Saturday, April 5, 2014

Review: "The Lego Movie"

The Lego Movie is high art. I stand by that statement with 100% conviction, too. Despite being a laugh-a-second, impeccably-timed, must-see family comedy, it is smart. And by that I mean book-smarts smart; it brushes on so many themes, most of them having to do with Lego itself as an institution, that it kind of defies rational explanation. It's majestic in its audacity and it is audacious in its majesty, and directors Chris Lord and Phil Miller have bought an influence to the table that is completely bereft of irony and cynicism. Which isn't so impressive considering their prior masterworks, until you realize it's a goddamn Lego movie.

In a world entirely made of Lego, we follow our protagonist Emmett, a minifigure so devoid of imagination, personality and free will, that he is a literal blank slate. He lives by the rules. He follows the instructions. The benevolent leader President Business (secretly the villainous and super-evil Lord Business) has basically brainwashed the entire world to be unquestioning and passive; none moreso than Emmett, who is basically destined to be completely forgotten. His only defining feature is that he is utterly generic and indistinct... until he stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, and fulfils an eight-and-a-half-year-old prophecy, becoming The Special - a Master Builder so powerful he can stop the ancient weapon known as The Kragle, and save all the universe. Chased by Business' robotic minions, the schizophrenic Good Cop/Bad Cop, and his own looming sense of inadequacy, it's a race against the clock to save the world before Lord Business destroys it.

Immediately impressive about the film is the visual style it carries with it. For a film based on and, ostensibly, about Lego, a vision true to the toy was undoubtedly required - and it has been emulated perfectly. The film is more or less completely computer-generated (some miniatures were photographed, though often merely used as lighting reference; although, a stunning end-credits sequence is completely stop-motion), but you couldn't tell by looking. Indeed, the film truly does look like proper, photographed stop-motion.

A decision made to make sure that every single shot could be accomplished by hand - from camera angles to lighting sources - results in an uncannily lifelike aesthetic, made all the more impressive by absolutely insane action sequences, with acrobatic little minifigures meeting incredible choreographed set-pieces in a way that only computers could make possible. Though even as hundreds of thousands of Lego bricks form heated explosions and dazzling lighting and effects give credence to the idea that this is a multi-million-dollar computer-animated film, there's always a nagging sensation in the back of your mind that it could be real. Yes, this is all computer generated... but it is real Lego. Well, no, it's not. But it is! It's mind-bogglingly effective, and it all builds to stunning a conclusion of unmatched scope... except it's not, because they're all just Lego. They're not, but they are. It's stunning.

More stunning is that these Lego characters have been breathed a life rarely seen in live-action actors. With only their tiny faces and beyond minimal limb movement to work with, the animators and voice actors have truly given human souls to the cast of minifigures. The entire film is extremely impressive, but perhaps most impressive is that after a while you do forget you are watching a film made entirely from tiny plastic pieces. Lord and Miller have proved they can tug at heartstrings, lending a gravitas to inanity; from Clone High to 21 Jump Street, their farces have a expressive, irresistible humanity underneath their surfaces. The Lego Movie is perhaps their finest example, and it's an achievement that will captivate and spellbind audiences of all ages and dispositions.

The story moves along at a thrilling pace. Separated into "worlds," almost every facet of Lego's rich history is seemingly covered, from their licensed materials like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, to themes as simple as the Wild West, Space, City, Medieval Fantasy, Pirates, so on, so forth. As Lord Business has divided these worlds, so as to stifle imagination and free thinking, Emmett and his team burst through from one to the other, lending an immense amount of visual and aural variety into the 101 minutes The Lego Movie runs for. The film starts with a bang and inherently understands that brevity is the soul of wit, subsequently demonstrating aptly Lord and Miller's expert comedic timing. Jokes are lingered on for just long enough; one-liners are spouted and reacted to with sufficient tempo, and there are pauses for breath in all the right places. It feels almost like it must be a science, but their directorial style feels more like instinct to me; they live and breathe it, and attaching them to the film was absolutely Warner Bros.' best move.

