I like to think they are beholding me, tapping away at my keyboard and writing about them but the truth is far more horrifying.
I haven’t written a movie review in almost 2 months. Picking The Lego Movie to be the comeback review is a bit daunting since it’s liable to be one of the best films of 2014. It’s also one of the best all-ages films I’ve seen, even among all the other great ones that have been coming out lately. Is there a more consistently good subgenre right now? I doubt it.
The Lego Movie comes to us from Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (with almost a third director credit deserved by Chris McKay who will be doing the sequel). These guys not only gave the world Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, they also took what should have been a terrible idea with inevitably terrible execution, and made it work, when the took the jump to live-action with 21 Jump Street. One of that film’s major strengths was its self-awareness. Lego is no different. This is as self-aware as movies get. With respect to their other films, Lego maintains the Miller-Lord package of bedrock sweetness with coatings of absurdity, social commentary, industry wit, and strong characterizations.
I shit you not. Every time you sit back in your seat and think about how fucking crazy it is that Lego is lighting up your life, it pulls out some new stop that piles on a new layer of nuance, excitement, and meaning. Many have wanted to dismiss this as little more than another glitzy Hollywood toy commercial. It goes way beyond that, though, finding time to even comment on The Lego Group as a company, the philosophical underpinnings of what Lego can and does represent as a “toy” (both good and bad), and so on.
This is a movie where it’s perfectly okay to ignore one level of commentary whilst walking away enriched by another. You know how I spend tons of time ranting about a thing called the “Hero’s Journey” on this blog? Well Lego might just present the best skewering of the model that I’ve ever seen. But it does have something for everyone. Honest.
It has that much going on. And full disclosure, I’m a huge fucking Lego fan. This could be why it’s taken me a while to write this, as the urge to just gush like a motherfucker was more difficult to control when I first walked out of this. After seeing it a second time last weekend, I think we’re safe and ready for some actual analysis. If you’ve been skeptical of this up to now, I invite you to read the entire review even with spoilers as I’ll make a pretty good case for why you should get over your skepticism and make this the next thing you watch.
Chris Pratt is really just perfect casting.
Lego is about a generic construction worker named Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) who winds up in the middle of a struggle between a “creative class” of Lego Master Builders and the machinations of Lord/President Business (Will Farrel) who has successfully and arbitrarily divided all the Lego themes up into separated, walled off domains where he can control them. His master plan is to use the Kragl (krazy glue!) as a weapon to forever freeze all the denizens of the various Lego Lands in place.
Along the way, Emmet finds the “Piece of Resistance” (the movie is full of wordplay and puns that work way better than you might expect) which singles him out as “The Special”. All this terminology is handed down from a wise, blind Master Builder named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, enjoyably sending up his own public image here) from a prophecy about the way Lord Business will eventually be stopped.
The Good Cop/Bad Cop stuff is genuinely dark and disturbing.
Now, in just that simple synopsis we have the building blocks of where this film is going thematically. Lego is a huge fucking business and yet, the antagonist of this movie is basically Capitalism McSocialControl and this is surprising on its face. The deeper you go, the deeper you see the essential criticism that Lego is indulging about the way commerce and organization control facets of our lives to the point of oppression, even benign oppression as it’s mostly experienced by the citizens of Bricksberg (the “City” themed domain Emmet is from). The film continuously explores this essential relationship, taking time to show the upsides of both social order and chaotic creativity. It slyly presents extremism as ultimately unworkable while lauding the way each of us has the potential to be both creative and cooperative, selfish and selfless.
This can be read in ways both sophisticated and simplistic. For most of the kids in the audience, this is going to be about the way we need to get along and work together in order to do wonders. That’s as close to a core theme as Lego gets but it’s never satisfied with just that much. For the grown-ups, the invitation is to dig a bit deeper into how Bricksberg with it’s consumerism, superficiality, and apathy mirror aspects of our own world. The social criticism of this theme isn’t simplistic or superficial in itself, as shown by the occasional places where Emmet (and thus the audience) is allowed to be momentarily aware of those parallels and how fucked up they are. Case in point, Lord Business runs Octan (Lego’s in-universe energy megacorp) just like the oligarchs of the USA run their empires, with various subdivisions and acquired companies providing services that run the gamut from basic needs (food and shelter) to abstractions of our political process (voting machines). That shit has legs.
