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Film Review: The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie (2014; Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

The Lego Movie is a culturally-significant contradiction. The film stands up for creativity and individuality as expressed primarily through the titular mass-consumer product building-block medium. It protests against the dangers of corporate consolidation while boasting supporting and cameo appearances by DC Comics superheroes and other famous characters (Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore from Harry Potter) from the rights stable of Time-Warner corporate consolidation and beyond (Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, probably others I missed). It is anti-conformity while conforming to animated adventure tropes (and, to be fair, sending up more than a few as well). It makes an explicitly anti-corporate thesis statement while being visually constructed of literally thousands of corporate logos in every frame.

The Lego Movie delights in its contradictions, however, and that saves it from being swallowed up in them. It thrills at the suggestion of its own self-negation, repeatedly flips the concept of tonal or metaphorical consistency head over heels, and spirals off giddily in clever asides, inventive visuals, and boundless, wall-demolishing energy. Though its text self-consciously celebrates the disordered, nonsensical creative exhilaration of a child with only a Lego set and a limitless imagination, the construction and character of the text itself is the greatest celebration of that enervating impulse imaginable.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have been working towards something as chaotically hilarious and anarchically absorbing as The Lego Movie for their whole careers, from cult MTV cartoon Clone High through the glorious feature animation surprise Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to their recent (and I thought disappointing) live-action comedy hit 21 Jump Street. Their humour vibrates with rapid-fire wit, yes, but also the unfettered hyperactive verve of a child on a sugar high unleashed on an unsuspecting birthday party. One sequence of the movie involves an excitable 1980s-vintage astronaut Lego figure (Charlie Day) flying the interstellar craft he built at high speed, blasting everything in sight while exclaiming, “Spaceship, spaceship, spaceship!” It’s funny as heck, but it’s also a perfect exemplification of the similarly excitable and iconoclastic Lord/Miller creative approach.

Plotwise, the writer/directors pay lip service to narrative conventions of their chosen genre/form while gleefully upending them. Emmett (Chris Pratt) is a construction worker in the urban setting of a universe constructed entirely out of Lego pieces. He and his fellow yellow-faced peons toil, consume, and follow the patterns set down by President Business (Will Ferrell), who simultaneously runs the government and the largest corporation in this particular world (speaking of consolidation). Working unreflectively off of a set of instructions that govern every moment of their lives, the Lego people commute to their repetitive jobs, buy overpriced coffee, cheer for the local sports team, watch and quote the same formulaic sitcom (“Where Are My Pants?”), and cheerfully enjoy the same chipper pop anthem, “Everything is Awesome” (performed by Tegan and Sara with a guest appearance from comedy-rappers The Lonely Island). “This is my jam!” one of President Business’ robot minions exclaims when he hears the song. “This is also my jam!” adds a second robot.

The robotic conformity and forced artificial happiness of the song and thus the entire society and culture is made blatantly obvious, and further emphasized by the herky-jerk movements of the singular Lego-mation method (masterfully, amusingly computer-animated to look like stop-motion). This stultifying order is enforced by President Business, who moonlights as Lord Business, an implacably evil controller of everything whose minions and secret police eliminate anything “weird” or unique or non-conformist, often with the help of a set of non-Lego “relics” which include chewing gum, a used Band-Aid, and a tube of Krazy Glue missing some letters from use. This last relic, dubbed the Kragle (all the relics have such high-fantasy magical-object names based on misreadings of their labels), is one Lord Business has special plans for: he intends to use tentacular nozzles and fastidious arranger-bots called Micromanagers (both mechanical beings straight out of The Matrix sequels) to spray glue on and then pose everything in his world to keep it from changing or moving or becoming anything that he hasn’t expressly allowed it to be.

But not everyone in the Legoverse is into following the rigid rules set forth from the pinnacle of a corporate tower (Lord Business’ is ludicrously towering). While stumbling around his construction site, Emmett meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks, a reliably fine comic actress), a freaky-creative outsider called a Master Builder who is in search of a relic that can neutralize the Kragle and free all Lego folk to, well, not conform quite so much. This Piece of Resistance (har) is found by Emmett and becomes attached to his back, which leads not only Wyldstyle’s free-spirited ilk but also Lord Business’ authoritarian subalterns (primarily Good Cop/Bad Cop, voiced by Liam Neeson, a split-personality secret policeman) to pursue him and the relic with the future of the Lego civilization at stake.

Emmett-and-Batman

Why do I feel like Christopher Nolan never played with Lego?

Wyldstyle and Emmett escape the city in a dizzying, joyful action sequence of hand-to-hand claw-to-claw combat, chases, improvised vehicle construction, and explosions (which are made of Lego, as is water, clouds, etc. Everything is made of Lego). They hook up with a blind prophesizing wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, a deadpan cut-up) in an Old West set, are saved from a train crash by Batman (Will Arnett, whose self-aggrandizing cool-guy goth artist take on the character steals the show), and make their way to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a disorganized fantasyland of unlimited (and undirected) creative expression that is the refuge of the Master Builders and locus of the resistance against Lord Business. Together, they will enact that resistance, sometimes by unsettling the official conformity, sometimes by aping it, and finally by trespassing into a world that looks quite like our own.

Lord and Miller are back in animation again after 21 Jump Street and are at the top of their game, so this frequently very, very funny stuff, though describing why would consist of repeating the movie’s jokes and there’s already been enough of that in this review. The Lego Movie is a ball, but it’s also a parable of individual self-interest vs. collective action for the common good, like a lot of other recent animated films that seem pitched to prepare child viewers ideologically for the basic give-and-take between those two opposing interests which defines adult citizenship in a capitalist democracy.

As mentioned, The Lego Movie ultimately celebrates the intrinsic value of imaginative play and its extension into creative endeavours in maturity. But it also recognizes that at least some of the cooperative structures of Lord Business’ totalitarian conformity have some value, too, if only to channel creative impulses towards practical ends. To succeed in their quest, the Master Builders must teach Emmett to let go of his sheep-like tendency to follow the instructions and learn to create new objects from the blocks that make up the world around him, as they do so skillfully. But they also must learn to function as a team, which means compromising on their individual creativity and adapting it to the larger goal, and the natural conformist Emmett can teach them a bit about that.

The contradictions of the consumer capitalist system are therefore reflected and commented upon by The Lego Movie so effectively because those contradictions are also those of the Lego creative medium itself. Lord and Miller descry something pure and exciting in the idea of a child playing with Lego and deciding to deviate from the provided instructions and build something new and unique, even if it doesn’t look like what’s on the box. Surely there are some sales and marketing execs at the Lego Group who are working hard to sell movie franchise tie-in pre-designed sets who are mortified by this message. But The Lego Movie is a 100-minute ad for their products, and for other companies’ products as well.

It’s also, vitally, a statement of doubt concerning the wisdom of the corporate consolidation and assimilation that those execs would see as valuable while simultaneously, and also vitally, recognizing that treating Lego (or any other creative medium that can be construed as a consumer product) as a “piece of resistance” to corporate domination is to do much of the dominators’ work for them. The Lego Movie is rich in visual detail, humour, and prodigious imagination, but it’s also surprising rich in its depiction of the complex dance of position-takings, disavowals and implications that constitutes the creative process in the milieu of consumer capitalism. “Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!” declaims the peppy chorus of “Everything is Awesome”. The lyric is a satirical jab at collectively-focused corporate conformity, but the collaborative nature of a wonderful animated film like The Lego Movie proves that it can be taken as sincere as well.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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