The Lego Movie review: take the brick pill

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The Lego Movie green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
You’ve seen this all before — it’s Toy Story meets The Matrix — just not done in Legos.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s previous films
I’m “biast” (con): the trailers didn’t thrill me
I have played with the source material (and I love it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s like the opposite of Lucy-with-the-football with filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and me. This is the third time they’ve taunted me by dangling something so apparently crapariffic before my geeky yet ever optimistic movie-lovin’ eyes, and then failed to make me utterly despise what they did with it. First was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, adapted from a very very short children’s picture book, and how do you plump that up into a decent flick? Yet they made magic. Then was 21 Jump Street, adapted from a very good but very dated TV show I loved that they populated with actors I couldn’t stand — and in the case of one of them, I use the term “actor” only in its most generous meaning. Yet they made movie magic again.

These guys made me not hate Channing Tatum (at least in that one movie). This continues to be astonishing to me.

Now it’s The Lego Movie. It’s plastic interlocking bricks and little tiny yellow people with no expressions on their faces. Sometimes it’s characters and vehicles and objects shoehorned into the weird brick world from across the pop-culture spectrum. It’s toys that have been plasticized from movies — not originally, but that seems to be the focus today — and then remade into a movie. It’s like if you made some instant coffee, then froze it and chopped it up into ice chips, then tried to make fresh coffee from it. That doesn’t work. I mean, those Lego video games are surprisingly awesome, but there’s no way in hell this could work as a movie.

This works as a movie.

(But Lord and Miller’s next movie, 22 Jump Street, is still sure to suck.)

That said: I’m hearing, across the Net, a lot of fanboy orgasming over The Lego Movie, and I can’t get that excited here. I can’t quite say that Lord and Miller — and their cowriters, Dan and Kevin Hageman — managed to squeeze an “original” story out of some plastic bricks, because this is basically Toy Story meets The Matrix, with a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Idiocracy tossed in for flavor. True, it’s kind of amazing that anyone could get all those influences to play nicely in one story and still keep it coherent — even significant — but you’ve seen this all before.

Just not done with Legos.

And The Lego Movie is some extraordinary eye candy, created from (apparently) actual Legos, for the most part, and animated using them. Lego-animated fire and Lego-animated water is some of the coolest, cleverest, most geekily ticklish stuff I’ve seen onscreen in a while. It’s crammed with so much detail that zooms by too quickly — it’s going to be fun to explore this one in slo-mo once it’s available to watch at home.

The city where construction worker Emmet lives is a visual marvel… and a thematic marvel as well. The bricks line up all neat and square and regular, and so do the people. There are instructions to be followed, proper ways to do things — everything from a guy’s morning routine to the building up and crashing down of structures in this city that seems to be Emmet’s job. The most popular pop song, “Everything Is Awesome!,” is a horrifically catchy ode conformity. The most popular TV show is– well, a PG version of Idiocracy’s Ow My Balls. And in a world of bland sameness, Emmet (the voice of Chris Pratt: Delivery Man, Her) is a marvel of boring forgettableness. He is most definitely not the Master Builder he is mistaken for by Wyldstyle (the voice of Elizabeth Banks: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Movie 43), who has been seeking an object called the Piece of Resistance that can be wielded only by The Special. Yup, she’s pretty much The Matrix’s Trinity, and she hoped that she herself would turn out to be The Special, and now she thinks it’s Emmet, for reasons you will have to see the movie to discover.

It’s sad to me that an accidental message of The Lego Movie is that no matter how brilliant and brave and accomplished you are — as Wyldstyle is here — you can be upstaged by a bland boring untalented dude such as Emmet who’s merely in the right place for the wrong reasons at the right time. But I can forgive that, because the larger message is “Color outside the lines,” and it is transmitted with a lot of verve and humor. For we learn much about this brick universe as Wyldstyle takes Emmet on a journey to prevent President Business (the voice of Will Ferrell: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, The Internship), who is secretly the superevil supervillain Lord Business, from doing something very big and very bad. The Special will use the Piece of Resistance to stop the bad thing, and it is presumed that only a Master Builder can achieve this, because Master Builders literally circumvent the rules by not following The Instructions — which are actually a thing: Emmet carries them around with him to help him get through his day. The journey takes Wyldstyle and Emmet into other realms outside his city — an Old West realm; a medieval fantasy realm — and yet this is only the beginning of the layered cleverness of Lord and Miller’s bricky vision here.

They have made a toy-based, practically-a-commercial movie, see, about interlocking bricks that come in themed sets, and said, Fuck sets. Mix them up. Use the Batman minifig in the Old West world. (Batman is here. He is voiced by Will Arnett [Men in Black III, Despicable Me], he is Wyldstyle’s boyfriend, and he has the best Batman theme song ever.) Use the pieces from the robot set and the pirate set and create something out of your own imagination. Don’t follow the picture on the box — follow the picture in your mind.

