Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Lego Movie (***)

Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller


The two directors behind this year's first legitimate box office blockbuster (no shade on Ride Along, I just think that movie was a much bigger surprise then people expected it to be) have proven adapt at making incredibly witty features out of very shallow source material. In 2009, they created a surprisingly charming film out of the very short children's book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and in 2012 they had an even bigger success when they totally remade 21 Jump Street from scratch and made that year's best comedy. They weigh their scripts with as many jokes as possible - I wouldn't be surprised if laughs-per-minute (LPM) was an actual stat that they tried to keep track of in writing sessions - and their humor is sprinkled with that cynical irony that's all the rage these days. I think that kind of humor works terrifically for the R-rated 21 Jump Street (and their upcoming sequel, 22 Jump Street), but does it work in a children's film? They pulled it off with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and with their latest film, The Lego Movie, they're out to prove that it wasn't just an aberration.

The directors are Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and they've proven that they can create a functional, hilarious screenplay out of the most low-concept ideas. They turned the simple, dream-like fantasy of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs into a smart sci-fi with sweet family-oriented morals. In this case, they're not even given a basis for a plot; they're just given a toy. Legos are indeed some of the very best, most practical toys in the universe, and this film shows that their handy building abilities makes it fun for people of all ages, really. But how do you stretch this into an entire feature-length film? I'm not sure we really needed a Lego movie to begin with, but in the hands of Lord and Miller, the Legos are morphed into an exciting action story with a premium LPM level. Lord and Miller appear to be the anti-Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. While those guys take an abundance of pop culture material and seem to make it as unfunny as possible, Lord and Miller take the smallest concepts and transform them into something that is truly cinematic.

The Lego Movie revolves around Emmet (Chris Pratt), a particularly non-miraculous construction worker who lives a life of complete obedience to the rules and ordinance of President Business (Will Ferrell). President Business is pretty transparent in his dictatorial tactics, but the city is populated with many just as close-minded as Emmet that they're existence actually appears to them to be a utopia when in reality its the exact opposite. Emmet tries desperately to make friends but his mindless agreement to all instructions leaves him out of most social circles, but he's able to brush all of this with a vigorous positive attitude. Essentially, Emmet is an empty slate who believes and follows everything he is told. That is, until he meets a young girl named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). She's searching desperately for something, but he's just mesmerized by her beauty. In his awestruck, comatose state, he falls down a deep, winding hole only to wake up with a piece of plastic permanently affixed to his back and in the possession of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), President Business's head lieutenant.

Emmet is rescued by Wyldstyle and her mentor Virtuvius (Morgan Freeman) who explain to Emmet the prophecy of the Piece of Resistance. Before he was President Business, he was Lord Business, an evil tyrant who stole a power weapon from Vitruvius named the Kragle. Vitruvius warned Lord Business that one day a prophet, a "Special", will find the Piece of Resistance and use it to stop him and the Kragle. It ends up that the Piece of Resistance is the piece of plastic on Emmet's back and that he is indeed "The Special". Wyldstyle cannot believe it, since Emmet is not a very skilled builder and cannot accomplish much of anything without detailed instructions. Emmet didn't even realize that Lord Business was a bad guy. But when President Business and Bad Cop's plan to destroy the entire Lego world with the Kragle are set in motion, Vitruvius and Wyldstyle realize that they have limited time to help Emmet fulfill the prophecy and save the world.

On their team is a variety of different Lego creations, including a sweet but passive-aggressive Unikitty (Alison Brie), a 1980's astronaut named Benny (Charlie Day), a massive robot pirate named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), and of course Batman (Will Arnett), who also happens to be Wyldstyle's very serious boyfriend. But a lot of the film's laughs come in the form lego cameo of sorts in which dozens of characters, both fictional and nonfictional, appear in lego form including Wonder Woman, Superman, Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare, The Green Lantern and Shaquille O'Neal. It's the Lego equivalent of all those celebrity cameos in The Muppet Movie. These could have undermined the comedy, but Lord and Miller strike the right balance and come up with a collection of people who are just random enough to have their appearances make you chuckle. The humor is particularly cynical - particularly in an opening montage set to the film's theme song "Everything is Awesome" in which we see the degree to which Lego civilians are essentially brainwashed by President Business - and threatens to drown the movie in heartlessness at times.

The film's first half is relentless in its attack. Its jokes are funny, but they're also incessant and they force you into a state of claustrophobia that feels threatening. Arnett's Batman is spoken with scorched Earth, openly mocking the sincerity of Chris Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. In a world of irony, nothing made with genuineness feels free from ridicule. But it really hits its stride by its second half, where it feels less the need to be cool and is more unafraid of being sentimental. The voice work of Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson in particular stick out for their lack of vanity and for their awareness and strength of self-parody. And the film's third act takes a surprising turn. Within a Hollywood that just seems to assume that American audiences only want the lowest common denominator, this film actually gives its, what I assume to be, very young audience a lot of credit for intelligence. It bridges the gap between toys and storytelling in a way that could have gone downhill quick, but instead is one of the film's many pleasant surprises.

I still think 21 Jump Street proved that Lord and Miller's real audience is actually the 18 and up crowd, but it's no small feat that they have now made two deceptively smart movies for children, which is a lot harder than it looks. Spike Jonze failed at this when he attempted Where The Wild Things Are - that film was too morose and more fitted toward the Being John Malkovich section of his fanbase, not for actual children who adore the original Maurice Sendak picture book. Wild Things works brilliantly in its own way, but Lord and Miller have truly hit the sweet spot: a movie that can be adored by the kiddies and appreciated by the adults. It's a welcome alternative to The Nut Job or the dozens of other movies that assumes that puns and farts are enough to keep the kids laughing through the whole 90 minutes. The Lego Movie is not perfect, but it is certainly a welcome exception to the sludge of early year dreck that plagues theaters around this time. With 22 Jump Street set for a Summer release, it appears that 2014 will be the year that we see the full repertoire that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have to offer.

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