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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Lego Movie (2014)

I can't remember when I saw the first footage for The Lego Movie (2014), but I do remember thinking to myself that it would be the geekiest, most reference-laden work of 2014.  Indeed, if any film tops this one in its insistence on crossing genres and referencing geek cultures from comics, films, books, and, hell, even Legos, then that would be a feat unto itself.  As it stands, The Lego Movie is sort of like that friend who beats everyone at Trivial Pursuit every single time because he spends too much time on the Internet or with his nose buried in Netflix or the library stacks (or her, for that matter).  And I mean that in a good way.  What makes this such a lovable film is the fact that it shows so much love to the communities from which it borrows, not just in terms of the Lego work, where franchised media properties are well represented, but in terms of the worlds from which those properties originate.  This is, in point of fact, a film for geeks, and it is a film I think everyone should see, if only to count off all the jokes based on DC characters or pirates or Star Wars or a number of other geeky things.  Expect a drinking game upon the DVD release.
The Lego Movie follows Emmet, a regular construction worker in a regular town with a regular job and a deep desire to be like everyone else.  Indeed, in this ordinary city, everyone is like everyone else.  Everyone sings the same happy song ("Everything is Awesome"), enjoys the same television, and goes through life with the same hopes and dreams:  to be part of the team that is the city.  But when he stumbles upon a mysterious woman searching the ruins of a building, Emmet discovers the Piece of Resistance and learns that he is the Special, tasked with preventing Lord Business from freezing the entire world just as it is with the Cragle (crazy glue with some of the letters missing).  With his world thrown into chaos, Emmet must discover who he really is and how to put the world back to rights.
If it's not already clear, I loved The Lego Movie.  For the most part, there aren't a lot of good geeky movies that reference things that I actually know, and so to sit there in the theater laughing at jokes that were funny on their own to everyone else, but also funny to me on a different level was a treat.  Much as Pixar's films frequently engage their audiences on multiple levels (jokes for kids that work for adults and vice versa), this is a comedy film with multiple levels of engagement.  That's not an easy thing to do, and so I have to give this film major props for keeping me, and my less-geeky friend, utterly entertained from start to finish.  The geek-minded, I'm sure, will find so much to love about this film based solely on its referential nature; indeed, this is the kind of film built just for us, and it knows it.  There's an almost charming awareness in the film -- surely translated from the geek love of the writers and cast -- as if it were subconsciously crashing down the 4th wall to share with us its own in-jokes.

All of this referential humor is supported by a stunning cast of voice actors (and equally stunning and hilarious characters or caricatures).  Batman (Will Arnett) is the caricature we've all known and loved, but with a side of emo-EDM artist and frat-douche; it's hard not to find him hilarious, even as we recognize the qualities that make him a horrible person.  The clueless Emmet (Chris Pratt) gives solid grounding to the film, as he is the closest character to us -- not a ninja fighter, not a wizard, just a guy lost in a world of craziness (maybe not as much like us after all).  Even his boneheaded ideas -- the bunkbed couch -- are fodder for hilarity; they also happen to be important to the plot, which gives depth to the comedic elements.  It's too easy to make jokes for the sake of the joke, but to make that joke central to the development of the plot requires some degree of writing skill.  Additionally, Morgan Freeman's turn as Vesuvius, a Gandalf-esque figure, adds a certain gravitas to the cast, if only because it's Morgan Freeman playing a silly wizard with crazy light eyes, and Elizabeth Banks' rendition of Wyldstyle, the "love interest" and biggest ass kicker of the film, adds some much needed sass to main cast (the Lego fight scenes are hilarious, by the way).  There are even brief appearances from Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Superman (Channing Tatum -- oddly enough, not dancing without a shirt on), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), and more.  Throw in Liam Neeson as Bad Cop/Good Cop, a two-faced (literally) caricature of the classic cliche, and Will Farrell as Lord Business, the high-style, crazed villain, and you have an exceptional comedy cast.
It's here that I'd like to talk a little more about one character in specific.  A lot of people have talked about the treatment of Wyldstyle throughout this film.  Some have suggested that she is unfairly shafted here, that it should have been her that got to be "the Special" or perhaps that she simply fell into the trap so many female characters do:  the love interest/object.  Much of this is true, in a sense; Wyldstyle is coded as "love interest" from the second Emmet sees her -- the camera shows her in slow motion, waving her Lego hair in the wind for an inordinate amount of time -- but I must admit that I found this less a reflection of the film's adherence to the tropes of Hollywood than a deliberate play on the absurdity of the trope itself.  I also always viewed her as a major supporting character, as Emmet seemed central from the start.  Though women should appear as the main hero more often than they do, I think Wyldstyle's presentation is, overall, a good one.  In fact, I think it's the fact that she's not "the special" that makes her character so great -- women don't need to be "the one" to kick ass.  Though she is disappointed about her "normal" status, she is far from normal; rather, she is capable, driven, and badass.  In fact, it is Wyldstyle who rallies the troops in the final battle, reminding us that she isn't some romantic lead that has to be won, but someone who is fully capable of taking action on her own.  There are certainly flaws to her character, such as her all-too-familiar reliance on a seemingly abusive relationship with Batman (though I'm not 100% convinced it's intended to be abusive -- just that Batman's abrasive idiosyncrasies mean he's almost sociopathically anti-social) or the over reliance of Emmet's Wyldstyle-centric jokes on romantic or physical interest.  That said, I found her refreshing, if only because I love seeing female characters do more than just sit around waiting for dudes to romance them. Wyldstyle certainly doesn't do that.  She seems to balance the romantic (Batman) with the definitely badass (Lego kung fu).  That doesn't happen that often, even in serious films.
I also think the focus on Wyldstyle's flaws draws attention away from what is the real issue with the narrative of The Lego Movie.  It's at this point where I'll say DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON'T WANT SOMETHING SPOILED FOR YOU.

