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Darn, darn, darn, darny-darn!

The Lego Movie
(2014)

(SPOILERS) The sheer, all-pervading awesomeness of The Lego Movie appears to have persuaded even the sternest critical voice. It’s the animated movie of the year, the one that everyone adores, and it isn’t even made by Pixar. I was fully prepared to find it equally as awesome as everyone else; smart, self-aware, thematically rich and very funny. And it is… but not quite to the unsurpassable classic level I’d been led to believe. At it’s heart The Lego Movie has worthy but stolid messages about the values of creativity and teamwork, wrapped in a bow so efficiently tied that it is very hard not to be cynical over the plunge into genuineness. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are very clever, very funny guys, and when The Lego Movie is being very clever and/or very funny it deserves all the praise showered on it. I’m less convinced by the treacly depths it plunders, however.


There has been much, and reasonable, mockery of the desperate attempts to manufacture movies from disparate and seemingly unyielding toy lines. If G.I. Joe makes for a fairly viable transition, the consequences of adapting Battleship were many times worse than they seemed on paper. Ridley Scott’s Monopoly has not yet seen the light of day, but I wouldn’t hold out that it won’t ever come to pass. Of course, Transformers has been massive while entirely bereft of anything aside from technical virtuosity. The Lego Movie, an extended advert for the Danish toy brick line, certainly looks like a challenge from a distance. It requires a sly business sense (all those different theme sets to explore!) and a tonality that requires equal doses of Toy Story nostalgia and child’s eye view to make it play. The picture was in development at Warner Bros as far back as 2008 (the story credit goes to Hotel Transylvania’s Dan and Kevin Hagemen as well as Lord and Miller), but I’d be surprised if the success of Wreck-It-Ralph didn’t give an added spur to the project; self-referential fictionalised game worlds brought to CGI life were clearly be big bucks.


The quartet of screenwriters have furnished a self-aware hero’s journey, one in which an average nobody (construction worker Emmet – voiced by the new name du jour Chris Pratt – because Lego is fundamentally about construction) is announced as the Special (the chosen one, the one with a destiny, the latest of many such iterations the post-The Matrix firmament) and must stop a destructive force (the Kragle) unleashed by Lord Business (Will Ferrell) that threatens the Lego realm. Of course, he’s sent on his quest by a wise guru (Morgan Freeman’s wizard Vitruvius) and has a tough, independent girl to help him (Wyldstyle/Lucy, Elizabeth Banks).


The quest is an opportunity to dip into different Legoverses, from the Wild West, and Middle Zealand (“a wondrous land, full of knights, castles, mutton, torture weapons, poverty, leeches, illiteracy and, er, dragons”) to Cloud Cuckoo Land (where the are “no rules, no government, no baby sitters, no bedtimes, no frowny faces, no moustaches, and no negativity of any kind”). It’s here that Lord and Miller are at their most engaged and amusing, brandishing a cavalcade of familiar characters and faces.


This is also where The Lego Movie most resembles a kid-friendly South Park (or should that be a parent-friendly South Park?) liberally taking pot-shots at pop culture and casting its net of gags as broadly as possible. There’s even a Cartman-esque bad cop in mirror shades (voiced to great comic effect by Liam Neeson, who also provides his head-spinning alter ego Good Cop). Elsewhere, the ghost of Vitruvius on a string is just the sort of fake-cheapness Parker and Stone would embrace and “Where are my Pants?” is a U certificate cartoon world spoofery along the lines of Terrence and Philip. The main difference is, for all its scattershot sensibilities (maybe there’s not quite enough political and social comment in here to qualify The Lego Movie as a junior Team America but it certainly takes its cues from World Police in respect of “fake crude” animation), Miller and Lord settle back on delivering a bona fide message. It’s a problematic decision, not only because they engineer a Lego world/real world dual-layering but also because the decision leaves the aforementioned queasy taste of pervading cynicism in the mouth.


The undercutting of the “chosen one” theme (“I made it up” says Vitruvius) is, on one hand, a refreshing slap in the face to the myriad movies these days (any number of them Young Adult fictions) that rely on a great messiah as the focus. It’s a difficult narrative device to do well, and can muddy the waters of a perfectly decent premise through over emphasis (look at the George Lucas prequels, where everything and everyone is given underpinnings of destiny). A different problem presents itself to Lord and Miller. Here they have decided the whole lesson is that no one is special. Or rather, everyone is special, and nothing is more special than the discovery and use of one’s special individual creativity through applied teamwork. Then wonders can be performed. Which is all, sort of, well meaning and quite nice as a sentiment.


