Friday, February 21, 2014

Pretty Much Everything Is Awesome

Darn right.  Mroww.

Up until The Lego Movie released two weeks ago, every one of the company’s visual productions, from its somewhat tolerable made-for-TV shorts to its less tolerable made-for-Legoland 4D-fests to its completely unacceptable made-for-DVD disgraces to Bionicle, had been nothing more than a mostly plotless and sometimes amusing kiddie cartoon fraught with pop-culture references that kiddies won’t understand and strategically designed to sell toys.  So just imagine my surprise when rave reviews started to pour in for this somehow different feature-length Lego Movie, downplaying its commercial agenda and specifically praising it for telling an original, meaningful story.  Imagine my further surprise upon going to see what all the buzz was about and finding that The Lego Movie is also an extended Lego ad set to a very skimpy plot, fraught with pop-culture references, and very obviously designed to sell toys, video games, theme park tickets, and whatnot.  Oh well.  Maybe someday Lego will grant an independent filmmaker the rights to make a philosophical, morally ambiguous, adult-oriented drama with its “sophisticated interlocking bricks system”, but for now we’re stuck with this consistently funny, eye-popping, witty, and completely bubble-headed CG comedy.  Unlike the works of Batman, it’s not exactly what I’d call true art, dark and brooding and serious, but under the circumstances it’ll do just fine.

I LOVE this song.

The first of many celebrity voice actors we’re introduced to are Will Ferrell and Morgan Freeman, the former playing an evil overlord named President Business who obsessively regulates all Lego worlds to his idea of perfect order, the latter a blind and elderly (he prefers “experienced”) Master Building guru who hopes to one day liberate the realms of Business’ tyrannical micromanagement and prophesies that a powerful figure called the Special will eventually save the brainwashed masses as the “most important, interesting, and extraordinary person of all times.  All this is true, because it rhymes.”  This chosen one will be none other than Emmet, an unremarkable, outwardly generic construction worker who leads an utterly simple existence in Bricksburg.  Like most residents of the almost dystopian metropolis, which runs entirely on Octan technology and is littered with giant propaganda posters celebrating President “Because He Said So” Business, he devotedly follows a repetitive but hilarious sitcom entitled “Where Are My Pants?” (in which a man asks his wife just that, over and over again), gorges himself on ludicrously overpriced coffee, never tires of playing the city anthem Everything Is Awesome without end (you probably won’t either), and abides so inerrantly to a set of instructions on how to live his life that he’s effectively incapable of expressing a single original idea, let alone building a model from his own imagination, a talent held in highest regard by the Master Builders.  The first half-hour of The Lego Movie is probably the most intriguing, evoking a lineage of thought-provoking stories like Brave New World and The Truman Show that concern individuals being squashed in conformity to collective expectations, creative thought being stifled in the name of balance, and people going about daily routines with nary a thought as to why they indulge such drudgery in the first place.  At its core, though, bar some latent, half-fulfilled theological references to “the man upstairs” and a pretty cool twist revelation about the Legoverses at the ending, it’s just a fun adventure movie about foiling the Emperor, saving the galaxy, and getting the girl.

And there is a girl, going presently by the moniker of Wyldstyle, which predictably provokes many confused queries as to whether she’s some kind of D.J.  Rather like Lindsey Stirling, she rocks a dash or two of strikingly dyed hair, and much like Lindsey Stirling, she sets the young guys’ hearts aflutter without even trying, which is exactly what happens to our dreadfully average hero one evening at a construction site.  Unfortunately for him, she’s already taken, by a really serious and growly dude named Batman, and in the process of chasing after her Emmet accidently falls down a rabbit hole, landing himself right in the clutches of an emotionally divided SS officer, Good Cop Bad Cop.  GCBC, being a bad guy with a leg up over the protagonist, typically relishes the opportunity to spill the beans on his master’s plans for world annihilation, but doesn’t get to finish his job with Emmet before Wyldstyle bursts onto the scene, karate chops a lot of robot minions into pieces, and bails out the clueless construction worker.  “Come with me if you want to not die,” she intones, and come he does, which leaves the conflicted cop nothing to say but: “DARN, DARN, DARN, Darney-Darn!”  As Wyldstyle and Vitruvius explain to the bumbling protagonist, his sole calling as the Special-in-making is to stick this one thing, “the piece of resistance”, into another thing so as to prevent Lord Business from coating the universe in “Kraggle”, a gel that immobilizes figures on the spot and plays a central role in his scheme to eliminate all chaos that derives from individuality.

