Saturday, March 1, 2014

Film Review: The Lego Movie

Most people who have seen The Lego Movie love it.

I am in the minority.

I don't mean to be a contrarian.  I don't mind liking things because they are popular or mainstream (I guess I'm an anti-hipster).  And I wanted to like The Lego Movie.  But the more I watched, the more I was turned away.

Now I know that you shouldn't read too much into a movie meant for children.  But I could help but feel the biting cynicism underneath the colorful veneer.  First of all, let's start with the main villain: Lord Business (Will Ferrel).  In the movie he steals a special substance called "the kragle" from its protector, a Gandalfian sage named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) who prophesies that a chosen one will rise to stop him.

Lord Business becomes President Business and looks suspiciously like the Republican Presidential candidate during the development of this film.  While the movie is filled with plenty of silly gags, there is a cynical sneering at politics and corporations.  I'm not saying that these institutions should be off limits to criticism, but it seems oddly out of place for a movie aimed at children.

I remember Charlie Rose was interviewing Steve Jobs and John Lassiter about all of their success at PIXAR.  They talked about how animation lets you explore themes and topics that you normally couldn't because of the fantastical nature of animation.  Rose seemed very excited about the idea of putting political messages into cartoons.  Jobs and Lassiter were aghast at this idea and said that putting politics into a cartoon dates it too quickly.  If you want it to last, you have to make the ideas universal.  And I don't see that really in The Lego Movie.

The story focuses on Emmet (Chris Pratt) a horribly average, optimistic Lego man who accidentally becomes the Chosen One, much to the chagrin of rebel Wild Style (Elizabeth Banks).  The two of them go on high octane adventures through different worlds in order to defeat Lord Business.  Pratt particularly does a great job of giving Emmet a strong gee-whiz attitude without coming off as obnoxious, but endearing.

To its credit, the script is witty.  And there are some real, genuine laughs.  Particularly, Batman (Will Arnett) steals every scene that he's in.  His heavy metal song is hysterical.  And there are some funny surprise cameos throughout.  But that is also part of the problem.  While fun, cameos from Dumbledore or Milhouse or Green Lantern, make the movie feel like its winking at you.  It tries to buy your affection by joking with you about random bits of pop culture, kind of like a Saturday Night Live skit.

The plot moves forward in standard hero journey fashion.  There is a twist in the 3rd act that I cannot reveal here.  It is one of the most enjoyable parts of the film, but it is also one of the most frustrating.  I know that sounds like a contradiction, and it is.  But the twist is helpful in explaining the overly simplistic characters and storytelling that comes before it.  But it is frustrating, because it adds a whole meta dimension to the story that would have ruined something like Toy Story.

One of the other big drawbacks of the film is a logistic one.  The movie wants you to invest emotionally in the characters.  But the Lego people are so blocky and have limited facial expressions.  The animators do what they can, to their credit.  But the deadness of the eyes is never full overcome.  Even Pixar was able to make a robot like Wall-E feel like he was alive.  I always felt a bit distant from the story.

Ultimately, the movie is about creativity versus stagnation, especially regarding Legos.  And when that point sank in, I could appreciate the movie a little more.  But in the end, it felt hollow.  It was too generic to be special and too cynical to be timeless.

2 out of 5 stars.

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