Sunday, March 30, 2014

In Theaters: The Lego Movie

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If something called The Lego Movie were going to work on anyone, it probably would work on me. I had a tubful of those damned bricks as a kid, and to this day, they exert a certain hold- it's hard NOT to start building something with them, and harder still to keep that construction from growing increasingly elaborate, until of course I realize I need even more of the bricks to round out my concept. I think they may actually create some kind of chemical dependency. But I was wary when seeing these generic toys made into a movie; it could either work really well or come off as the most cynical, calculated exercise imaginable.

It works. Oh man, does it work. The makers of Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street would be the ones to make such an unlikely concept sing, and they bring to this colorful brickfest a fittingly anarchic sense of humor, melded with a sincere and kind of sophisticated message about human creative potential. It's a film that gives us a peppy song called "Everything is Awesome" first satirically, then enthusiastically, a film that deflates the myth of the Chosen Hero of Destiny before building it up all over again, and a film full of surprises.

Chris Pratt is the voice of Emmett, a solid Lego citizen of a solid and orderly Lego city in which everyone is encouraged to fit in under the wise and beneficent rule of President Business (Will Farrell). He watches the #1 TV show ("Where Are My Pants?" for those curious), listens to the top song (the aforementioned "Everything is Awesome"), buys overpriced coffee, and helps his fellow construction workers clear away strange old buildings in favor of an orderly metropolis. One night, however, he meets the strange rebel Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), fuses with something called the Piece of Resistance, and finds himself the Chosen One, destined to halt the evil Business' plan to destroy the world, with the assistance of the Lego multiverse's master builders, including the masterful wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Benny the Spaceman (Charlie Day), the sparkly Princess UniKitty (Alison Brie), and of course, Batman (Will Arnett).

The story is positioned primarily as a clash between order and freedom. Lord Business' plan is to use the Kragle- apparently a tube of glue- to freeze the inhabitants of the Lego universe in place, all in perfect poses within buildings and vehicles built according to the instructions. The master builders, on the other hand, are imaginative and versatile thinkers who can see every brick and piece as new possibilities. Emmett is used to following the rules, though, and teaching him to think of said possibilities is a slow process. It's a conflict that echoes criticisms of the Lego line itself as it moved towards sets with seemingly more specialized pieces (though any respectable toy store should still sell those big tubs.) The film doesn't advocate pure chaos, though- Emmett's skill at following directions does come in handy, and we see at least one case of the master builders' inability to collaborate causing problems. It's a conflicted world in need of harmony.

The film gets a bit more daring in its handling of the "chosen one" theme. The idea that heroes are inherently special and destined to do great things has come in for a fair amount of criticism in recent years, not entirely undeserved, and at many points the film forces us to consider the idea that Emmett may not really be anything special at all. Rather than deconstruct prophecies and the heroic ideal altogether, though, the movie offers a more democratic solution, and couches it within a plot twist that's genuinely stunning both for how surprising it is and for how well it works.

There's a very loose, Mad Magazine kind of feel to The Lego Movie; it's a very busy film, full of throwaway jokes and nods both to pop culture and Lego history. The relentless pace of the jokes means that most of them hit, and the ones that don't are gone anyway. Parts of the film are clearly targeted at people who grew up with Lego- Benny, with his cracked helmet, faded insignia and obsession with building spaceships, will especially speak to viewers of a certain age- while others are more universal in appeal. The film's voice casting is frankly remarkable- in addition to the above, we have Liam Neeson as a cop and Lord Business' enforcer, Nick Offerman as a pirate, and an all-too-brief appearance by Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman.

The film was computer animated but manages to look like really good stop motion, and a lot of the simple joy of the film is in its wash of shapes and colors, bricks flying about freely and being quickly repurposed. Many of the film's best visual gags are simply in how the pieces are used to represent things. In many ways this is a movie serving as a toy commercial, but as dreadful as that would normally be, I'm willing to allow it now. When a movie is this sincere, this clever, this inspiring, and this good, I can live with the advertising.

Besides, I don't exactly need much of an excuse to start buying blocks again.

Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
Written for the screen and Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Grade: A

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