Tuesday, February 11, 2014

THE LEGO MOVIE Is a Triumphant, Imaginative, Surprisingly Deep Meta-Adventure


- How did this happen? I don't think anyone anticipated that THE LEGO MOVIE would turn out not just to be an instant-classic animated movie, but one of the most fun family films in years. And yet, thanks to a funny, fantastic script, eye-popping animation, and an all-star voice cast, this film defied the odds and is not just better than it had any right to be, but a great film by any measure.

THE LEGO MOVIE comes to us from the team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have brought humor and heart to movies as diverse as the animated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the recent, raunchy, 21 Jump Street reboot. These guys are good - very good - at what they do. And they help to ensure that The Lego Movie is visually dynamic, but also incredibly clever and smart.

The genius originates from the script by Lord, Miller, and Dan and Kevin Hageman. I can't stress enough: the script to this film is flat-out brilliant. The way that it dispenses critical information in a way that's completely economical - but also super-imaginative and super-funny - is worthy of the highest praise. I could go on and on, but I'll talk for a second about the movie's fantastic premise ...

The script imagines a Lego world that has become a sort of mass-delusional authoritarian dystopia, in which the rank-and-file workers have been brainwashed into a sort of gleeful delirium. All of these little yellow Lego people live their lives per their designated instructions - never deviating from the rules that dictate every aspect of their existence. The populace is lorded over by President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell), who poses as a benevolent leader, but who is secretly Lord Business - a scheming, evil mastermind whose ultimate goal is to impose total order to every Lego land, eliminating all individuality, randomness, chaos, and creativity. When a regular-joe builder named Emmett (Chris Pratt) deviates from his usual rule-regulated routine, his eyes begin to open to the oppressive nature of his world. He's taken in by rebellious, rainbow-haired Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who believes that he might just be the Chosen One prophesied by rebel leader Vitruvius  (Morgan Freeman). Joined by a motley crew of freedom fighters, Emmett and company formulate a plan to end the tyrannical reign of Lord Business and bring individuality and creativity back to their world.

What takes the story to another level is how well the script both plays with the well-worn tropes of the classic "chosen one vs. evil empire" story. The film is super aware not just of itself, but of the pop-culture multiverse from which it draws inspiration. This manifests not just on a meta level, but on a really fun surface level. We get a Lego world where Emmett and Wyldstyle exist alongside the likes of Batman (she's dating him), Gandalf, Dumbledore, Han Solo, Shaquille O'Neal, and many, many more. There hasn't been this sort of gloriously crazed pop-culture character mash-up since the days of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

But again, the film isn't just satisfied to have these characters cameo. This version of Batman, for example - hilariously voiced by Will Arnett - is a brilliant parody of what Batman has become in pop-culture in recent years - an uberconfident, all-powerful guy who's actually sort of a jerk. While Batman is the most prominent pop-cult character in the film, every appearance is utilized for maximum effect. The Star Wars cameos absolutely kill. The other superheroes that pop-up? Hilarious.

But really, the heart and soul of the film is Emmett. And man, Chris Pratt just nails it - bringing the same sort of lovable charm he shows each week as Andy on Parks and Recreation. But again, what makes Emmett so great is that he's *not* just a Luke Sywalker clone. Despite being hailed as a chosen one, Emmett never loses his averageness, his goofiness, or his dogged and legitimate love for following instructions. THE LEGO MOVIE, in that respect, never devolves into cliche. The movie is always one step ahead, and instead of Emmett having to step up and embrace some previously-unfathomable destiny, he instead realizes that he's got all the tools he needs to make a difference - he just needs to cleverly apply them to the situation at hand.

What's remarkable is that Emmett, Wyldstyle, Lord Business, and the other main characters of the film have remarkable dimension. Even side characters like Liam Neeson's Bad Cop/Good Cop, or Charlie Day's Benny the 80's Spaceman have unexpected depth.

The movie puts character first, but it also takes on some really big, really heady stuff. The opening scene of the film is a brilliant montage, showing us the preternaturally-happy residents of the Lego world, cheerfully singing the "Everything Is Awesome" song and going about their daily routines. But everything feels artificial and forced, and the characters act so unquestioningly and obediently that their is the unmistakable scent of dystopia in the air. Of course, this is all a very, very sly take on our world, the real world. In one brilliant opening sequence, these cartoon characters have completely and brilliantly skewered our oft-times conformist, consumerist culture. And not only that, but they've dissected that intangible sense of creativity and freedom that is inherent in children, but lost in adults. It's the creativity that makes playing with toys like Legos a joy, and it's that same creativity that Lord Business - the quintessential "adult" of this world - is intent on eliminating.

And man, the movie does a great job of getting at these big, satirical, philosophical issues early on. But later, the film flips the switch and goes somewhere very unexpected: the real world. Now, this could have been a huge mistake if handled indelicately. But when THE LEGO MOVIE suddenly morphs into live-action, and we see the human embodiment of Lord Business - Will Ferrell - as not an evil, power-mad dictator, but as a regular (if slightly OCD) dad ... well, it's then that the film introduces a very real, emotional element to the plotline. The emotional stakes of the movie are driven home: Emmett and Wyldstyle's quest is that of all of us: to hold on to our childlike impulses and creativity and individuality in the adult world. And Lord Business is the at-times well-meaning, but ultimately oppressive force of adulthood, of consumerism, of conformity. Holy $%&# - THE LEGO MOVIE isn't messing around, people.

THE LEGO MOVIE can be watched and enjoyed completely at a surface level. It's got whiz-bang action scenes, colorful characters, rapid-fire and insanely clever jokes, and more pop-culture references and parodies that you can shake a stick at (I haven't even touched on how cool the animation is - looking sleek and shiny yet also capturing an almost stop-motion feel that perfectly fits the  That winning combo alone would make it one hell of an enjoyable animated film. But beyond that, there is some seriously smart stuff going on in this film. It's a movie that on a micro level looks at how people play with Legos, but on a macro level looks at how we change from children to adults and what we lose in the process. It tells that story and addresses such weighty themes with surprising clarity of purpose and emotional depth. The same kind of pangs you might have felt while watching the Toy Story films are very much present here. Everyone and anyone who was ever, once, a kid playing with Legos will feel an instant sense of recognition while watching this film. And yes, some of that will be surface level - nostalgia for 80's spaceman Legos, etc. But some will come about in those real-world scenes between a father and son, scenes that pit an adult's need for order and logic against a kid's desire for wonderment and imagination and no-limits.

The fact that the movie works on so many levels is a pretty amazing and impressive triumph. I guess it's sort of embodied and encapsulated by the "Everything Is Awesome" song. One one level: uber-catchy pop song. On another level, early in the film: an oppressive hive-mind slave-song - the self-medicated, self-delusional cry of the worker bee. And finally, by the film's end, it morphs into a triumphant rallying cry - a reassurance that everything can and will be okay, even if it's imperfect and unpredictable and chaotic.

And yeah, all of this is in - of all things - The Lego Movie - which might just be the best animated film of the last few years. Who would ever have predicted that?

My Grade: A-

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