Overpriced coffee is a cornerstone of society in Bricksberg. It’d be adorable if it weren’t so astute.
Like any good comedy, the meat of Lego is its expertly observed messaging and the light-at-first-glance humor with which it handles it. It’s surprising but not in itself profound that the movie is willing to take a shot at consumerism. What is profound is that it doesn’t just stop there, which it easily could have and I’d still have been impressed at the boldness with which Lord and Miller handled such a weird gig. The send up of consumer culture is just the first act of the movie, when we meet the “creative class” of recognizable pop culture and legacy Lego characters (from all their licenses and their in-house stuff), they are a bunch of individualistic and iconoclastic social rejects. Their fight with Business is only to the extent that Business destroys all the cool shit they can’t help but make. Unfortunately, they are incapable of working together or following a coherent group-think plan. Rather than making a case that such individual high-creatives can’t work together, it argues that creativity achieves better when it does conform to a guiding vision. And how is this not what it’s like to actually make a film?
So the criticism cuts both ways. It’s true that the movie doubles down on the side of freedom from control, and on pointing out the absurdity of trying to control everything in the first place, but it doesn’t spare the heroic creatives either. In fact, we get to know more of them and get a far closer look at where they go wrong than we do with Lord Business. Only Emmet, generic though he is, can really get them working together because that’s the only way he knows of to accomplish anything wonderful. But he learns to be creative within that structure, much the way Neo learns to use the Matrix against itself (there’s plenty of The Matrix in this film in general).
Somehow this movie even finds time to make fun of Batman.
Beyond the humor and nuance, Lego also features the same creativity it is celebrating. Shot like a “Brickfilm”, it simulates stop-motion and utilizes real Lego concepts and pieces in stunningly beautiful and creative ways. Even if the story, jokes, and themes weren’t so fucking solid, there’s a level of artistry on display that just frankly owns. And I don’t just say that as a Lego fan This ownership of the medium with which its working is not unlike that of the Claymation pioneers who managed to filter so much through an unexpected form. Lego shines with sight gags, physical comedy, and truly riveting action sequences that are all filtered through Lego. Rarely does it break away from Lego as the almighty unifier of this odd vision. When it does, it’s utterly in service to the deepest level of meaning it aspires to.
At some point, most people probably heard that this movie either breaks the Fourth Wall or just goes straight for some kind of weird “toys are alive” metaphysical shit. We see that Emmet’s story is a game being played by a kid named Finn, with his dad’s incredible collection of Lego. Not only does this answer the “what’s with all the on-Lego stuff?” question (Kragl and such), but it adds a whole layer of narrative. I’d argue that it doesn’t actually matter if Emmet et al have some kind of secret inner life, because that way lies the need to argue that creating narrative is like creating a whole new dimension of reality (contrived and limited though it might be compared to what we take as our reality) and that’s a conversation better had about, say, True Detective. At the very least, it isn’t necessary to understand what Lego is doing by introducing us to Finn and his dad. The new level of narrative is what really matters.
Finn is playing out a sophisticated inner struggle with his father. His dad’s the kind of Lego guy who hides his hobby in the basement where he meticulously crafts regimented dioramas of order, precision, and clean beauty. Finn’s sensibilities are those of a child: chaotic, free, and creative to the point of absurdity. As such, they clash when dad finds out that Finn is “messing with his stuff”. Only by backing down off his need to control does he see the merit in Finn’s style of play. This brings the film full circle back to commenting on what Lego represents as a toy. There’s always been a tension between its dual natures as an instructions-guided model kit vs. a free building toy. The subculture around Lego is rife with the kinds of arguments and rants that typify any such community that has a vested interest in an established definition of its chosen centerpiece. Like Lord Business, Finn’s dad has to realize that creativity is its own reward, that control basically comes from fear and insecurity. The myth of the Special is concocted by Vitruvius with whatever intentions, perhaps to manufacture a singular hero, but it turns out to be about what we’re all individually and collectively capable of.
And that’s just wonderful.
Even a seemingly minor character like Unikitty (Alison Brie) has an inner life that circles back to the central themes.
