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Non-Review Review: The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie is – as one might expect – a wonderfully well-constructed family film. Following a construction worker repeatedly described as “normal” or “average” – but, one colleague hastens to add, “not normal like us” – named Emmet, the movie is structured as a conventional “special one” narrative. However, veteran directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller stir things up just enough to keep it interesting.

With a wry sense of humour and an acute awareness of the clichés of a typical “hero’s journey” narrative, Lord and Miller have actually managed to tap into the core essence of Lego – if a massive multi-platform brand name empire can be distilled to a “core essence.” It’s a story about the magic of playing with toys and the necessity of throwing away the instructions every once in a while.

The ensemble fits together perfectly...

The ensemble fits together perfectly…

It is quite easy to be cynical about The Lego Movie. After all, there is something vaguely hypocritical about championing individualism and creativity while using a brand that has found a second life licensing multimedia tie-ins. (Indeed, Lego’s video game division has gone from strength to strength in recent years. In a world where Lego’s next licensing project is considered big news, it’s very easy to wonder about the importance of originality or creativity to the brand.

The “master builders” in the film are identified as vitally important characters who built what they want, when they want; they don’t follow the picture on the box or the instructions. There’s something quite ironic about how so many of these characters are licensed. Indeed, Batman is one of the film’s core supporting characters who – for all his creativity – is defined by his limited imagination. “I only build in black. Or very, very dark grey.” It’s hard not to raise the occasional eyebrow at all this.

He's a Wiz at this...

He’s a Wiz at this…

At the same time, Lord and Miller are smart enough and shrewd enough to recognise this fact. After all, for all the importance that the licensed characters have to the narrative, the three most important characters in the story are all fairly generic block characters. “He’s a generic construction worker,” one character remarks of Emmet, and he’s right. Emmet is very much your standard Lego figurine. He’s the kind of figure who comes at the bottom of a generic set, and whose absence no young kid will particularly lament.

In fact, Lord and Miller have a great deal of fun with the irony inherent in typical “special one” stories. Batman appears as a supporting character, but he’s lampooned with devastating accuracy. For all his triumphant individualism, the movie has a great deal of fun with his own brand-name empire. When characters suggest building a submarine, he quickly suggests “a bat submarine!” (He adds, “patent pending.”) When they plan to infiltrate enemy headquarters using a space ship, he immediately suggests a bat-shaped space ship.

Talk about superheroes...

Talk about superheroes…

Batman cruises around in his bat plane, blaring deep dark music that he wrote himself. “It’s about my dead parents,” he helpfully explains. Indeed, a significant amount of the character’s schtick here is recycled. The “bat submarine” might be a shoutout to the Penguin’s (sorry, Mr. P.N. Guin’s) themed submarine from the classic camp Batman! film. At the climax, he borrows liberally from The Dark Knight, observing that to his ex-girlfriend that Emmet “is the hero you deserve right now.”

There’s a paradox a work here, as Lord and Miller shrewdly realise. There’s a point where you end up with individualism trumpeted by individualism conforming to generic individualist archetypes. After all, the “special one” narrative has become such a common storytelling trope – thanks mainly to Joseph Campbell and George Lucas – that it’s practically rote. Indeed, naming a character “special” immediately renders them special, undermining the idea that anybody can special if they work hard – there’s a sense that all you have to do is wait for a dying alien or a blind wizard to tell you that you’re special.

Looking for a piece of the action...

Looking for a piece of the action…

This might explain the contempt that The Lego Movie has for the character of Green Lantern. Most of the cameoing licensed characters get treated with a reasonable amount of respect – as much as the movie plays with the clichés surrounding them, very few characters exist solely as jokes. However, Green Lantern is portrayed as a bit of an unqualified and annoying idiot – in contrast to the efficiency of Batman, the earnestness of Superman or even the heroism of Wonder Woman.

This makes a great deal of sense when you consider The Lego Movie‘s frustration with generic “special one” narratives. Green Lantern stands as one of the laziest and most incompetent “chosen one” blockbusters of the past few years, with the title character at one point insisting that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, you can’t be special if you aren’t chosen. “You see the way it works is, you have to be chosen,” he utters, in a line that never should have made it past the first draft of that failed blockbuster.

All fired up...

All fired up…

So Green Lantern serves as the butt of The Lego Movie‘s jokes, the guy who really has no qualification for being there beyond the fact that he was told to be there. Lord and Miller, working from a story from Dan and Kevin Hageman, play with the idea of an appointed chosen one – cleverly turning the narrative’s expectations on their head. The result is a surprisingly charming and endearing take on that particular storytelling cliché.

It helps that the movie is brilliantly witty. There are any number of gags that land with great frequency and speed. In this respect, the licensed properties are a welcome addition to the film – allowing any number of wonderful riffs on recognisable sequences. The performances are also endearing, with Liam Neeson’s performance as Good Cop/Bad Cop being particularly charming, Alison Brie’s Unikitty demonstrating the actress’ fantastic comedic timing and Will Arnett offering a wonderfully wry take on the Dark Knight.

He means business...

He means business…

Particular mention must be made of the animation from Warner’s Animated Group. The Lego Movie looks absolutely fantastic – a blend between CGI, claymation and Lego. Little blocks of smoke rise from explosions while fire only comes in a set number of patterns. Characters not connected to the floor are suspended using strings. Character motion is restricted, with facial expressions varying wildly. In short, the move looks absolutely lovely, almost as if it were hand-animated by Lego enthusiasts themselves.

The Lego Movie is a rather wonderful family film, as witty as it is clever. It’s surprising how well it comes together.

And so The Lego

13 Responses

  1. Good review. And agreed. This one surprised me, too.

  2. Good post! I do want to see this one 🙂 looks fun and was a big fan of the Lego franchise of games!

  3. Great review, right on the money. I really enjoyed the film, while it wasn’t as amazing as some critics made it out to be, I was stilled thoroughly impressed with the humour and voice acting.

  4. Brillian review, just one thing. I feel that the restrictions on the individuals (e.g batman only works in black) was entirely intentional. I think they wanted to say that that is part of the individuality, and it’s not perfect. Just because you are an individual and you can think creatively doesn’t mean some things don’t hold you back. That’s just my 2 cents.

  5. Woops completely ignore my comment. Went back, realized I misread your part on that. Sorry! Seems I totally agree with you.

  6. Great review, loved this film. The cast the story where great and the ending was surprisingly deep. Chris Pratt is going to have a very promising career 😀

  7. I watched it, really i like the movie and the concept

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