Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Lego Movie (A Review)

Ladies and gentlemen...we have it. The greatest 1 hour and 40 minute toy commercial of all time.

A crazy unique looking cast that works remarkably well together
The Lego Movie is pure joy. There's no better way to describe it. By all accounts it should be a shallow marketing ploy for one of the most popular toys ever, but the movie is actually so strong of a comedy that it transcends it's superficial marketing purposes. The humour travels a mile a minute, the characters are brilliant send-ups of classic story archetypes, the visuals are bright and colourful, and that song...oh man, that song. Like the song says: "everything is awesome." Y'know, I could just stop there and tell you I highly recommend this flick, but if you're interested in the finer points within this tiny bricked world, then read on.

First of all this film is written and directed by the duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Don't recognize those names? Well, maybe it's about time you do. They started with the criminally underrated animated comedy Clone High before directing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (a movie I thought was gonna suck until I saw it,) and more recently the 21 Jump Street remake (a movie which, again, people thought was gonna suck, but then were pleasantly surprised with it.) Are you noticing a trend? Clearly, people need to take note of Lord and Miller and start giving these two the benefit of the doubt on whatever project they're working on. (Or studios need to know how to advertise their shit better.) As soon as I saw these two were attached, I knew we were in for a tight comedy with clever writing and a joyfully juvenile spirit. In short: I was pumped when I saw that they were directing this movie, even more pumped when I saw the first trailer, and yet the movie still somehow met my lofty expectations. That's pretty rare nowadays!

Fun Fact: Will Forte voices Abe Lincoln in both The Lego Movie and Clone High!

So what's the plot? Well, the best way I can describe The Lego Movie is Toy Story meets The Matrix on a sugar high. Enter a world completely made out of Lego where our hero, a construction worker named Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt,) is optimistically taking part in the corporate system he seems to fit right in with, when suddenly he is thrust into an undercover resistance against the ruler of this Lego land, President Business (Will Ferrel.) President Business (moonlighting as the evil "Lord Business") has separated each themed Lego world into their own sets (wild west, space, etc) and is obsessed with order. Meanwhile, Emmet is recruited by the Master Builders, an underground rebel group fronted by the kick-ass Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and the wise wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman.) The Master Builders believe in creativity over all, and have the ability to construct wild, new and outstanding things out of the Lego pieces that their world is made out of. As it turns out, Emmet got himself stuck with a mysterious relic, dubbing him "the special" who is meant to fulfil some sort of prophecy (there's always a prophecy) that will stop President Business for good. The problem: Emmet doesn't have a creative thought in his head, and is in no way the messiah-type figure the Master Builders are looking for.

Our hero, Emmet: The Untalented Optimist
If this is all sounding classic "hero's journey" fare, that's because it is. You have the unknowing hero, the evil bad dude, the tough chick, the wise mentor, the Batman (oh yeah, Batman is in this movie. We'll get to that in a bit.) They're all archetypes we've seen a million times, just now they're represented by goofy looking Lego figures... and that's why it's brilliant! Everything is over the top to the point of parody, but without being patronizing. Everyone takes all of this action and plot seriously, despite using terms laughably attempting to be "epic" such as "the special" or "the piece of resistance." And if that was the only note on which this film worked, we'd have a good movie on our hands...but the rabbit hole goes even deeper then that...

Without giving too much away (and yes there are things to give away in The Lego Movie, so please try to avoid spoilers,) this movie isn't just about characters living in a Lego world, it's about Lego itself. About Lego, the child's play thing, in today's mainstream culture, and about how different people approach the toy. You have those who follow the instruction manuals and builds the structures that are in each Lego set, then you have those who just take whatever Lego pieces you have available and build whatever comes to mind. It's here in where The Lego Movie goes from good to great, and while some will definitely see where this is all going ahead of time, I'm convinced the younger movie goers will mark this as one of the best executions of a film's message of this generation. But again, I don't want to say too much about this, so let's just go ahead and talk about Batman.

"I'm the Lego piece that Lego Land deserves..."
Yes, the goddamn Batman is in this movie. For you see, since the movie can use any property that Lego has made toy tie-ins for, this leads to the movie having a ton of Lego-versioned cameos from various areas of pop culture. Some you see coming, and some I was genuinely surprised about, but definitely the big one Warner Brothers is focussing in on their advertising is Lego Batman. And for good reason. Not just a cameo, Lego Batman (played by Will Arnet, pitch perfect casting by the way) becomes a main supporting character about a third of the way into this movie. And then he proceeds to totally steal the show. He's a perfect parody of the brooding, gritty Dark Knight era Batman. It's an era of Batman that pulls on our nostalgic heartstrings from our childhood, but is now portrayed as a dark and serious drama. In a way, Lego Batman shows us that this whole damn movie is like that: a epic movie-tie in to what was originally intended as a simple children's product. It's kinda getting meta, I know. I'm surprised Lego Batman got me to this point almost as I'm sure you are. Nevertheless, the lampooning of Batman here perfectly encapsulates why this film works, and on more than just the level of "oh hey look, it's Batman! Cool!"

Limited movement. Unlimited fun.
What adds even more to the fun is the visuals and animation itself. The film is a computer animated feature, but it takes major cues from the stop-motion amateur animated Lego movies I'm sure many budding animators have attempted at some point (yet another notch for the nostalgic charm-o-meter.) Things like a lowered frame rate in some areas, to attention to texturing details in scratches and smudges on the Lego figures are the little attentions to details that make the film's visuals stand out. But since this film is computer animated, they're not totally limited to stop motion techniques, making things like face acting (blinks, lip-sync, etc) nice and smooth.

But there are other challenges with animating this movie. Because of the rules they've set up with this world, these characters still move and act as Lego figures. That means stiff movements, light weighed characters, and no character can even bend their knee! It does make some aspects of the animation limited, but I often say that limitations force people to be creative, and luckily the animation team on this feature rose to the challenge to give us something truly different. The lack of joints in a character's model is never an issue with the way the characters dart and move, and also in how the world around them is build and is optimized for the Lego characters to act around. And thanks to some rather obvious animation cheats, the Lego characters can perform hard to imagine tasks (like a Lego man changing a shirt) all while winking and nodding at the audience. It's all self-aware visual humour, which is always a bit of a gamble, but it works remarkably well here.

Pew, pew!
And I didn't even mention the effects animation yet! Holy jeez, give the effects animators on this feature a prize or a delicious dessert of some kind, because these guys really had to work in a different way for this one. Remember me saying some rules of this Lego universe provides some challenges for the animation teams? One of those rules is everything in this Lego world is made of Legos... EVERYTHING! That includes all effects: water, fire, explosions, smoke, soap, lasers, EVERYTHING! That's really working outside of the box for effects animation, and the team blew it out of the water! You haven't seen anything until you've seen a Lego ship race across an ocean of blue Lego pieces acting like real water with waves and splashes and everything. Good job guys.

This was that sugar high I was talkin' about...
I'm not surprised this movie worked. The talent behind every aspect has proven themselves, and a movie about a world of Legos always sounded fun to me. What I'm amazed at is how well this movie works, and on how many levels. I didn't even mention characters I loved like Benny the 1980-something space guy (Charlie Day) or the Unikitty (part unicorn, part kitty, all awesome, voiced by Allison Brie.) Hell, there's a whole subplot with Liam Neeson's Good Cop/Bad Cop character, that is surprisingly touching, that I didn't even get a chance to mention! This is a film that revels in creativity, both in its message and it's execution. It's a glorious send-up of a nostalgic brand from our youth being turned into a big budget Hollywood film, while somehow still being it's own special and unique animal. If you still haven't seen this one, I highly recommend you do. It's still early in the year, but I wouldn't be surprised if come December this is in my top 10 movies of 2014. Yeah. It's that good.

"Everything is awesome" indeed. (I did mention that song is super catchy, right? Cause...y' is.)


- Moo