TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES got nothing to worry about. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES doing quite well, thank you very much. Got the big-budget, Michael Bay treatment (he’s the producer on this one; Jonathan Liebesman directed); came in #1 at the box office this past weekend; has the almost inevitable sequel already in the works. Yup, life is good for TMNT. Unless, of course, the attending audience happened to see GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY last week. In which case, there might have been quite a few people coming out of the theater thinking, Nice try, but it doesn’t quite cut it.
In two weeks, we’ve had two films that want nothing more than to entertain us with some adrenaline-packed, fantastic storytelling. How each goes about the task, and how successful each is, says a lot about the filmmakers, how they regard this genre, and what they think of their audience. I explore the issue a bit in my review of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES for Jim Freund’s HOUR OF THE WOLF. Click on the player to hear the segment, or right-click the title to download.
Hollywood’s most action-packed summer blockbuster is now playing – on home video!
Everything is awesome! Well, not quite everything – but more than enough to make THE LEGO MOVIE the biggest and best surprise this year. What could have been an annoying piece of feature-length product placement foisted on unsuspecting children, is actually a joyful experience for the whole family, far surpassing recent animated efforts from DreamWorks, Walt Disney Pictures, and Pixar. In fact, despite its February theatrical release, THE LEGO MOVIE qualifies as 2014’s finest summer blockbuster, in form if not in spirit: it take the hackneyed Hollywood template and repurposes its elements (explosions, car crashes, hero plucked from obscurity, wise mentor, hot sidechick) into a satirical contemplation on conformity, cooperation, manufactured entertainment, the joy of imagination run riot, and one’s existential place in a universe run by “The Man Upstairs.”
THE LEGO MOVIE launches with an apparently typical prologue, in which the villain, Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell), obtains the “Kragle” – one of those MacGuffin-like doomsday devices that all summer blockbusters need. However, the wizardly Vetruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman) predicts that a hero will find the “Piece of Resistence” that will stop the Kragle. Years later, Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Christ Pratt) is trying to lead a happy life in a world of conformity, but he doesn’t quite fit in. The clever touch is that Emmet is not a rebel; he wants to be like everyone else, but even following a rule book full of instructions (always return a compliment, support the local sports team, buy overpriced coffee), he is too generic too make anyone notice him enough to become his friend – until he stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, whereupon he suddenly becomes the Most Important Person in the Lego Universe. Like a hapless Hitchcockian hero, Emmet finds himself hunted for reasons he does not understand, while being assisted by an ass-kicking lady by the name of Wildstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks).
What follows is equal parts THE MATRIX, TRANSFORMERS, and probably half a dozen other movies, with cameos from virtually every well known cinefantastique franchise you can imagine: Batman, Superman, Han Solo, Gandalf, and Dumbledore (Vetruvius has trouble pronouncing the later’s name and distinguishing the two wizards from each other). What makes THE LEGO MOVIE more than just a jumble of live-action cliches rendered in animation is the film’s willingness to question those cliches.
Our first hint that things are not quite as they seem comes when the last line of Vetruvius’s poetic prophecy assures us that “all this is true, because it rhymes.” The prophecy results in Emmet being identified as The Special even though Wildstyle, like Trinity in THE MATRIX and Tigress in KUNG FU PANDA, is clearly more qualified, but then the film jokingly confirms our suspicion that the prophecy was simply made up. In effect, the script acknowledges that Emmet is the traditional White Male Promoted from Obscurity Because the Plot Says So,* whether he deserves it or not.
Fortunately, THE LEGO MOVIE has more on its mind than simply undermining bad movie cliches. Emmet turns out to not be intrinsically important – in fact, he seems almost useless compared to the “Master Builders” surrounding him – but ultimately, his generic nature is an asset. The film is walking a fine line, avoiding simple dichotomies: while spoofing onformity, it avoids simply championing individual creativity. As Emmet eventually points out, the Master Builders are great when working alone, but they do not work well as a team, because each is following his own muse. Unlike them, Emmet understands the value of following instructions that direct everyone toward a common goal.