But it relies on an intentionally bland leading character, a nobody (“We’re trying to locate the fugitive, but his face is so generic it matches every other face in our database”). The subtext of the message is that aspiration towards achievement is a worthless pursuit. We’re quite used to material where the true hero isn’t nearly as interesting as the support (it’s true of everything from Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings, and is an essential facet of the anti-hero); it’s a different matter when you distil and draw attention to the indistinctiveness of the everyman. What kid is seriously going to think Emmet (or Lucy, given how clichéd her post-Buffy gender tropes are) is more relatable than Will Arnett’s hilarious Batman? The message is entirely wishy-washy, an adult’s therapy session idea of telling kids stuff in on on-the-nose fashion (so they can understand, yes, because they’re all stupid). It’s no wonder Fight Club satirised such sentiments (“You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else”; or in this case the same plastic brickage). In due course, no doubt the generation brainwashed by The Lego Movie as kids will come full circle and pen or direct their own filmic backlashes.


This is the issue at the heart of the moral. There’s a reason Pixar’s pictures historically – not so much in the last few years – have been so good (and popular); they’ve really taken the time to thrash out the essentials of their lead characters. Even Disney’s Wreck-It-Ralph, for all its third act failings, has an affecting and considered hero. The Lego Movie is (intentionally) a blank slate and so it has to rely on a “real world” intrusion as an attempt to move the audience. We don’t care about Emmet succeeding, discovering the hero within, or winning Lucy (who is differently short-changed; with her devotion to Batman and vacillation over Emmet, she is mostly an underdeveloped “because we needed to put a girl in there” character; this is very much a boys’ movie).


The idea of encouraging the actualisation of creativity (“I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought in his life” comments a character of Emmet, who eventually manages to materialise a double-decker couch) is agreeable enough. The antithesis being the path taken by Lord Business/The Man Upstairs (Finn’s dad in the real world) into rigorous order, who follows instructions and glues all his Lego bricks together so his kid can’t mess with them (the “8½ years later” subtitle is there to signal the change in his outlook on having a son). Unfortunately, the presentation is cloying. “You don’t have to be the bad guy,” Emmet tells Lord Business, a representation of the way Finn (Jadon Sand) sees his father (except, the licence here instils the plastic folk a degree of autonomy; it’s a fair bet an eight-year old wouldn’t come up with most of the material Miller and Lord do).


More than that, the picture equivocates its way out of any position. Both creativity and following instructions have their place. It’s the balance that fosters true growth and productivity. The ideal corporate environment, in fact. While there are some witty hits on Hollywood think (hiding something creative in something bland in order to get it passed through the system), a picture that goes out of its way to tack on a moral ends up looking ineffectual and desperate.


Many appear to have celebrated the live action section of the film, the reveal that this is all the result of Finn at play in the rigid realm of his father’s untouchable Lego collection. Apparently, the father-son interplay even brought audiences to tears. I found it mainly manipulative and reductive. There’s an interesting element in there, that of the puppet master/God, and freewill or determinism; the Lego characters all believe themselves to be masters of their own destiny but are apparently merely carrying out the instructions of their household gods.


Or are they? While I baulked at the sentiment behind this sequence, and found it slightly vulgar in that it seemed to be an overt reminder (if any were needed) that Lego exists in reality and – hey – kids young or old can go out and spend hundreds of dollars or pounds on it and have fun with the stuff, I did enjoy the sequence where Emmet, stranded on The Man Upstairs’ desk, struggles to escape while The Man keeps glimpsing something out of the corner of his eye. Does Emmet have a life of his own, or is this just Finn imaging him escaping? There’s an element of real imagination there, the Toy Story idea that playthings come to life when we aren’t looking at them. It’s the sort of thing that made The Phantom Tollbooth such a great idea (escape into a cartoon world). In the main though, the live action section pulls the picture down to Earth in a clumsy fashion. It’s not such an intelligently devised meta-layer that it justifies itself. Both The Man and Finn can play together, if only he rediscovers his playfulness (and if Finn allows his sister to play too; admittedly a nice final sleight of hand).


A more honest approach might have been a full on “Yeah, glue it together!” Then all of us at home will have to buy more and more Lego to make more and more constructions. That said, I think the message is fairly clear by this point in the movie that purchasing Lego brings untold joy and is a true and singular outlet for one’s creativity. The between-two-stools moderation of the picture allows Lord and Miller to take swipes at the very things they are selling. Which is nice and all, but it has the effect of neutralising any potency in the material. Self-awareness and satire is just a means of making the audience comfortable with their own rampant consumerism, which is to be encouraged or what is the point? If you’re conscious that your materialist tendencies have run riot, at least no one can say you were hypnotised by all those colourful bricks. The barefaced Transformers movies obviously don’t have this problem, but if you show intelligence you have to be able to withstand charges of hypocrisy in action. I expect most would have to own up that The Lego Movie is suspect for those reasons, but it is so effective most of the time that its appeal is undeniable. Still, I can’t help gagging on the sugar-coated pill.