Fundamentally, The Lego Movie is what you'd expect:  geeky, ridiculous, cute, and, at times, stark raving mad.  When it is all of these things, it is also brilliant, hilarious, and downright lovable.  There's so much detail on the screen that one could watch this movie again to see what the creators snuck into the background for us to find.  But all of this is partially gutted by the film's underlying "message":  namely, that adults should let children be children.  This message is facilitated by Emmet's sacrifice, wherein he falls into a swirling vortex and suddenly appears in the real world.  There, we learn that this whole story is the elaborate creation of a child, Finn (Jadon Sand), who is acting out a giant metaphor of his father's (Will Farrell) desperate need to control everything, including the Lego "worlds" he constructs in the basement (in the same way adults own train sets, I imagine).  There's likewise a message about conformity, which is perfectly facilitated by the nature of Legos:  one can follow the prescribed use of each piece (the father) or one can mix and match to invent entirely new things (the son); this is the nature of the Special in the Lego narrative.

My problem with this scene is that, though it is set up through some clever flashes of human hands and so on throughout the film, it utterly destabilizes the "in world" narrative by appearing basically out of nowhere.  What should be a movie about Emmet discovering himself and maybe saving the world -- or at least inspiring others to do so -- is instead neutered by this secondary, last-minute exploration of a father and son.  Eventually, Emmet returns to the Lego world, after which, we're told that Lord Business is actually "the Special," and that he just needs to stop being evil and use his smarty powers to help the world.  And it works.  There's no narrative tension.  There's no discussion.  The film cuts back to the father and the son, and then everything is set to rights again.  All of that narrative tension -- Emmet trying to find himself; Wyldstyle trying to save the world; the builders and the Justice League and crazy pirate ships and so on and so forth...all of that is thrown away for these final moments, which tell us that this was never a film about Emmet or Wyldstyle or the Builders or Lord Business; it was always a film about a father and son.  In a way, I felt played.  These were never the characters I was made to care about, and so to have their narrative supersede the narrative for the rest of the film felt, on the one hand, forced, and, on the other, destabilizing.  If not for this small, significant flaw, I think the future of the film franchise to come would be a largely positive one, but now that the door is wide open, I can see the mistakes waiting to consume the characters.  It's not the picture I imagined when I first sat in the little theater chair.

Overall, though, I did love the film for all its eccentric humor, ridiculous characters, and general insanity.  If it's still in theaters wherever you are and you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and go.  You may not agree with my take above; hell, you may even love the film more than I did.  Even so, it's a fun film experience; kids will probably love it, but the adults with a solid geek pedigree will love it even more.
Taco Tuesday is awesome, amaright?
Directing: 4/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 3.5/5
Visuals: 5/5
Adaptation: N/A
Overall: 4.375/5 (87.5%)
Inflated Grade: A-
Value:  $9.00 (based on a $10.50 max)

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