One of the few criticisms being leveled at this film by anyone is the idea that its ending betrays an aversion to “girl’s play”. When Finn is told his sister is going to be welcomed to play Lego now too, the look of horror on his face (reflected by the denizens of the Legoverse when the Duplo-beings invade) isn’t about gender, but about another level of the same reaction his dad had to the idea of being “invaded” by another style of play. Finn will have to learn to be more open-minded, essentially, which is a funny joke for an audience that realizes how inconsistent kids are, and how consistent the age gap is. Plus, it just rings totally true for anyone who ever had a sibling fuck with that spaceship they spent 6 days building.
While anyone seeing this movie will likely realize the abject nonsense of such a claim, it may be worthwhile to talk about what I view as a minor (the only) weak link in this film, a thing that is partially inspired by some of the misguided “feminist” criticism of the ending. WildStyle/Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) has basically the same arc as the female lead/love interest in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. She has an identity crisis somewhat predicated on being girlified and rejecting that (this is a subtle layer of the characterization). Her darker identity as WildStyle is out of want to be Special without really realizing she already is. To the extent that his affable friendliness helps her discover herself, Emmet is a better match for her than Batman (Will Arnett) is. But the relationship is never all that strongly pursued into true romance territory. Which is probably for the better since it’d be weird to stage a Lego kissing scene (the movie nicely sidesteps this).
Poor Green Lantern.
Now. The Lego Movie was always going to have a romance. That’s just par for course in all blockbusters since Star Wars. That means it’s a trope and tropes are not necessarily bad. Execution is what matters. So. Is WildStyle poorly executed? Yes and no. It’s possibly telling that The Lego Movie does not pass the Bechdel Test. But I don’t always think that test is a legitimate issue for movies, so I only mention it for those that adhere to it as a rule. That said, WildStyle is a well-utilized female protagonist whose essential storyline does boil down to who she wants to be, even though that choice is formalized as a choice between boyfriends.
This is not Frozen or Brave, unfortunately, though those films have the benefit of being focused intently on the characterization of its female characters whereas Lego spreads itself far more evenly among an ensemble of both characters and themes. Does this help us mitigate the essential lack of representation of women in big budget productions? Not really. But it’s not as though Miller and Lord are neglectful. They, I think, understand both that they’re telling a story “more for boys” and that they’re telling a story with major cross-gender appeal. WildStyle isn’t a weak link because the character is poorly treated or written, but because the movie could have made time for her to make a more essential choice and not take the easy route of symbolizing that choice through the men she’s interested in.
It’s important to note that it’s a bit cheap to take shots at Lego for not “doing more” for what is a too-often underplayed and ignored problem in our cinematic landscape. Most movies would have only used one female protagonist, but Lego also has Unkitty. Most movies might have had WildStyle feature as more of a damsel or leaned on some of the more paternal aspects of Lego’s history for the character. This movie has two relatively strong female protagonists featured in a movie that is absolutely busy with set-pieces, big moments, and characters. That neither WildStyle nor Unikitty are every forgotten or left behind is saying something, and in all fairness I think more media deserves credit for taking steps even if not running the whole mile.
The movie really lets its hair down during the motorcycle chair. I about fucking wept out of sheer joy.
A final bit about the Hero’s Journey…
Lego is the rare movie that takes The Hero’s Journey a step or two beyond its usual use as a storytelling blueprint (rather than the analytical model it was intended as). It does this by rejecting the Hero’s Journey as a model almost altogether. In the end, Emmet does receive a measure of grace from his journey and this does allow him to more or less save the day. That said, the Hero’s Journey is outed as bullshit by Vitruvius, in no uncertain terms, and it’s the liberation from the model that even allows Emmet to do what’s actually necessary. If the Special is made up, then it can be anyone and it can mean anything it needs to mean to bring people together.
This not only reveals the flaws and power of The Hero’s Journey as a narrative structure, it also says something about the nature of storytelling in itself. This has wide-ranging implications and, in its own way, The Lego Movie is as deeply invested in that very philosophical problem as are much more serious works of fiction (like True Detective say). One of the easy targets is religion. Lego shows us, so simply, exactly why religion is such a lie and yet so powerful and important to us as a species. Lego may accidentally (but efficiently) equalize between the myths and stories of religious impulse and those of escapist impulse, paralleling them and calling them the same. Which they sort of are. But like with religion, it matters less what story you tell yourself or others and more what you do with it. Emmet could have used Vitruvius’s story to rise above all his peers and become another Lord Business, but he uses it instead to bring people together and help them see themselves.
And that, too, is just wonderful.