Will the woman get the man that she deserves?  Will an eventual heist go according to Batman’s plans, or will the good guys have to wing it?  Will Emmet and the rest of Brickburg’s mindless slaves forego their instructions to build something “only they can think of”, or are they forever fated to live as mere parts in a larger set?  How do Dumbledore and Gandalf, Superman and Green Lantern figure into this hodgepodge of settings and themes?  Such are a few of the questions you’ll be asking yourself should you go to watch The Lego Movie, a movie so light-hearted and comical for the first hour and a half that when the plot twist finally unfolds and we’re supposed to start taking things seriously, the tone doesn’t shift nearly as smoothly as it ought, but that’s really the greatest complaint I can muster against the most technically impressive and well scripted animated film I’ve seen since, well, nothing that came out last year or the year before that.

It certainly towers over the abysmal Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs that co-directors/writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller made in their younger days.  As familiar as the ideas of rebellion, believing in yourself, and teamwork are, the animation style used herein to relate those ideas is unlike anything yet attempted in a mainstream blockbuster, appearing to be a mix of stop-motion animation and highly detailed CGI that replicates the same look.  All the explosions, lasers, clouds, and waves are animated as if they were composed of individual bricks, and the minifigures usually gesticulate in stiff, awkward movements that reflect their true flexibility or lack thereof, much as Disney poked fun at the primitive, staccato animation of older video game characters in Wreck It Ralph.  Both effects contribute to an appearance that’s unexpectedly photo-realistic and appropriately plastic, though it doesn’t resemble a low-budget project by any means, being filled with action sequences so complex and tremendous in scale they could have been borrowed from The Avengers’ finale or any Transformers movie.

Still, however pretty the animation may be, it’s the script that ultimately carries the film, delivering humor for children and adults in equal measure, just like the expensive toy sets you can and probably must succumb to compulsively buying in the Lego shop located outside the theater.  I’ve already commented on its surplus of allusions to other movies, mainly Megamind (whom Ferrell seems to be deliberately channeling as Business), the LOTR and Dark Knight films, The Matrix, Clash of the Titans (probably the remake, which I haven’t seen, over the original, which was laugh-out-loud horrendous), and maybe the Spongebob Squarepants movie with David Hasselhoff.  Even the Despicable Me minions have a not too subtle audio cameo, but The Lego Movie also keeps up a constant stream of genuinely clever jokes apart from its immersion in pop-culture.  Some of my favorite lines (paraphrasing) besides those recited earlier:

Wyldsyle: [After Emmet proudly demonstrates his single original design, a bunk-bed couch] “That’s literally the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Vitruvius: “Let me handle this, Wyldstyle.  That idea… is just the worst.

Emmet: “You’re an amazing person, Wyldstyle, and if your boyfriend can’t see that, he’s as blind as… a person… whose eyes stopped working.”

“We awe fwum the planet Duplo, and we awe here to destwoy you.”

If Lego can maintain this same standard of quality for the inevitable #2, I can’t wait to see how the embattled minifigures repel the Duplo invaders from their home baseplate.  The Lego Movie doesn’t have a very deep meaning like Toy Story 1, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Toy Short Stories, the Toy Story Halloween Special, or some other movies based on and made to sell toys, but it is superbly entertaining, delightfully hammy, blissfully nostalgic, consistently funny, occasionally romantic, and most of all awesome.

There.  I think I covered it all, but just in case, could you show me the whole thing again?  I wasn’t listening.

Grade rating: B+

Trailer Reviews
Mr. Peabody and Sherman – The one thing about this that looked remotely sufferable was Patrick Warburton as a Greek soldier, but he’s only as funny as the lines that writers give him, all of which weren’t.
Earth To Echo – This is likely an early teaser because it didn’t reveal many plot points, but it looks like a mashup of Super 8’s better parts with the aliens and floating things and Chronicle or Cloverfield with the handheld camera.  And y’all know how I feel about shaky cam.
Muppets: Most Wanted – “Lights out.”  *Crash*  “Turn them back on.  Ugh.  You ’ave to vait until I’m LIKE out of the hallway.”  Huh huh.  Tina Fey smashing Russian and valley girl together.  That’s a good one.  I think I’ve liked approximately zero of the Muppet movies I’ve seen so far, but maybe this one will change that record.  On DVD.
The Amazing Spider-Man 5, or is it officially 2? – Another year, another special effects extravaganza about an arrogant, unlikeable teenager who zips around the big city and wisecracks along the way, except this time the villain is Jamie “Every single thing in my life is built around race” Foxx and the most special effect on display is Spidey’s girlfriend Emma Stone.  A noble effort from Industrial Lights and Magic, but that’s not music enough for my ears.  It’s time for this string of cash-grabbing sequels to bow out.

He he.  Get it?  I worked really hard on that one.
The Box-Trolls – If I’m not mistaken, this is the one that made a small stir for being gay kiddie propaganda dressed up as a stop-motion monster movie.  “Families come in all shapes and sizes…”  Whatever the case, it doesn’t look nearly as inventive visually as Coraline or The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Another Wizard of Oz movie – Soooooooo bad.

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