Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Batman is the worst person I have ever met


Without falling victim to the awful traps its very premise sets for itself, The Lego Movie is largely devoid of the gimmricky, nonsensicality, and overwrought sentimentality one might have feared; instead, even if its philosophy of life is really very terribly suspect, it never fails to deliver it with intensely beautiful, genuinely funny, and sweetly moving verve.  Plus, if you add up all the jokes at his expense, it makes fun of Batman for like a full half hour, which would be worth a pass even if the other sixty minutes were literally blank screen.

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
With Chris Pratt (Emmet Brickowoski), Elizabeth Banks (Wyldstyle), Will Arnett (The Bat-Man), Allison Brie (Unikitty), Charlie Day (Benny), Morgan Freeman (Vitruvius), and Will Ferrell (Lord Business)

Spoiler alert: mild, rising to high with warning (or severe; see the second paragraph after the grade, but if you're extra-sensitive just go watch the movie as soon as you see that big bold "A", for Lego is superb)

The Lego Movie is as good as you've heard.  I'd have preferred to bury that lede so that I could talk my shit first and then end by praising this wonderful thing to the heavens, but my shit involves spoilers, and The Instructions dictate that I must talk generally before dwelling on any problematic specifics.

Lego begins with Lego'd logos for WB and Village Roadshow, scoring a palpable hit in its very first seconds.  To be sure, I'm even more of a sucker for modified company logos than the average man.  (And the closing credits are, if anything, more lovely.)

Then we enter the film proper, first with a shot of Lego lava (!) that opens a brief prologue that sets up the putative villainy and imposing figure of one Lord Business.  He invades the sanctum sanctorum of Vitruvius, blinding the old wizard and stealing the Kragle, a powerful relic he has guarded since time untold.  In defeat, Vitruvius prophesies the rise of a chosen one who will defeat Lord Business' desire to master this universe.  Years pass.  Lego is not content with just a couple of corporate logoswe flash forward using the first of many wonderful little intertitles.  Now, we are in Bricksburg, many years later.

Sure, it looks like Lord Businessin the guise of Mr. Business, President of the Octan Corporation (and The World)has built a utopia, but his largely perfect world, where mostly everyone has their role, people like each other, unemployment is nonexistent, and franchises don't cross over, is also kind of a sham, since he plans on destroying everything.  Finding it difficult to fit in but not yet raised to revolutionary consciousness is the one who-will-be-chosen, Emmet Brickowoski.  Emmet's a construction worker, and an affable fellow, but has no real skills (yeah? you build a building) and even less personality, having internalized the happy conformism of Business' paradise so thoroughly that even his fellow indoctrinaires find him unspeakably dull, when they remember him at all.

It's a day that begins like any other (oh boy does it! though the jokes don't start here, they now reach the madcap pitch they'll maintain until the third act).  But after work, Emmet is snubbed by his colleagues, so he hangs around the job site just long enough to see an intruder.  He chases her as The Instructions have told him to do, but does so poorly, so he falls in the most enjoyable bottomless pit since Bogus Journey, and at the end of his descent he becomes fused with another relic: the Piece of Resistance (ha), the only thing that can neutralize Lord Business' weaponized Kragle.

Thrust into a world of intrigue he can barely understand and then leaving the universe he knows entirely, his quest to stop Lord Business begins.  He is brought before that literally magical negro, Vitruvius, who takes on the responsibility of training himand that Morgan Freeman is willing to take such a sharp stick to his career is endearing and delightful, though ultimately he probably makes as much fun of Laurence Fishburne as himself.  And that's a pretty excellent thing about Lego, that it both subverts the cliches of Chosen One storiesEmmet really is quite ineptwhile simultaneously embodying them.

No, seriously.  He's really inept.

There's a tension here that's never quite perfectly resolved, but they have a lot more fun with it than they needed to, and the gentle satire in this vein is as pleasant as the equally gentle satire of the (largely imaginary) American lifestyle that Bricksburg represents.

And gentle satire does strengthen a movie whose moral is, if read broadly: Everybody is Special.  (Sigh.)