Whoa?

It’s a little bit sad that anyone — adult or child — needs to be told this. And I can’t decide yet if it’s unintentionally ironic that a flick that grabs ideas and tropes from all over the pop-culture spectrum is ultimately about mixing and matching to create your own brand of fun, or if it’s being deliberately postmeta about it. This may be the best Lego movie possible, but it’s still an advertisement, however smart and ingenious, for — and this is ironic — its own Lego Movie themed Lego sets. Perhaps Hollywood could take a bit of its own advice from here on out, stop following its own rigid, confining Instructions, and start coloring outside the lines.


see also:
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part movie review: everything is still (mostly) awesome


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Lego Movie for its representation of girls and women.

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Damian Barajas
Damian Barajas
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 1:20am

I did not know how to avoid this. Sure my son wanted to see this movie. And yes I have taken him to see a few movies that are the equivalent of… I took him to see Hop okay? I’m not proud but I hoped it would be at worst forgettable (I wish!)
But I really did not want to tell him that the reason we were not going to see the lego movie was because I couldn’t see how it was going to be little more than an 80 minute long commercial… well I just don’t know how I was going to get through that one.

Wow. I feel like I just dodged a bullet there!

Beowulf
Beowulf
reply to  Damian Barajas
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 6:13pm

“an 80 minute long commercial…”

Fox called the film “Anti-business, anti-capitalist….”

If Jesus returned and turned water into wine, they’d call him anti-capitalist (which, of course, he IS!).

Martin
Martin
reply to  Beowulf
Sat, Feb 15, 2014 2:04pm

Hell, the way Fox keeps going, they’ll have to turn on themselves because they’ll have run out of targets.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  Martin
Sat, Feb 15, 2014 4:50pm

Well, they already seem to work pretty damn hard to shoot themselves in the foot regularly.

Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
reply to  Martin
Wed, Feb 19, 2014 7:30pm

There’s a certain poetic irony to Fox News gnawing off it’s own leg to escape the trap it set for itself.

Melissa Whitney
Melissa Whitney
reply to  Damian Barajas
Fri, Feb 14, 2014 8:46pm

It was actually very entertaining. Sure it coax you into buying the product, but it there is more to it then being a commercial. I felt the same way you did until I actually took my son to see the movie. It was a fun for the whole family type of movie, which entertains the little ones as well as the adults.

Damian Barajas
Damian Barajas
reply to  Melissa Whitney
Thu, Feb 20, 2014 6:01pm

I just saw this movie, couldn’t convince the wife to go but made a day of it with my son so we got to pig out on popcorn and Icee’s

******* “VERY SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD” *********

Anyway, It works as a movie, it really does, by the time the ghost on a string came along and really made me think about how the movie is “put together”, and how the look of it all is so deliberate and necessary, well I was pleasantly surprised.
******** End spoiler ************

But yeah, it couldn’t not be a commercial for Lego’s, how can you show anything to a mass audience today and not have it be an advertisement?
Fortunately it was a good movie too.

Guest
Guest
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 5:58am

I think you’re confusing Will Ferrell with Vince Vaughn; Ferrell isn’t in The Internship.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Guest
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 10:54am

Confusing Will Ferrell with Vince Vaughn?! Bwahaha.

I know perfectly well who Will Ferrell is, and he most certainly is in *The Internship.* He plays Vaughn’s boss at the mattress store.

RogerBW
RogerBW
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 11:43am

Colour outside the lines, but still with the colours you’ve been given… Yes, you can mix the themes, but you’re still working with a stock array of themes. Or maybe that’s just me.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 12:33pm

Or you can use a big bucket of unthemed bricks. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000NO9GT4/theflickfilosoph

lescarr
lescarr
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Feb 16, 2014 10:16pm

But how can you colour outside the lines unless there ARE lines?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  lescarr
Sun, Feb 16, 2014 11:20pm

That’s the new “There is no spoon”!

Tonio Kruger
reply to  RogerBW
Sat, Feb 15, 2014 5:28am

I suspect corporate America doesn’t care what approach you take as long as you buy their stuff. But maybe that’s just me too…

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
reply to  RogerBW
Sun, Feb 16, 2014 11:42pm

Copied from my comment at Film Crit Hulk:

I have some anecdotal data (in the form of how my kid interacts with her LEGO sets, both the newer licensed ones and my own ’80s era space and fantasy sets) to back that up. The sequence of interaction with LEGO sets remains the same for her as it was for me and all my friends:

1. you get the set and build the thing according to the instructions.
2. after playing with that for a few weeks tear down the original objects (either a bit at a time or all at once) to start building your own things.
3. about 6 months later, you tear down some of your own creations, pull out the original instructions, and, depending on your personal level of patience, either rebuild the original thing, or get bored, tear it apart, and go back to your own building.
4. repeat steps 2 and 3 until the age of, oh, let’s say 21.

