Monday, February 10, 2014

The LEGO Movie

I, like all boys who grew up in the 20th century who did not need to fight in depressing African civil wars, spent my childhood playing with LEGOs.  For that reason, I was inevitably going to love "The LEGO Movie", as I suspect so will all children and former-children.  So there's really no point to writing a review at all.  The movie has LEGOs in it, therefore we love it, THE END.  Once upon a time we all built a garish multicolored spaceship out of spare parts and cannibalized bits from Star Wars sets, and now that there's a movie about those toys, we are going to have fun, no matter what.  Luckily this movie is not a pretty LEGO model of an "Episode II" Jedi Starfighter that looks amazing for five minutes and then immediately collapses*, but rather a brilliant piece of engineering that will legitimately entertain its entire audience, no matter the age.

"The LEGO Movie" is filmed entirely in CG animation made to look like stop motion modeled off of LEGO bricks.  This movie is built out of 3,863,484 digital blocks and objects, with every single character and effect created out of computerized LEGOs.  The characters walk with the jerky impossible motions of a little human without knees, moveable elbows, or fingers.  Every figure has little thumb-prints, dog-chew marks, realistic wear and tear, and natural fade on their painted faces.  Fire is made out of flat red plastic shapes, the water is blue blocks, smoke is white blocks, and the food is little circles.  It makes for a dazzling visual effect of an entire world made out of blocks.  There have been LEGO cartoons and video games before all playing off the natural humor of these characters living in a world made entirely out of toys, but they have never managed to reach the beauty of this movie, with whole cities, no a whole universe, made out of a Danish miniature construction set.  The only things that are not LEGO in this movie are a variety of real-world objects set to scale with the rest of the people, such as the villain's superweapon, a tube of Krazy Glue.

Most of the plot and comedy is a lovingly satirical mix of energy, character, and visual puns, similar to that of the "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" movies.  That should come as no surprise, since "The LEGO Movie" is directed by those movies' main creative team, Phil Lord and Chris Miller.  So again we have a loveable loser being thrown into a manic world of constant humor and very subtle parody of film tropes, just enough to make the movie feel fresh while still being loving towards its material.  The entire movie is just one constant attack of entertainment, which even the nastiest and most embittered grouch could not resist.   I cannot say that "The LEGO Movie" is superior to "Meatballs 1", but I am certain this latest creation will end up again fondly displayed on Hollywood's mantelpiece, a fun adventure that will please everybody.

For the past decades, LEGO has steadily grown from being merely a creative toy where children can let their imaginations fly with a sandbox full of possibility, to being an entertainment juggernaught with its tentacles reaching into every genre and pop culture franchise a child could ever want.  In the 90s, it began with the explosive collaboration of LEGO Star Wars, but in the years since it has grown to include Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, DC and Marvel Superheroes, Indiana Jones, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and in an amazing overestimation of that movie's appeal:  LEGO "Prince of Persia".  Part of the appeal of "The LEGO Movie" is how Warner Bros have managed to rope together all of these pop culture characters into a single confusing universe.  So much like how somewhere in my house I have a box of LEGO toys where Darth Vader is living along with Harry Potter and a martian, "The LEGO Movie" uses the licenses at its disposal to create that same feeling of a messy toy box universe.

Since Batman is in this movie, that means this post is a revival of an
old series of mine.  Welcome to Batman Movie Batdown Week 89!

As kids we didn't know we were committing terrible violations of international copyright law when we dared have Batman walk across the deck of the Millenium Falcon.  But we did it anyway.  Thanks to "The LEGO Movie" being made by Warner Bros, that means it can very easily include its intellectual properties, such as the DC Superheroes (notably Batman, who is a major character), Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and apparently Abraham Lincoln.  And in a surprise cameo, Disney was nice enough to let a few Star Wars characters make a quick appearance, letting my childhood dream finally come true:  Batman walks across the deck of the Millenium Falcon.  Then Batman, this version being an overblown show-off, gets bored because Chewbacca and C-3PO are dudes.

Beyond the copyright issues, "The LEGO Movie" is a film with just about everything in it.  Cowboys, magical perky kitty-ponies, fantasy kingdoms, giant robots, mind control, an evil Irish cop played by Liam Neeson, magic, and mutant Duplo blocks invading from another universe**.  Its all just one big wonderful feast of a film, you will not be bored for a single moment as the characters jump from location to location on a grand never-ending adventure.

What is this feeling? ...Happiness?
I can feel things again after "Vampire Academy"?

Interestingly the star of this great colorful universe is the single most bland and boring LEGO man in the world.  He's a basic brown-haired Generic.  Emmet (above, center) is a character so forgettable that he has no friends or family because nobody can remember he exists.  Normally I'd say that if a movie has a bland protagonist, it would be a bad thing, but that's the joke here in "The LEGO Movie", in a movie with spacemen, goth chicks, a Morgan Freeman wizard, and BATMAN, the star is a little construction worker who just so happens to get the cap to a stick of Crazy Glue stuck on his back.  Emmet's single creative idea is a double-decker couch, a concept that every other character in the movie considers to be embarrassingly awful.  And compared to his goth love interest, Wyldstyle (above, right), he's entirely incompetent.

