Movie Review: The Lego Movie
Still crushing its way through the Box Office this month like a preschooler on pixie sticks, The Lego Movie has been a darling with both critics and audiences. With Oscar Month safely behind us, I figure it’s time to review something fun. Does The Lego Movie fit the bill and match the hype? Let’s just say it’s no Toy Story…
The Lego Movie (2014)
The Lego Movie has a fairly typical premise, that of a normal person who gets sucked up into a larger power struggle and discovers that he has a special talent. Emmet, our construction worker hero, is such a perfectly ordinary drone that nobody can even remember that they have met him when he goes missing. A fun and frantic musical number introduces us to the mega city where Emmet lives and works, while also displaying the fun and creativity most of us remember from a solid afternoon of puttering around with real Lego’s. As Emmet is preparing to call it a day, he loses his instruction manual – the generic instructions issued to citizens that control all aspects of their day-to-day life. Attempting to recover it, he stumbles upon Wyldstyle, a female “master builder”, who is searching the construction site for a powerful relic. Emmet is smitten, and trips over his own feet pursuing her, falling down a deep shaft where after minutes of abuse, he finally lands at the foot of a strange looking artifact: The “piece of resistance” which Wyldstyle is looking for. He touches it, has a disturbing vision, and passes out.
He awakens, with the piece attached to his back, in an interrogation room. Bad Cop, played by Liam Neeson, asks him about the piece and the rebellion against President Business (aka Lord Business, played by Will Ferrell.) We learn that Lord Business is attempting to destroy all creativity in Lego Land, and the piece of resistance, wielded by “The Special” who finds it, is the only thing that can stop him. Wyldstyle breaks Emmet out of jail, and the two journey through the various Lego Kingdoms in an attempt to defeat Lord Business.
The Lego Movie is curiously divided: on the one hand, you have amazing visuals and technical wizardry that captures the fun and freedom of the Lego building experience; on the other hand, you have a dull as dishwater heroic journey (think Luke Skywalker…if he was half as whiny but twice as dumb). There are threads of better stories/movies aplenty, but they are so artlessly welded onto the core story that they seem to ape these better movies instead of giving them a proper homage. Bits of The Terminator, Star Wars, The Matrix, and others are present, but they are just part of a scattered and cluttered landscape that seems to include literally everything. Chris McKay, co-director, has shown that he knows how to make a funny and timely cultural reference through his Robot Chicken series, so it is confounding to see this movie consistently miss all of its cues so badly.
When you do find a pop culture reference in this film, it is usually of the obvious and blunt variety that currently passes for internet humor: calling out a thing as having existed, and assuming that this constitutes a joke. Nope. A joke has a set-up, a premise, and a punchline. Simply telling me that Bionicle was a thing, or Shaquille O’Neal is a famous person, or that Batman exists is not a joke. They are the building blocks for a joke that never gets paid off. Once again, Robot Chicken does a much better job of not only reminding you something cool used to exist, but actually using that knowledge as leverage in a joke. The one reference that does pay out is a Star Wars joke…and it feels like it was lifted from The Family Guy.
Some genuine humor is on display in The Lego Movie, but it comes from the few engaging, original characters. Princess Unikitty is a magical unicorn cat, and is hilarious every line she gets. Benny, the ignored 1980’s spaceman, is frantic and often funny. Emmet is such a brainless dolt, he ends up being fun and likable. It’s remarkable that the archetypical main characters are all given to big names like Will Ferrell and Morgan Freeman, and they end up being really boring.
You’ve Seen it All Before
Vitruvious the friendly wizard, Morgan Freeman’s stand in for Gandalf (which is confusing, since Gandalf also has a cameo in this movie), has a vision at the beginning of the film, in which he sees how the story of “The Special” will play out in a prophecy. I feel like I’ve had that vision too…but that’s because this movie is so uniformly generic. It tries to paper over the hum-drum story with frantic action, but Lego block figures doing karate just looks like a stop-motion mess that is hard to really give a damn about. A five year-old smashing his figures together accomplishes the same thing visually, and is not worth paying to see.
There is a big twist near the climax of the movie that goes a long way towards describing the silly mash up the movie becomes. In the theater, I found it to be a gratifying explanation for why everything seemed to be such an ad-hoc jumble. Upon getting home, I lost that feeling, and started feeling conned: a good surprise twist should inform the preceding actions, shedding light onto previously mysterious happenings. A bad surprise twist acts like a last minute apology for not having been coherent in the first place. Add in the unjustified character changes (Emmet has no original ideas or initiative…until suddenly he does. Wyldstyle is confidant and happy in her relationship with Batman…until suddenly she isn’t.) and you get a movie that seems to just be making it up as it goes.
When The Lego Movie stays inside its own world, the humor is genuine, and feels earned. When it wanders into borrowed worlds, it falls flat. It really ends up being that simple. There are some great visuals to be seen, and some cool characters to meet in Lego Land, but they often are pushed to the side so we can have a generic Batman do generic Bat Stuff. As a children’s film, the frantic and erratic action may be tolerable, but I really hate to justify bad pacing that way. Maybe children will be happy to have their super hero toys mashed together with their construction toys for no rhyme or reason, but again, that seems to be a flimsy branch to walk out on. There may be a big meta-joke going on here, about how the story of an uncreative and uniform drone like Emmet is ultimately uncreative and uniform itself. If that is the case, then the joke is on the viewer.