February 13, 2014

Corporatism and Divine Creation, Rated-G

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As action movies get dumber and dumber — compare this weekend’s beautified Robocop remake with the 1987 original that actually had something to say — animated movies have picked up the slack. In catering both to children and their parents, a growing number of animated filmmakers strive to not only render more lifelike facades for their computer-generated characters but to embed them with richer and thornier interior lives as well. Disney has come a long way from its helpless, male-dependent princesses with Brave and Frozen, while Monsters University ended on a somewhat groundbreaking note, conceding that not all dreams can be realized. Now we have The Lego Movie, with its cast of hollow plastic figurines that will make you laugh and, um, grapple with the human mind’s potential for divine creation. Read that last sentence again, if you must, because this is a movie with a lot more on its mind than a corporate paycheck.

Of course, any review of a $60-million movie sponsored by the toy company in its title must acknowledge the monetary motivations that drive such a production to be green-lit. While I would be lying if I said that The Lego Movie did not awake an urge to fiddle again with the blocks that, in many ways, defined my childhood, I fell not for its branded marketing scheme so much as for its celebration of free, inspired invention. As a kid who stuck fastidiously, to the directions included with Lego sets, I felt triumphant upon completing my Phantom Menace Multi-Troop Transport yet hesitated at the thought of breaking it apart, starting again or mixing and matching with other, non-Star Wars pieces. With a Lego creation shelved as complete and never to be touched again, I pestered my parents for another set, and another after that. The cycle of consumerism works beautifully when creative endeavors slave to the rules of others and shudder at the mere thought of revision.

In a jab at The Lego Group’s modus operandi, the movie’s villain, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), threatens world domination with a weapon known as “the Kragle,” which is just a bottle of Krazy Glue with a few letters scratched off. Glue freezes the Lego characters and prohibits further creation, a grave concern for the “Master Builders” trying to combat Lord Business’ totalitarian, brainwashing rule. They can improvise anywhere, on the spot, and build anything — a motorcycle, a spaceship, a double-decker couch — with the free pieces around them. Among their scant numbers include Vitruvius, a bearded old wizard you know is wise because he is voiced by Morgan Freeman, and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a punk heroine who wakes our protagonist, Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), out of his consumerist, conformist daze.

Emmet thinks “Everything Is Awe­some” because that’s the name of the latest infectious pop song on the radio, and he jumps for joy when buying $37 coffee or waiting in line to drop off his dry cleaning. It turns out, in a prophecy long ago, that Vitruvius foretold Emmet would be “The Special,” a.k.a. “the most important, most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.” By this point, you can tell that director-writer duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) have gone all-out parodying their influences, namely The Matrix. Their colorful Lego world (computer-generated, though it looks close to stop-motion animation) calls back on other stories, tropes and contemporary pop culture at such a rapid-fire clip that the first act may exhaust you before it gets even better — revealing its layers and grounding itself in an admirable thesis. As it stands, Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) chases our heroes across Brickville throughout this initial action, and there are few pleasures like a self-aware, post-Taken Liam Neeson in Lego form.

With Charlie Day as a hyperventilating astronaut, consistent violations of spatial continuity in the editing and sound effects synced to the film’s score — like when, during a chase in the Old West, Wyldstyle whips a pack of pigs pulling her sled and they all oink on the song’s downbeat — The Lego Movie overwhelms you on a most visceral level. One second Lego Shakespeare bellows, “Rubbish!” at Emmet after he butchers his St. Crispin’s Day speech, and the next Lego Abraham Lincoln launches into space on a rocket-propelled throne. The Millennium Falcon, Superman, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Shaq and many more show up to plug their marketable existence, yet Lord and Miller freely and joyfully corrupt their most recognizable qualities (Will Arnett’s Batman is a narcissistic blowhard, for instance). Their treatment of pop icons borders on sacrilege — a wise choice, in keeping with their flippant approach to self-serious franchise filmmaking.

The third act takes a turn into what some may dismiss as sappy kitsch. It is not. On a surface level, this twist excuses the incoherence of the plot and some of the cruder, inexplicable visuals that pop up now and then, like when pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) jumps from the dazzling, saccharine world of Cloud Cuckoo Land into a two-dimensional one and his ship takes off with a silly fart-like sound. But the story actually settles into some profound territory, as it equates the human capacity for imagination with what many thinkers throughout history have attributed to God’s greatest power. The film rewards the characters who trust their muses, who rely on instinct and believe they can realize wonderful things without the need for directions. Yet Emmet’s journey also stresses the value of teamwork, especially when a super-bad corporation needs to be toppled over. The questions The Lego Movie raises will surprise you and unravel into very meta, substantial lessons. That it makes you laugh like a baby is a bonus, but also sort of the point.