A standard adventure film in terms of structure, Emmett accrues a varied team of Master Builders - minifigures who can see and dissect the Lego world and use it to their advantage. They can build cars out of streets, submarines out of clouds, and spaceships out of televisions. While many of these Master Builders are original characters (from quasi-sorta-love interest Wyldstyle, to the elderly Vitruvius, and Unikitty, the part-cat part-unicorn princess of the majestic no-rules Cloud Cuckooland), there are a lot of recognizable faces used to stunning effect. In particular is Batman, who is played as sincerely as the rest of the cast despite being a giant slap in the face to the dark, brooding image of the Dark Knight that has come to resonate with pop culture. His song "Darkness, No Parents" (which he wrote and is real music) makes a fine satirical point, but it kind of is also a sincere character moment. It's pretty great. Also worth a mention is Benny, the "1980-something Space Guy," whom older Lego fans will recognize as an astronaut from the Lego space range of the 80s. Voiced by Charlie Day, his character arc is probably my favourite out of the whole film, though they all have an appealing amount of depth to them - even the intensely cruel Bad Cop. Hell, even the generic robotic foot soldiers and drones are intensely likeable. Lord and Miller have made a habit out of giving even side-characters great reasons to be intrinsically beloved.

The bubbly cast, all-ages approach and innate Lego-flavoured charm will win over hearts and minds of the young and young-at-heart. A swift, to-the-point approach to storytelling, coupled with zinger-a-minute joke ratio, crackling cast dynamics, and good old-fashioned capital-F fun launch the film into the highest of regard, easily on par - if not above - the best of Pixar and Dreamworks as far as family animated comedies go. But beneath the glossy veneer, beneath the fun and games, there's an intelligence to the way this film approaches the source material... and it's an intelligence that at once melds with and contradicts almost everything Lego as a business works for.

Lord and Miller explore such sincere and adult themes that it really does elevate itself beyond pretty much any toy tie-in movie you can think to name. The title "The Lego Movie" almost becomes literal as the film unravels its many layers and starts to genuinely explores Lego itself - its place in our culture, the generational rifts between Lego fans, and the tenants that Lego has seemingly always stood for of creativity, uniqueness, and learning... and the way that even Lego itself has moved beyond these simple goals as the interlocking system of bricks become a far more pragmatic, cold, calculated business. In fact, this multi-million-dollar production made for Lego as The Lego Movie intrinsically mocks Lego as an institution - and perhaps even the way people who buy Lego roll with the corporate punches. One joke I'm convinced had to absolutely be fought for (Lego would never let anything so snide fly under the radar) is when Emmett goes to buy "overpriced coffee" - $37 for a cup - and he throws his hands into the air exclaiming that it's "awesome".

A light-hearted romp made out of a beloved toy brand doesn't have to be introspective. In fact, I can't think of a single advantage any tie-in film has in being introspective of itself being a tie-in. But, goddamn it, Lord and Miller pulled it off. It's not the most immediately enjoyable part of The Lego Movie; it pops with personality and laughs, slotting in right alongside other animated comedies as a simple, smart little cartoon, filled with numerous references and in-jokes, and basically just being exactly what the best version of a movie based on Lego would be. Someone, somewhere, let Lord and Miller get away with this version of The Lego Movie, though. It feels so anti-establishment, and when your film inherently is the establishment, I have no idea how to approach critiquing that. Some of the jokes really hit me properly, personally hard; in particular, the uncreative Emmett, who really does need instructions to tell him what to do, as he makes ineffectual and slightly benign creations as those around him are creating entire vehicles from what (to him) is nothingness. It's not a spoiler to say he eventually learns that he had it in him to be a Master Builder all along, but a simple line like, "everyone, just tell me what to do, and how to do it," has more weight than anything I've seen in any, say, Quentin Tarantino film, and The Lego Movie is certainly filled with more unbridled joy.

It's daring, to say the least. And it's nigh-on post-modern to say the most. Indeed, not content with being a flash-in-the-pan overnight success, The Lego Movie worms its way into your brain to create a masterworkwork that sticks with you. It's filled with crazy, memorable, iconic stuff, and that it was wormed into The Lego Movie instead of an experimental, satirical indie film pretending to be The Lego Movie is an achievement worth praising. Emmett, Wyldstyle, and Unikitty are characters that will be much beloved. Performances by Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman will be talked about for months. The Lego sets released to tie-in on the film are all of impeccable quality and will entertain the most discerning youngsters and adult fans. But it is the film's willingness to so finely tread a line most licenses don't even dare to approach that will earn it a place in Top 10 lists and awards shows. It is Lord and Miller's dedication to their own bizarre genius that will secure the film as one worth thinking back on the same way we do Toy Story and Shrek. I mean, I can tell you truthfully that a) The Lego Movie successfully explores the concepts of free will and determinism, and b) it's a kid's film.

In short, The Lego Movie truly does outdo itself, and I hope I'm not being too rash by saying it's set to be one of the best films of the year and if you haven't yet seen it you should do so, post-haste. If you need convincing that films based on toys can be done so well as to surpass their very concept, here's solid evidence. And if you need any reason beyond that... well, just remember that everything is awesome.


  1. Very impressive review. I'll go and see it now.

  2. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that.
    ld hardas