Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Review: The Lego Movie (2014)

* * *

Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

For every rule, there is an exception that proves it. The rule, in this case, is that good movies don't come out of games and toy lines, that the added dimension of commercial interest - the film needs to be successful on its own terms, as well as work as advertising for the source product - smothers any deeper elements, leaving behind nothing of artistic value. The Lego Movie is a 100 minute ad for Lego, but it's also a film which justifies its own existence by telling a solid story, taking a well-trod narrative blueprint and putting a funny, referential, and sometimes compelling twist on it. But I suppose at this point we should expect nothing less from writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who are developing what appears to be a golden touch.

The hero of The Lego Movie is Emmet (Chris Pratt), an enthusiastic citizen of Bricksburg whose primary concern is fitting in and liking everything that everyone else likes. Yet, despite his efforts to fit in and be like everyone else, Emmet is lonely, having blended into the background where everyone else is concerned and possessing no distinguishing personality traits which make him stand out. This changes when he accidentally stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance and is revealed to be "the Special," the figure whom prophesy foretells will stop the evil Lord Business (Will Farrell) in his plans to use his superweapon known as the Kragle. With the help of Master Builders Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Emmet escapes capture by Lord Business' forces, headed by Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), and tries to get in touch with his heretofore dormant Master Builder abilities. In the process he meets other Master Builders, including Batman (Will Arnett), the pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), and "1980-something space guy" Benny (Charlie Day), who don't necessarily believe in Emmet's ability to save the universe but end up stuck with him anyway after the rest of the Master Builders are captured by Lord Business.

In order to rescue the rest of the Master Builders and destroy the Kragle, the team must find a way to work together, which proves problematic when each of the individual members insists on doing things their own way without much thought to what everyone else is doing. The only person with the ability to unify the team is Emmet, who lacks the others' ability to think on his feet, but possesses the ability to formulate and then follow a plan. Under Emmet's leadership, the team infiltrates Lord Business' skyscraper, but when things start to take a turn and Emmet learns that Vitruvius made up the prophesy, his confidence is shaken. He rallies enough to make a sacrifice of himself to save his friends, in the process inspiring Wyldstyle, who takes over as leader and leads the charge as the Master Builders continue their fight against Lord Business. Meanwhile, Emmet's sacrifice has taken him to another plane of existence where he comes into contact with "the Man Upstairs" and has a chance to gain the support necessary to save the Lego universe.

Playing with the "one hero to save the universe" story on which franchises like The Matrix and the first Star Wars trilogy are built, but foregoing those films' seriousness with respect to their mythology in favor of a looser approach, The Lego Movie puts itself on a solid narrative path. While Emmet the character is accustomed to order and following the rules, the film manages to feel charmingly off the cuff even as it follows a map that has already been charted by films that came before. More impressive still is that it manages to stick the landing even as it veers towards sentimentality in its final act, striving to make a poignant statement about the relationship between parents and children in its finale. Lord and Miller's first film together, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, explored similar themes in a more prominent way, but this version of a father struggling to understand and connect with his son told in miniature works well enough to give The Lego Movie a layer of deeper meaning.

With respect to the ultimate meaning of the project as a whole, I'm somewhat surprised to find that The Lego Movie was criticized in some corners for being "anti-business." As I said at the top, though it is effective in its own right as a film, it is also a 100 minute ad for Lego as a product. Do you know how I know that it's an effective ad for the product? Because my first thought when Emmet and Wyldstyle escaped Bricksburg through a portal which took them to the Old West was to wish that I had had Old West Lego when I was a kid. This film is corporate and pro-business to its core, it just doesn't cotton to the Ayn Rand-ian notion that CEOs should be, on the one hand, glorified for pursuing their own self-interests while, on the other hand, also getting credit for the fact that they employ a workforce as if this is a benevolent act when in truth it's a requirement for the success of their pursuit of self-interest. The Lego Movie is pro-business through and through, it just recognizes that sometimes the person in charge of the business can be a total dick. As life lessons go, that's actually not a bad one.

No comments: