Friday, February 7, 2014

Playtime: THE LEGO MOVIE


You’d think by now I’d have more trust in writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Instead, I’ve gone into each and every one of their films suspicious of the entire project and left feeling pleasantly surprised, won over by their manic energy and thoughtful thematic playfulness. Who would’ve guessed their Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a feature-length expansion of a slight, whimsical picture book, would be one of the funniest movies of any kind in recent years? Or that their reboot of musty old TV series 21 Jump Street would be a jocular undercover-cop comedy perceptive about shifting teen mores and feature one of the best cameos I’ve ever seen?  Now they’ve tackled The Lego Movie. That’s right. It’s a movie based on the tiny bricks with instructions on how to build them into vehicles and buildings that come with square, stiff yellow people to put inside. I don’t see the story in it, although Lego has tried some original fantasy brands and media-tie-in parodies for TV on occasion to move product. Thankfully Lord and Miller found a way to make more than an advertisement. Under their direction, The Lego Movie is a freewheeling and clever family film.

Making terrific use out of the mix-and-match ability of Lego, the filmmakers have thrown out the instruction book. Actually, that’s the crux of the film, a conflict between the two basic ways one can use the product. Computer animation that looks like the expensive Hollywood version of what you’d get making stop-motion Lego movies on your bedroom floor (a quick YouTube search reveals this a popular subgenre of amateur filmmaking) builds a world built entirely out of these multicolor bricks. It’s a generic metropolis filled with generic Lego people: construction workers, police, cat ladies, surfers, coffee shop patrons. They all follow the rules, the same homogenous lifestyle that uses each and every brick in exactly the way the manufacture intended. Disruption comes when an average Lego man (Chris Pratt) finds a legendary brick and falls in with a motley group of assorted outcast Lego people, Master Builders who insist that the bricks can be used to make anything you could dream up. Ostentatiously evil President Business (Will Ferrell) wants to keep the masses oppressed and in line, but our hero teams up with the Master Builders in a last-ditch effort to save their Lego-world by opening it up to be played with however they want.

The film moves at a breakneck pace through colorful madness that spoofs the usual three-act structure of big sci-fi fantasy spectacle. There’s our naive Chosen One who finds the piece and is told by a wise old bearded Master Builder (Morgan Freeman) that he’s the fulfillment of prophecy and the savior Lego-world needs. That this is obviously phony makes for a fun, adaptable running joke. Their allies include a funny mix of characters from various Lego product lines – a punk woman (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), a pirate (Nick Offerman), a unicorn kitten (Alison Brie), and an astronaut (Charlie Day). Their goals are typical stuff – find this crucial object and use it to shut down a superweapon – but it’s treated with a wink and a sly sense of humor. At one point, a character explains backstory most movies of this kind would take very seriously indeed, but here it literally devolves into “blah, blah, blah.” All we need to know is that our heroes are being pursued by President Business’s henchman Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) and his robots in elaborate, endlessly clever action sequences that hop through a variety of Lego worlds like a wild west set, a pseudo-medieval land, and a hodgepodge oasis of secret imagination.

The Lego nature of everything from the clouds in the sky to the water in the oceans, down to even the explosions and dust plumes, is put to good use. Good guys frantically rebuild the necessary equipment on the fly, while the baddies march forward mercilessly rule-bound. Cameos from all sorts of Lego types litter this high energy romp through relentless action and invention, from Shakespeare and Shaq to Wonder Woman and C-3PO, all cracking a joke or two before falling back into the big picture. It’s all such an exuberant sense of childlike play, the characters and setting deconstructing themselves and building new fanciful wonders before our eyes with delightful speed and complexity in the rapid-fire action slapstick. Imagine those charming moments in Toy Story when we watch Andy act out scenarios with his toys stretched to fill 90 minutes and you’ll get a sense of the tone here. This exceptionally, endlessly cute and quick film isn’t afraid to go very silly and step out of its narrative. The villain hoards mystical objects, like a massive used Band-Aid he calls the Shroud of Bahnd-Aieed. In the climax, his giant evil machine sounds exactly like a little kid making a growling engine noise.

For the longest time, I was simply charmed by what was an awesomely high-functioning technical exercise. But in its final moments, Lord and Miller take the film a step towards brilliance, pulling back the focus and revealing new information that moves away from thin genre play and towards something deeper, but no less hilarious. I won’t spoil it for you, but it says something almost profound about the way the act of creativity can bring people together. There’s also something in there about free will and a higher power. One character we meet late in the game is literally named The Man Upstairs. But it’s all folded into a sugary blast of entertainment. It’s amazing how a movie so light on the surface opens up bigger questions effortlessly. Just as amazing is that this multi-million dollar corporate advertisement doubles as an anti-corporate call to individuality in the face of crushing conformity, that this blockbuster movie doubles as a commentary on how blockbuster plots are built out of material as generic and interchangeable as Lego blocks. Lord and Miller are masters of having it both ways and getting away with it too.

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