Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2014

The Lego Movie

Master Builders indeed

Lord and Miller work their magic again in 'The Lego Movie'

The Lego Movie
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Screenplay: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Starring: The voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day and Liam Neeson
Rated PG / 1 hour, 40 minutes
February 7, 2014
(out of four)

Good ideas are overrated.

At the very least, the notion of there being "good" ideas and "bad" ideas in Hollywood is largely illusory. The more you look at movies, the more you realize how true this is - and that most anything can make for a good movie if the right people make it, and most anything can make for a bad one if the wrong people do.

Looking back at recent history alone, there are countless examples of great movies that would have sounded unwatchable on paper - and just as many terrible ones that must have sounded like can't-miss propositions. If Being John Malkovich had turned out badly, we'd all think it sounded like the worst idea we had ever heard.

Ultimately it's never really about the idea at all. Case in point: The Lego Movie, which, at face value, has no business being any good. It's a cheap way to sell a product - one that doesn't even have any inherent narrative value, no less - and it doesn't take a cynic to see that. Except somehow Phil Lord and Christopher Miller managed to turn a movie about little plastic toys into a personal statement.

As with any movie designed to sell (or otherwise directly associated with) a product, what matters, from a storytelling integrity standpoint, is the relationship between that product and the actual movie. In this case, those little plastic bricks inform everything from the filmmakers' animation style to their genre choices, without the movie being explicitly about the toys themselves. As they did in 2012's great 21 Jump Street reboot, Lord and Miller have gone for something beyond the basic kitsch value of their given premise, finding a genuine concept within the framework of an existing property. Rather than being constrained by the brand name, they seem to see it as a blank slate to go in whatever absurd direction their imaginations take them. The final result almost feels like a free-association, pop-culture art installation, one with a mischievous sense of humor and a meticulous sense of design.

It just so happens that their medium is Lego toys. And oh, how gloriously they attack their canvas. I never thought I'd say this about a movie based on Lego bricks, but I want to go through The Lego Movie frame by frame just to catch all the background details and subtle touches I possibly can. This is an exquisitely designed piece of animation, and it's in the visual scheme that we can really see the way the filmmakers embrace the limitations and unique possibilities of the format. Committing fully to a stop-motion aesthetic, Lord and Miller depict various Lego-created worlds in painstaking detail. While I'm sure this was a combined effort of actual Legos and computer animation, it retains its handmade feel in every moment of every scene.

And they exploit the style for comedic effect, too - emphasizing the visual absurdities that result from dramatizing familiar scenarios with Legos. I'm thinking in particular of a wide shot of Liam Neeson's Bad Cop character, leaning over as far as he can over our protagonist Emmet, whose Lego body and Lego chair can only stretch back so far. It's a hilarious image in a movie full of them. (In fact, every moment with Neeson's rotating Good Cop/Bad Cop persona is golden.)

That kind of self-awareness was probably necessary to make something this refreshing out of a brand-name commodity, but it's an attitude that extends through every aspect of the movie. In fact, the film very blatantly subverts the very point of Legos, and of the corporatization of creativity in general. Our hero Emmet (voiced by Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt) is, by the movie's own definition, an antihero, albeit an immensely likable and sweet one. He's pathologically uncreative, interested only in following the rules and guidelines with which he is provided. In short, he is the perfect stooge for the evil Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell), who desires a world of complete conformity and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that reality.

In an ironic twist of fate, and an amusing satire of movies like The Matrix that center around a prophesied savior figure, Emmet is identified as "The Special," the one who will find the Piece of Resistance that will put a stop to the "Kragle," the dangerous weapon Lord Business has at his disposal, and which he plans to use on all the citizens in this Legoverse.

Problem is, Emmet - unlike his rescuer Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) - is not a Master Builder, as the prophecy states the savior must be. He hasn't got a creative bone in his entire plastic body. It's the instruction guide or bust for him. Which puts him and the fellow members of the resistance - among them the oracle-like Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), the exactly-what-it-sounds-like Unikitty (Alison Brie), Batman (Will Arnett), and the self-pitying pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman) - in a bit of a jam, especially as they're still being chased by Bad Cop, at the behest of Lord Business.

The film uses the various Lego worlds to string together a free-associative visual landscape that shifts from the suburbs to the Old West to the seven seas, and in which any character that has had (or could have had) a Lego facsimile might show up at any given moment. The way Lord and Miller assign each one with absurd character traits - that, or parody existing tropes, like Batman's tortured, orphaned, brooding persona - is one of the film's many recurring delights.

There comes a point in the third act where the filmmakers place their story inside a separate narrative construct. Only then does the film ever seem like it's trying to sell toys - and in truth, this particular development probably would have been better served either being a more prominent framing device for the whole movie, or discarded altogether.

But on the whole, The Lego Movie is remarkably distinct from the product that inspired it. As usual, the wrong lesson will be learned from the film's inevitable popularity; the message will be that movies based on toys sell - not that movies made by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are awesome, which ultimately should be the takeaway. Make no mistake about it: The Lego Movie was a bad idea. But if those two guys are at the helm, here's to more bad ideas.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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