Monday, February 10, 2014

THE LEGO MOVIE: Building a better blockbuster

Oh yeah, this is going to be one of  "those" reviews. Because there's no way I'm going to let a chance to make this many toy-related puns pass me by.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for THE LEGO MOVIE to be the sort of boring, pandering, obviously constructed-by-committee sort of schlock that one can (reasonably) expect of films based on licensed toy products. The "chosen one" material showcased in the trailers - even if played with a satirical hand (which it is) - would have been ideal cover for otherwise completely mundane and lazy fare that used parody as a crutch. You know, basically what the SHREK series turned into. But directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have much larger ambitions. I wasn't expecting a "Pixar-on-a-good-day" calibur film here, but that's exactly what they delivered.

Like with their last film, 21 JUMP STREET, Lord and Miller are using both the brand they're "adapting" and the broad genre parody to comment on society at large, and here they have a lot of targets picked out. Careful aim is taken at Hollywood's cookie-cutter blockbuster formula for starters. Emmett enters the story as such a blank slate that literally the ONLY thing interesting about him is his questionable status as "the Special" (hero destined to save the blah blah blah, you know the rest), and the movie addresses this to the extent that it becomes a plot point AND a cornerstone of his character growth. But the big point that the movie is building to is how the film industry - and indeed the rest of us - have handled and/or influenced the evolution and appropriation of our own childhood nostalgia properties.

This particular point is summed up early on in the movie's version of Batman. Here shown as a growling self-important doof, Will Arnett's turn as the Brick Knight is a remorseless flaying of the revisionist history that Batman - a character created for children's amusement and, indeed who's existence as a crime-fighter hinges on a child's reaction to loss and grief - only has real value when taken to the darkest, grittiest, most serious and "mature" extreme. This not only makes for some fantastic jokes ("Darkness! No parents!!!"), but is a welcome slap in the face to a fandom that is every bit as incapable of getting over itself as its favorite version of this comic book character seems to be.

(Seriously, I love BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT, but we need to stop pretending that any version of Batman where he's something resembling a functional human being - even going so far as to *gasp* crack jokes! - is somehow the more "stupid" portrayal of a guy who dresses up like a bat to punch bad guys.)

But the film isn't content to stop there. To go all the way down this rabbit hole I have to give away the film's big turn, which most might see coming but still stands as one of the ballsiest - if, in hindsight, inevitable - developments in modern family films. I'd very much recommend seeing the film before reading further.

Seriously. Watch the movie first.

**********SPOILER WARNING**********

Did you watch it? Fantastic, right? SPACESHIP!!! Heh heh . . . Sorry, where were we?

Right - the way that THE LEGO MOVIE addresses both its own existence AND the way that generation X/Y have continually altered the form of our own childhood playthings to justify our continued affection for them is genius in its simplicity. During the finale, it's revealed that Will Farrell's "Lord Business" is actually a grown-up "collector" in the real world, OUR world, an adult LEGO-maniac who creates meticulously structured - and segregated - playsets in his basement, and has a strict hands-off policy for his creative son. The child for whom these sorts of toys have always been created, and who's rule-breaking, boundary-ignoring actions with his father's playthings are literally what CREATE THE PLOT OF THE FILM. The entire story comes from this child's play.

And that, states the movie in no uncertain terms, is exactly what these toys are meant for.

The subtext in this is rather brilliant, with the Father, a very ordered, merciless "Man Upstairs" holding into control while the Son extols the virtues of freedom of choice and redemption - I'm not certain the religious allegory was intentional, but it's incredibly interesting all the same. But even more impressive is how bald-faced THE LEGO MOVIE is in speaking directly to the parents in the audience, the adults that it knows are watching, and telling them, "Yes, these are kids' toys, and pretending otherwise is delusional at best and potentially harmful at worst. But enjoying these things AS THEY ARE is nothing to be ashamed of."

This point hammers home and connects to ALL similar properties, across ALL media. Video games, comic books, toy franchises like Transformers, even live-action updates of Disney cartoons - all rooted in children's entertainment at their creation, but over the years have had generations of fans drag them into an awkward "maturity" so that grown men don't feel awkward talking about men in tights or giant robots. And for every WATCHMEN or MASS EFFECT that the legitimate growth of these properties has produced, there have been far more tragedies like Bay's hyper-sexualized and super-violent TRANSFORMERS films, the wave of "dark and gritty" that overwhelmed the comics industry in the 90's, adaptations like MAN OF STEEL where Superman destroyed Metropolis and broke a man's neck, and piles upon piles of video games who's grasp "mature" content extents to blood, boobs, or bad words in the most puerile of limited definitions.

This, THE LEGO MOVIE argues, is stupid.

I'm shocked that this Trojan horse of a movie ever got made, but it's a lightning rod for a whole lot of what needs to be addressed in Hollywood and "geek culture" at large. And with it, Lord and Miller have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only are there film-makers who can rival Pixar in the realm of CGI animation, but they can stand with the BEST of Pixar's socially-aware and intellectually rich stock.

Because, not to be too obvious, but when it comes to THE LEGO MOVIE?

Everything IS awesome.

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