The relationship between Wyldstyle and Emmet is not all that well-developed, though this is understandable considering how busy this movie is.  But there are some subtle and complex elements to it.  Emmet is pretty much just a guy, but he's genuine in his blandness.  He likes bad pop music ("Everything is Awesome" is a biting parody of the crap that floods our radio these days, and just as catchy), he wants a double-decker couch, and his simple tastes are all it takes to eventually save the world.  Wyldstyle meanwhile is trying far too hard to be cool, what with her stripper nickname, her extremely cool acrobatic building skills, and her failed relationship with Batman, but its all a front.  Emmet may not be as cool as Batman or even my favorite character, a hyperactive 80s spaceman who wants nothing more from life than to build a spaceship, but he's the hero this world needs to be saved.

Another point in this movie's favor is how most of its plot is really about the spirit of LEGO itself.  The main villain is President Business, a madman who wants than to glue the world together so that his creations can never be ruined by the chaotic even changing world of LEGO.   Its an understandable viewpoint to protect your LEGO builds as one would protect a major work of art, but that is an affront to the creative fluidness that makes LEGO great.  Yeah, that city I built with a ringed upper layer for airship landings might have been awesome, but tomorrow those blocks can be a car, a castle, or a Yamato-class Battleship.  I'm going to go into SPOILERS for a second, so skip ahead if you are the cowardly sort:  the whole movie turns out to be a metaphorical battle of imaginations between a father and son, with the father wanting to leave his LEGO world as an art project in his exclusive man cave, and the son just wanting to play with the awesome toys.  It isn't often that a two-hour long commercial for toy sets can actually organize itself into a weirdly convincing argument for the true spirit and importance of some hard plastic blocks.

Of course, if I must make some stupid fanboy comments - and I must, I'm a nerd in the 21st century - the LEGO spirit depicted here is not perfect.  The heroic creations are far too... organized.  They all look like fresh out of the box creations with proper color scheme and organization.  A real LEGO spaceship is made out whatever pieces you happen to have lying around, caring about color is something that adults do.  And its all imagination.  The biplanes the heroes make have properly and stuff.  Mine where regular blocks with a spinning piece at the end.  The guns are guns, not pointy blocks firing lasers out of fantasy and dreams.  Nobody ever seems to manage to lose that ONE GODDAMN PIECE that you need to finish your set, as inevitably will happen.  And at no point does anybody step on a jagged little 2 x 4, a hazard for all modern humans and the cause of sixteen deaths a year.

How you'll feel when you have to return to our boring flesh
and blood world after seeing "The LEGO Movie".

There is no doubt therefore that "The LEGO Movie" is the best movie of 2014 so far.  Every child in America wants to go see this movie, and their little instincts are correct.  Its a great comedy, a beautifully-animated and unique experience, that is a lot of fun.  Heck, even if you do not like LEGOs (heathen!), you will find something to love here.  It is impossible to not enjoy "The LEGO Movie".  If your whole life has been a constant stream of disappointment and failure, watching "The LEGO Movie" probably will not help you.  But it will for two hours let you forget your problems.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a spaceship to build.  SPACESHIP!

* Jesus, those LEGO sets sure were cool to build, but they did not last long.  Just about every LEGO design has some cataclysmic engineering weakness at some joint or another, which will immediately cause the entire spaceship to shatter the moment you tried to play with it.  I remember once I had my grandma buy a seventy-dollar gigantic TIE Fighter which was about two feet across and amazingly faulty.  As soon as I picked that thing up, it shattered into a million pieces.  Luckily its wing panels were later repurposed to become the flight decks of my Omega Class Battlestar (until they were destroyed along with the rest of the spaceship when it was damaged by an evil Space Cyborg fleet and had to be scuttled by dropping it into a Star... I had a complex childhood).

Really the only way to seriously play with LEGOs the way they came in the box was to fix the weakpoints yourself using extra parts.  My aforementioned Jedi Star Fighter had to have its wings supported, its engines replaced with larger more stable thrusters, and its guns moved further apart on the wingspan, or else that craft would been more of a suicide machine than a Yokosuka Ohka.  That Starfighter survived ten years of amazing adventures until it was finally torn in two by my baby cousins.

** By the way, Duplo blocks kicked ass too.


  1. Emmet is just your average working class hero. That way the kids and parents in the audience can relate to him more. its kinda like they're saying this struggle is every bodies struggle.

  2. Aimed more at the youth audience, but definitely has enough winks and nudges to the older crowd to balance it all out. Good review.

  3. I always preferred the Lego Technic series to the standard bricks. It was like a build-your-own-action figure kit.