We unfortunately are, but not necessarily in any positive way.  This is a theme exploded with an ingeniously subtle brutality by Monsters University last year, and explored with unsurpassed nuance a quarter of a century ago by Disney's psychosocial masterpiece, The Little Mermaid.  Unfortunately, although with a close and charitable reading Lego does something along the same lines, mostly it engages uncritically with that theme despite its irreverent facade.  Still, if Lego is a dumber movie, it is a purposefully dumber movie that aims for sweetness in its blind optimism, and that's never something I easily condemn.

Now, of course, in the very finest Hero's Journey tradition, Emmet's initial and always primary motivation to magically improve himself through adventure is not to fight the good fight, but rather that the intruder and rebel he chased, one "Wyldstyle" is Lego-hot.  Finally, an identification character I can relate to.

Then her boyfriend shows up.  And he's Batman.

Pictured: Batman.

And he's neither the first nor the last name brand to make an appearance, though he is the most narratively vital.  I'm a curmudgeonly sort, who still hates it when worlds collide, finding crossovers between franchises to be one of the uglier excesses of fannish enthusiasm.  No: Star Trek is not Star Wars is not X-Men is not X-Files.  Even when two companies as simpatico as DC and Marvel meet, I grit my teeth.  It's awful; I can't stand it.  Do you like the Amalgam Universe?  Well, God hates you.

And no food touching either!

The directors knew how dangerous the game they were playing was; they've remarked that they left more ideas out than they put in, because they were too distracting.  What remains is, amazingly, pure and focused.  The iron discipline, to have so selectively opened this particular Pandora's box, demands supreme admiration, and I'm willing to give it to Lord and Miller.  Thank you, gentlemen.

But it's still nothing if not zany, and like with the Toy Stories before it, Lego gets away with what I have to consider damned near murder.  The jarring aesthetic and conceptual paradoxes are resolved here, like there, by the unifying notion of toys and child's play.  This works, for child's play is often stupid and gleefully ignorant of both aesthetics and concepts.  But Lego is equally agreeable to adult eyes, thanks to the visual congruity that comes from one, single, iconic brand of toy.

And because of this Lego is the most visually appealing animated film in some years.  Frozen looks great, but not as great as this; the good parts of Wreck-It Ralphthe parts in Sugar Rushcome close, but that movie failed entirely to palatably combine its wildly diverse and occasionally lousy character and background designs, suffering immeasurably as a result.  The Croods had pretty backgrounds, a mixed bag of stupid CG animals, and garbage character work whose only redemption was that it provided an unattractive female protagonist for once (insofar as Emma Stone's character is the protagonist of that deeply flawed film).  Monsters University is perfectly fine, has its moments of creature creation, and one genuinely great visual idea that is discussed in the spoilers below the grade, but that's all.  Brave I didn't watch because I read she turned into a bear and I do not care about that at all, plus Merida looks like Billy Quizboy.  Finally, I have seen enough of Planes to never intentionally watch the rest of Planes.

No, I reckon you have to go alllll the way back to 2010 and Tangled to beat Lego—or back three months for me, to my shame, though I'm pleased to announce that I've fully overcome my phobia of CG thanks to it.

Tangled is still a true ocular feast, but as that determination rests largely on the lighting effects in two or three key scenes, and one in particular (the flying lanterns, obviously), I'd be happy to concede that Lego is consistently the more beautiful of the two.  The action in Lego is often similar to the opening play fantasy sequence of Toy Story 3there's even a railroad bridge to blow upbut it's better on just about all counts, for here the characters seem to properly inhabit the same world.  (Also Lego is twenty times longer than the first scene of Toy Story 3.)

To find a persevering competitor for formal accomplishment in the animated realm you'd have to turn to the Disney Renaissance, if not Sleeping Beauty, and since those aren't even really the same medium anyway, let's just talk movies.

