Monday, February 17, 2014

Jimbo Goes to the Movies: “The LEGO Movie” (2014) Review

Very rarely does a film so impressively summarize itself: indeed, everything IS awesome.

The first time I saw the trailer for “The LEGO Movie,” I was well beyond apprehensive. There have been some shameless corporate tie-ins over the years, but this was a film that absolutely made no pretenses nor apologies about the fact that it was nothing more than a feature length toy commercial. This thing, on the surface, appeared to be the absolute nadir (or zenith, depending on your perspective) of cinematic product placement.

The reality that the film itself actually has something that resembles a plot is something of a mini miracle, but for “The LEGO Movie” to serve a such a comprehensively enjoyable and innovative criticism of unabashed consumerism is the kind of celestial mystery that can only be chalked up to a divine being (or, as the film promulgates, a quite literal "man up stairs.")

At the same time, “The LEGO Movie” is somehow a remorseless celebration of pop culture iconography and brand imagery AND a caustic dissertation against materialism and mindless collectivism. Of course, there’s probably some hypocrisy regarding the film’s mockery of brain dead TV sitcoms, overpriced Starbucks beverages and vapid popular music while simultaneously vaunting the DC comics pantheon, any number of nerd-favorite pop cultural franchises (with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings standing out the most), not to mention the fact that a consumer product literally lands top billing for the picture itself.

That said, with an acid tongue throughout, the film still manages to slyly critique the unrefined juvenilia those same pop cultural strongholds ultimately come to represent; whether it’s the gravel-throated, one-dimensional parody of Christian Bale’s Batman (whom, at one point, breaks out a techno song summarizing his entire milieu as “darkness and no parents”) or the split second ridiculing of the Tolkien romanticization of the Middle Ages (with a Gandalf clone citing such contemporary wonders as “illiteracy” and “poverty” alongside the fantastical dragons and alchemy), this is a film with an unmistakable sociopolitical agenda. At the end of the day, I’d say that “The LEGO Movie” is much closer to being a subversive satire a’la “They Live” (be sure to note the “consume” billboards dotting the LEGO City landscape) than it is just another “Despicable Me” variation.

The premise of the film is fairly straightforward. The main character is Emmet, an everyman figure so indistinguishable from the crowd that facial police scans can’t pick him out from the masses. With his well-coiffed ‘do and can-do attitude, he’s really the ultimate placid social inhabitant; he goes through the daily routine (virtually living by a how-to manual that’s supposed to win him friends), sitting in traffic, listening to Top 40 tunes, and paying upwards of $40 per cup of Joe every morning, sans a single negative thought ever stretching across his grey matter. A construction drone, he one day encounters a mysterious “piece” named WyldStyle rummaging through some rubble, and he soon finds himself tumbling down an abyss, until he comes plastic phizog to plastic phizog with an ancient prophecy revealing himself as the savior of all LEGO-kind.

As it turns out, the lording overseer of LEGO City is a nefarious character named President Business, whom bares un uncanny resemblance to a certain Mormon presidential also-ran. His secret chamber is filled with a collection of “alien” objects, which wouldn’t you know it, all happen to be trademarked household goods from our “real world.” At one point, he uses nail polish remover to scrub off an underling’s face, and a brand named golf ball becomes something of a WMD. His ultimate doomsday device, however, is a bizarre substance known as “Kragle” -- a tube of instantly bonding gel that, to our human eyes, appears to look like a slightly discolored packet of Krazy Glue.

And so, Emmet and WyldStyle find themselves on a hero’s quest, traversing from kingdom to kingdom (Wild West World, Cloud City, etc.) while President Business’s robotic army pursue them. Along the way, the two primary protagonists run into an assorted collection of “master builders,” whom run the gamut from 1980s relics like The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to mid 2000s throwbacks (Shaq’s cameo is probably the best in the entire film) to the downright esoteric (as in, Michelangelo, the 16th century Italian sculptor.)

The film’s dénouement is absolutely brilliant, as it completely shatters the fourth wall and turns what, up until then, had been a pastiche of the mega-corporate movie into a film with something almost sincere to say about our natures as consumers.

As it turns out, the LEGO beings actually exist within the same world that you and I inhabit, and the various deus ex machinas that we were exhibited earlier in the film were actually the interloping hands of a kid playing around with the figures. The kicker here is that his dad…the afore-mentioned man up stairs…is played by Will Ferrell himself, making the entire film itself a rich, and somewhat poignant, metaphor for the uneasy relationship between parent and child. Sure, sure, it could be a parable for the Christian trinity (I guess that makes one’s sense of play the veritable holy spirit there), but ultimately, it’s a film about family bonds, and how illogical consumer interests (in this case, a dad obsessed with LEGO sets) can have detrimental interpersonal effects. The great thing is, none of this stuff is bluntly stated: how rare it is that a mainstream Hollywood film, let alone one targeting children, gives the intelligence of the viewers such consideration.

Visually, the film looks both glossy and subversively low-tech, with the LEGO gimmick played to the hilts; the bodies of water, made out of translucent blue plastic chunks, is really a sight to behold. The voice acting is also top-notch, with heavy hitters like Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson (ultimately, playing self-parodies of their stereotypical roles) and relative newcomers like Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks all turning in serviceable, if not outstanding, performances. Additionally, the LEGO City’s corporate anthem “Everything is Awesome” -- an electro-pop mockery squealed by Canadian duo Tegan and Sara -- might just be the single catchiest ditty in any movie ever; if “Brave New World” had a theme song, I’m pretty sure it would be the same infectious number, note-for-note.

The film was helmed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, whose “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” films I have praised to no end. The same way those films fused sheer aesthetic entertainment with intelligent (and refreshingly understated) social commentary, “The LEGO Movie” traverses a similar path, being both a visually stimulating ode to soft consumerism and a figurative wrecking ball swung straight into the central nerve center of vapid, pop-cultural materialism. Like a double fist sandwich from Radio Raheem, “The LEGO Movie” is a heaping helping of “love” and “hate” -- in that, it bears more of a resemblance to the amazingly cynical and condemnatory anti-modernist works of the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin than “Frozen” or even a deconstructionist masterwork like “Wreck-It Ralph.”

My worst nightmare was that “The LEGO Movie” would be madcap, hyperkinetic nonsense, with nothing more than a healthy amount of pop cultural reference points serving as the flick’s threadbare “plot.” Much to my surprise, however, the film as a whole is astoundingly smart, and critical, and shockingly innovative. It’s a nuanced film that still manages to be humorous and lively, the kind of Hollywood production that’s becoming rarer and rarer these days. “The LEGO Movie” is an out-of-the-blue mini-masterpiece that I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a reason to once again believe in the candor, and ingenuity, of the big budget picture…that, and it would make a great complement to anyone’s “Taco Tuesday,” I’d imagine.

My Score:

Three and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four 


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