I can also tell you, from a personal standpoint, that licensed sets would have been a godsend. Trying to recreate Star Wars vehicles with space sets… well, they never looked quite right, no matter how much tinkering and re-configuring I did. Ditto trying to put construction worker hair and a fantasy cape onto a space mini-fig carrying a matte blue antennae… it was never going to be that Luke Skywalker mini-fig I needed.

Bluejay
Bluejay
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 12:57pm

So, is it a green light just for the visuals, MaryAnn? “You’ve seen this all before, I can’t get that excited, cool to see in slo-mo once it’s available to see at home, best Lego movie possible but still a toy commercial”: your review seems more like a “Wait for DVD” recommendation to me.

I’m sure they’ll be scrambling to put “FlickFilosopher says: Failed to make me utterly despise what they did with it!” in all the ads. :-)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 1:34pm

Not, just just for the visuals. Also for “the larger message… transmitted with a lot of verve and humor.”

MarkyD
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 9:49pm

I’m shocked this has turned out so well. I had very little interest in it until all the positive reviews started popping up. I’m glad it turned out to be fun. We plan on going to see it this weekend.

Tonio Kruger
Sat, Feb 15, 2014 5:25am

I’m guessing this is the wrong week to remember how my oldest nephew used to bypass all the expensive toys he got each Christmas because he had more fun playing with the cardboard boxes they came in. And he did all that without having to see a movie on the subject. :)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Sat, Feb 15, 2014 9:44am

But of course he did that *after* you bought all the expensive toys!

Martin
Martin
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Sat, Feb 15, 2014 2:03pm

I’m still waiting for someone to market “made for play” cardboard boxes, specifically designed by clever people in lab coats to be the perfect toy.

You know, for kids.

LJS
LJS
Sun, Feb 16, 2014 3:06pm

I was a expecting some comment on Wyldstyle and Princess Unikitty being about the only voiced female characters in a sea of male characters, the bonding with The Man Upstairs at the climax, and the dismay of the younger male character that his sister will get to play. The Lego Friends line, for all its controversy, seems to be ignored. I liked it, but I was conscious of a Legos as a boy’s toy message.

Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
reply to  LJS
Wed, Feb 19, 2014 7:39pm

More gender balance would have been nice, but there were more voiced female characters (if only in minor roles), such as Wonder Woman, and Emmett’s neighbours and co-workers.

I did appreciate the little “No girls on the Millennium Falcon” bit, plus the little sister’s contribution at the very end had the audience laughing madly, and felt perfectly in the spirit of the film (I.e. it matched the father’s reluctance to let his son’s creative influence to interfere with his own play, and celebrated her contribution to the anarchic build style that was lauded throughout the film.)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LJS
Thu, Feb 20, 2014 1:17pm

So, it’s like every other damn movie out there. :-(

In the grand scheme of the current state of Hollywood, this is far from the most obnoxious treatment of female characters. I can’t discuss everything every movie does. But you can trust that I focus on the things that jump out at me the most.

Nina
Nina
reply to  LJS
Sun, Mar 02, 2014 12:34pm

I’m guessing (hoping) that the already-in-the-works sequel may bring up the issues of Lego having been marketed pretty much only to boys over the past few decades.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Nina
Sun, Mar 02, 2014 10:49pm

That would be lovely, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. Because such a plot would have to admit that boys are not the center of the universe.

Nit Picky Bastard
Nit Picky Bastard
Tue, Feb 25, 2014 12:19am

Sorry, I can’t bring myself to read a review by someone too ignorant to spell ‘biased’ correctly.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  Nit Picky Bastard
Tue, Feb 25, 2014 12:35am

Did you notice that the misspelling of biased was, in fact surrounded by quotation marks? If you click on the link under them, the one in red that says “critic’s minifesto” (another purposely misspelled word), you’ll see the essay that this is explained in. There’s some background here about that particular typo. I find it funny, you might, too.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
reply to  Nit Picky Bastard
Tue, Feb 25, 2014 12:40am

Apparently the shelf-life on not getting the joke is indefinite.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  Dr. Rocketscience
Tue, Feb 25, 2014 2:27pm

At least it is anti-derivative. ;-)

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
reply to  LaSargenta
Tue, Feb 25, 2014 6:56pm

I would have thought getting the joke was integral to being on the internets.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Nit Picky Bastard
Tue, Feb 25, 2014 1:10am

Hint: the word is in irony quotes, and there’s a link to the explanation. (And yes, “minifesto” is intentional too.) Get over yourself.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Bluejay
Tue, Feb 25, 2014 1:12am

Whoops – LaSargenta already pointed this out, I see. My bad.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Nit Picky Bastard
Tue, Feb 25, 2014 1:05pm

And I can’t seriously someone who doesn’t appreciate wordplay and irony.