Yes, Lego is the most brain-blastingly well-designed thing since TRON: Legacy, and for much the same reason.  For all the anarchy of a thousand different properties colliding in one universe, they are all subject to the benevolent tyranny of Lego's aesthetic regime.  This welcome uniformity to the design of the many worlds of Lego doesn't stop with their inhabitants: no less than the sky, the sun, the clouds, the sea, and the flames of war themselves are built, from innumerable Lego blocks.  Searingly-colorful and fantastic yet well-researched and ultra-photorealistic CG models are animated in a deceptively crude simulacrum of stop-motion.  Lighting is ever perfect.  And even a few physical sets were constructed of physical Legos!  The result: Lego is a visual masterpiece, less obviously in stills, apparent to all but the blind in motion.

(And, in fact, it goes beyond the infinite: on occasion it can get so gorgeously yet distressingly phantasmogoric that I'd honestly hesitate at bringing really little kids to the show.)

So, yes, it's great.

Still, The Goddamn Batman, and as a main character... this easily could have been a real problem in the context of a goofy family movie, no matter how well visually-integrated.  He's a major Warner Bros. IP, after all, beloved by zillions.  Of course, Batman is a pathetic, awful, self-centered, self-aggrandizing jackass, who traffics in his personal tragedy for attention and pity...

Ahbut here, this is played for comedy.

And even better:  The Lego Movie despises Hal Jordan even more than Bruce Wayne.  God, I love you, Lego Movie.

Score: 10/10

And now it is time for spoilers.

Are you ready for this?

So: I'd been told there was a twist to The Lego Movie.  Yeah, this counts as a "twist"if your mental age would preclude you from playing with Legos in the first place, because they still pose a choking hazard.  But even pre-verbal infants should still be able to predict nearly the exact shape of this development by roughly minute fifteen, because it is pretty emphatically not a "twist," simply a plot element established early on that pays off, much later, hugely if with a measure of obligation.  Still, I'll grant you one more chance to bail, because watching The Lego Movie is frankly obligatory too, if you want to be a whole person.

We eventually find out OH MY GOD NO REALLY? that the bizarre Lego universe we've become invested in is, in fact, a real-world Lego set which has been crafted with a degree of hobbyism that exists somewhere on the boundary of "awesome" and "awesome mental disorder."  The events of the film are simply the playdreams of the creator's callow young son.  These segments, to the film's credit, are live action, rather than a hyperreal CGI pretense of live action (although that technique worked well in Monsters University, just filming the father and son works far better here; and the transitions are spectacular, the second best visual aspect of the film).

Okay.  I would like to go on record and say that this kid is a shit.

There are two messages in Lego, and the one that comes from the live action segmentsspend more time with your kids, try to tolerate their inanitiesis in fact the largely unproblematic one.  But as much as I do appreciate that message, The Lego Movie really takes sides with the wrong deuteragonist in this particular case.

That's because Dad isn't just playing, he has built a fucking monumenta Speerlike Lego vision of a dozen perfect diaromas surrounding the sprawling tabletop centerpiece of Bricksburg; meanwhile, Son is destroying his amazing creationwithout permission, in contravention to Dad's explicit orders, intentionally ruining months of painstaking work.  Bear in mind that Dad is wearing a suit and tie, cinematic insta-code for "stressed out salaryman," and this is clearly what he does instead of drinking.  (If that's too subtle, his Lego avatar, Lord Business, is named "Lord Business.")  Lego was famously difficult to develop, and from interviews, it appears that the Father/Son meta-story was the hardest aspect of the film to get right.  One can see why; for one could easily suppose that early drafts ended logically, with tearful explanations to the police.

Of course, I'm glad the kid disobeys his father, for without his disobedience The Lego Movie fails to exist, and that would be a bad thing.  Yet no amount of unsupported bias toward him in the film can overwhelm my impression that he is a terrible son who should be ashamed of his terrible behavior.  He even already has his own Goddamned Legos!  (And the wife sucks too, for letting him go down there in the first place.)

Another part of the live action segment which I won't exactly reveal bothered me even more; possibly because the last two movies I've seen in the theater have used the exact same awful plot expediency, although I'm willing to spot Lego a bit more magical realism than I am willing to do with Robocop 2014.  But damn, I won't lie: it cost the movie a 10/10.

Year end correction: in the long run, it did not cost The Lego Movie a 10/10.


  1. Does anyone ever read these?

    -Your dearest Friend Raz

  2. According to statistics and the occasional comment, yes.