Thus, Emmet saves the world not by being The Special but by being an Everyman. This leads to a brilliantly conceived conclusion, which literally takes the film to a new dimension. SPOILERS
After being captured by Lord Business, Emmet is expelled into the void – which turns out to be real life, as we know it, realized in live-action, with Farrell now playing a father who has been forbidding his son to play with his elaborate Lego city in the basement (Dad is literally “The Man Upstairs”). The entire story we have seen is, in effect, a dramatization of the conflict between father and son: Dad wants to get everything exactly in place and keep it fixed there permanently with Krazy Glue (i.e., “Kragle”); his son wants to create new things and play, mixing up bits and pieces of different Lego worlds (big city, old west, etc).
When the son notices Emmet lying on the floor and places him back into the Lego world, his father insightfully asks, “What would Emmet say to Lord Business?” When the animated story resumes, Emmet and Lord Business reconcile their differences, vicariously acting out the real-life father-son reconciliation.
The final act is less a surprise twist than a logical conclusion of hints laid throughout the narrative, nicely tying together themes and ideas and tugging at the heart strings in a way that seems sincere rather than manipulative. END SPOILERS
THE LEGO MOVIE overflows with enough summer-style CGI mayhem to satisfy the most ravenous Michael Bay-addict – assuming said addict can handle witty dialogue and unexpectedly clever plotting. From its early scenes, THE LEGO MOVIE offers more than meets the eye. As Emmet goes about his work day, timed to the infectious theme song “Everything Is Awesome,” you realize that the toe-tapping tune is just another product pumped out by Lord Business to keep the populace content with the status quo, like the brain-dead but popular TV program, “Honey, Where Are My Pants?” (“That never gets old!” proclaims one character of the show’s eternally recurring punchline.)
Computer animation is used to create action sequences worthy of a live-action movie, but with a look that suggests actual Lego pieces filmed with stop-motion – an effect enhanced in the 3D theatrical version. Since Legos are all about building objects piece by piece, the film duplicates – and surpasses – imagery from the TRANSFORMERS movies, as characters instantly refashion their vehicles and weapons to suit the needs of the moment. Meanwhile, the soundtrack mimics the explosive cacophony of overblown action movies, except when occasionally resorting to absurd vocal effects (puttering lips to suggest the sound of a motorboat puttering away).
The voice cast is perfect, but special notice goes to Freeman for spoofing his “Purveyor of Wisdom” image (seen most recently in OBLIVION) and to Liam Neeson for a hilarious turn as Lord Business’s henchman, Good Cop/Bad Cop (think of the two-faced Mayor in TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels show up, voicing their characters from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – which leads to the funnies STAR WARS gag ever, after Batman purloins the hyper-drive from the Millennium Falcon (which doesn’t do such a good job escaping that giant slug hidden in the asteroid)
And let’s not forget Unikitty (Alison Brie), a pink kitty with a unicorn horn, who lives in a happy land where sad thoughts do not exist – or if they do, they must be buried in the deepest, darkest place, where no one will ever find them. Her almost Panglossian desperation to always think happy thoughts, even amid the destruction and chaos wrought by Lord Business, is touching – until it becomes ghoulishly funny when she finally snaps and impales a few of Lord Business’s thugs. Go, Unikitty! I need an action figure of you!
As much fun as THE LEGO MOVIE is, it is not perfect. After Emmet is torn from his ordinary life, the satirical bite fades, and the running joke (it’s a blockbuster action movie performed by Legos!) wears thin midway through. Fortunately, just when you think the story has played itself out, it comes back to life for a third act that is unexpectedly thoughtful without becoming maudlin.
That sounds like an awful lot of baggage for a movie inspired by toys. Fortunately, writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are Master Builders, whose imaginatively wrought Lego creation is more than sturdy enough to carry the weight. Still playing in second-run theatres, THE LEGO MOVIE is also available on instant-streaming services and as a two-disc combo pack, with Blu-ray, DVD, and Ultra-Violet copies. Bonus features include audio commentary, outtakes, deleted scenes, and more. You can purchase a copy in the CFQ Online Store.
[rating=4] Must see for smart kids of all ages
Emmet is yellow, but the point still stands.
THE LEGO MOVIE (February 1, 2014). Produced by Village Roadshow Pictures and Warner Animation Group, distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures. Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, from a story by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman. Voices: Christ Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams. PG. 100 mins.