The cake-and-eat-it digs at consumerism very nearly help it down, though. President Business may be intending to end the world, a representation of Finn’s feelings about his father’s approach to toys, but he also runs Octan; “They make good stuff; music, dairy products, coffee, TV shows, surveillance systems, all history books, voting systems… Wait a minute”. It represents the singularised, corporate grasp of the monopolised modern world (dad wears a suit, so he’s just another cog in that system). Greenpeace has cannily created significant adverse attention for Lego with their mournful version of the infuriatingly catchy “Everyone is awesome” in a video depicting an Antarctic Lego landscape slowly flooding with oil. It’s a response to Lego’s partnership with Shell, an on-and-off thing since the 1960s. Shell branded products appeared all the way up until the mid-1990s. At which point Lego created fictional company… Octan. Which is the movie’s exemplification of bland consumerism. Doubtless Lord and Miller were aware of the connection (Lego resumed its Shell partnership in 2011), and it’s a clever move but one that seems particularly cynical (I know, I've used that word a  lot) for the reasons cited above. It would be difficult to see, say, Joe Dante being so willingly in thrall to his masters in his pictures (Gremlins 2, and in particular Small Soldiers which lacerated the wheels of conglomerates with particular glee, right down to the company buying the silence of families involved).


One wonders too what to make of the deconstruction of the heroic ideal, as it extends to the religious identification figure Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman has played God, of course); he manufactures a belief system for his own ends and is revealed as one who rides on the coattails of success like any politician (“I liked Emmet before it was cool”). It ties in with the picture’s humanist “believe in your self” fey ideal.  There also seems to be sly dig at Buddhism (clearing one’s mind to induce creativity, when someone with nothing there at all can achieve the same thing).


So on the one hand The Lego Movie is a troublingly jaundiced exercise, whereby it has the audacity to preach at its audience while overtly selling them a product. On the other, it’s very funny. Lord and Miller populate the picture with wall-to-wall visual and verbal gags; far too many to take in even on several viewings. Batman might be the most effectively realised; gloriously voiced by Arnett as a moody sod really into his cool shit (“I only work in black. And sometimes very, very dark grey”). His song about how tormented he is (the first verse) is a sublime summary of how silly the Caped Crusader essentially is (“Batman’s a true artist; dark and brooding”), and his distaste for Cloud Cuckoo Land (“I hate this place”) is priceless. He’s overwhelmingly egotistical (“First try” he exclaims after numerous failed attempts to hit a switch with a spanner), has his head in the sand about his alter ego (“Bruce Wayne? Who’s that? Sounds like a cool guy”) but still comes up with the best line in the picture (“I’m here to see... your butt”).


Elsewhere, there’s Superman (Channing Tatum) and the doubly meta- obsession Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) has with him; the actors’ “cool guy and dork” partnership in 21 Jump Street, and the unmitigated disaster of the Green Lantern movie sees him attempting to ride Superman’s capetails. There are shout outs to Indiana Jones (“Pigs – I hate pigs”), Star Wars (“Those guys were so lame. All they did was play Space Checkers”), ‘80s space Lego (Charlie Day as a crumpled astronaut determined to build a spaceship) and Abraham Lincoln (“Get ready for fourscore and seven years – in jail”), who gets blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pistol whipped. Alison Brie’s Unikitty sets the tone perfectly for Cloud Cuckoo Land which, when things go terrible wrong, includes flaming unicorns thundering in panic across the screen.


The visual style of the picture is winning too, akin to stop motion CGI, in which the clunky Lego has gone unmodified; the figures still clutch drastically oversized objects in their pincer hands. So much is made of this incongruity – close-up reactions of blank yellow faces blinking, slow motion action sequences –  it becomes an ingenious choice when its directors aren’t too caught up in making the whole thing as frenetic as possible.


No doubt the sequel will be more of the same; it’s notable that such a big hit has made a limited dent on international markets, and it will be interesting to see if there’s exponential growth the next time (its multiplier played more to a typical US comedy product than an animation). The Lego Movie scores big on laughs, big on wit and big on satire, but flounders when it comes to message. It’s Pixar-, or even DreamWorks-, lite; we don’t care for the characters. It’s clever, but not meaningful, appropriating the trappings of meaning but too knowing to foster belief in what it is saying. It’s audacious of Lord and Miller to even go there, in a product so transparent. To an extent, I was on board when it was only the inter-world moral (as glib and inconsequential as it ultimately is) on offer, but goodwill drained away when they tried to sell the family brought together through a love of Lego. It’s brief but the fall-out is immense; possibly the most misjudged blend of animation and live action since Osmosis Jones.





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