Lego Movie’s plot is one long cliché at first glance, but as time goes on it becomes clear that what is going on here is something much subtler and more exciting. Unexpected twists, clever subversions, and endless inventiveness abound at every turn. You may not believe it, but this is a movie that will genuinely surprise you. Even the usually trite “everyone is special” and “believe in yourself” messages are handled in subtler and more intelligent forms than you’d expect, and in the end even the formulaic nature of the story itself hides a deeper meaning.
            I can’t really get into any of this without massive spoilers, which I absolutely refuse to do. So, I’ll turn instead to the utter brilliance of the writing, with never-ending gags and laugh-a-minute jokes. A random sampling: a hyperbolic expression of enjoyment that turns out to be completely and literally true; a title that remains visible in the background throughout the subsequent scene; and a gleefully vindictive depiction of a certain famous superhero whose last appearance on the big screen was a notorious failure.
            Yes, we have real superheroes here. Lego is partnered with several major franchises, and The Lego Movie makes good use of this fact with a string of hilarious cameos, not to mention Batman himself playing a major supporting role (voiced by Will Arnett). I would say this affectionate semi-parody of the world’s most popular superhero is the funniest thing in the movie, but I don’t dare make any such a bold claim in a film like this.
            Another fair choice might be Will Ferrell’s villainous President/Lord Business: a controlling, yet rather cheerful dark lord who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ferrell’s earlier role in Megamind; an evil genius who keeps getting sidetracked by picky little details and is constantly annoyed when things don’t turn out the way they’re supposed to. In fact, he has a plan to make sure that things will end up and stay just the way they ought to be…
            Or it might be Lord Business’s chief enforcer; Bad Cop/Good Cop, who is somehow ten times funnier for the mere fact that he’s voiced by Liam Neeson (“Darny-darn-darn-darn-DARN!”).
            Or…well, trying to list the film’s best jokes would be an exercise in futility. It’s simply the funniest movie I’ve seen in a long time.
            And yet, the gag-a-minute humor doesn’t change the fact that this is also a movie with a lot of honest-to-goodness heart to it. The little plastic heroes evince real humanity; they get under your skin and make you love them, much like the similarly artificial-yet-soulful protagonists of Toy Story or Wreck-It Ralph; especially Emmet, who really is just a very nice, normal guy. He’s almost hobbit-like: cheery, good-humored, friendly, honest, not-too-bright, and capable of both simple kindness and great courage. Even better, his very normalcy, though the source of much humor, turns out to be his greatest advantage. He is a fit hero precisely because he’s so humble. 
            Elizabeth Banks’ Wyldstyle isn’t quite as interesting as Emmet: she’s a bit too ordinary (ironically enough) in the sense that badass action-chicks are a dime-a-dozen these days. She does break the mold a little, though, by being perhaps a little too good; that is, she may be putting on a bit of an act and actually be a little more vulnerable and needy than she initially appears (her obviously-made-up name is the source of both several funny gags and a scene of real pathos).
            Morgan Freeman (!)’s Vitruvius is a fun send-up of the “mentor” archetype. Like Neeson, the mere fact that this is Morgan Freeman playing a plastic toy (and apparently having a ball doing it) makes everything he does even funnier, while his smooth, authoritative voice makes us immediately believe everything that Vitruvius says, however ridiculous (“all this is true/because it rhymes”). 
            Ah, but this is supposed to be The Lego Movie: what of the Legos? What makes this a movie about Lego rather than just a generic animated adventure film?
            Everything. The Lego nature of the world is recalled in every scene, almost every moment. Every ‘conceit’ of the Lego toy is represented perfectly: from the range of movement on the characters, to the fact that they can ‘stick’ to any surface with the correct ‘pegs,’ to the way they change their clothes by swapping-out torsos. The whole world, even water, smoke, fire, and explosions are made out of Lego pieces.
            When I first saw the trailers for The Lego Movie, what struck me most was the animation style. The characters don’t move with the fluid, seamless grace of your typical CG character, but with the jerks and strobes of stop-motion. The effect is that it looks like this was made with real Lego figures filmed a couple frames at a time, though the actual events and set-pieces are obviously much too complicated and elaborate for that. The style gives the film an appealing solidity and makes it seem even more at home in the world of Lego.
            Moreover, the feel of Lego; the unbridled creativity, the ability to take and remake almost anything into anything is a key part of the story. This is captured perfectly the moment Wyldstyle exclaims “quick! We can build a motorcycle out of the alley!” Certain characters are “Master Builders:” people who can make anything out of anything (one scene has Emmet tested to “build a racecar using only what you see here”). In short, this is a movie about a toy that knows exactly what makes that toy special, and makes that it’s theme. This central idea – the magic of Legos – is the bedrock that makes the movie work. If they hadn’t done this; if it had merely been any kind of story set in a world made of Lego, but without any of this freewheeling creativity, it would have been a failure, however good the writing was.
            At the same time, the film dares to critique unbridled individual expression even as it celebrates personal creativity. Some form of authority; a guiding voice or a common aim is necessary if creativity is to reach its full potential. Neither the extremes of complete conformity nor absolute individualism will work, but something like self-submission and willing obedience to lawful authority is required for the creative impulse to really achieve anything. 
            There is also a hint of Tolkien’s idea of ‘sub-creation:’ that man is the image of God in that he too creates, though in a subordinate fashion, and that God’s will for His creatures is that they join Him in the act of creation. I can’t really explore this idea further without getting into spoilers, but the mere fact that it can be seen here is startling enough.
            Flannery O'Connor once wrote that a good story tells something that can’t be told in any other way, so that if someone asks you about a certain book “what’s it about?” the only answer is “read it.” Would you believe me if I said The Lego Movie does something like that? Here is the balance between freedom, authority, creativity, and humility laid out so that it can be seen, if not quite described.
            The value of humility, the joys and limitations of freedom and personal creativity, theological wonder…can these themes really exist in a film about small plastic building blocks that features things like a robot army breaking into a dance number, or a pirate with a completely mechanical body that includes a built-in shark? Well, why not? Isn’t that the ideal of creativity; that each proclaims the truth in his own, inimitable way? If the truth can be proclaimed in Legos, let it be proclaimed in Legos!
            The Lego Movie is perhaps the best example to date of something I’ve been saying for years; any subject, in the right hands, can make a good story. If you can take a completely plotless line of creativity toys, toys whose very appeal is in their lack of structure or storyline, and from that produce one of the finest animated films in recent memory, you can, with enough talent and creativity, turn any subject into gold.

Final Rating: 4.5/5: Everything is Awesome! 

Vivat Christus Rex! 

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