The Lego Movie – review

the_lego_movie_2014-wide

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.”

Everything is awesome in Emmet's world - even over-priced coffee.
Everything is awesome in Emmet's world - even over-priced coffee.

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.
Batman, Wildstyle, Unikitty, Emmet in Lego Wonderland
Batman, Wildstyle, Unikitty, Emmet in Lego Wonderland

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).
Lego Movie 2014 Good Cop and Lord Business
Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) with Lord Business (Will Ferrell)

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.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store

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

FOOTNOTE

  • Emmet is yellow, but the point still stands.

The Lego Movie poster
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.

Megamind: Cinefantastique Podcast 1:39

Megamind

MEGAMIND takes the usual superhero-supervillain rivalry and turning it upside down (or inside out). The result – voiced by Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, and Tina Fey – is a box office hit, but does it have a brain on its shoulders or is it soft in the head? Find out on this week’s episode of the Cinefantastique Podcast, as Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski take an in-depth look at the latest 3-D CGI film from DreamWorks Animation, makers of SHREK FOREVER AFTER and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. Plus, the usual assortment of news, upcoming events, and home video releases.


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'Megamind' Trailer #3

Here’s the latest trailer for MEGAMIND, the upcoming Superhero/Villain animated comedy film from DreamWorks Animation and Paramount Pictures.
MEGAMIND is set to be released in standard and 3D on November 5th. Voices cast includes stars Will Ferrell (LAND OF THE LOST), Brad Pitt (NTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE),  Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill.
Tom McGrath directs, from a screenplay by Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons

Megamind: November 5

Paramount Pictures releases this science-fiction comedy from DreamWorks Animation. Will Ferrell provides the voice of the title character, an evil genius whose plans are always thwarted by his opponent, Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt). Tom McGrath directed from a script by Alan J Schoolcraft and Brent Simons. Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, and David Cross round out the voice cast. The trailer makes the film look better than the company’s latest SHREK movie but not as good as HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. Can it surpass Universal’s DESPICABLE ME, which also asked audiences to identify with a bad guy trying to enact incredible schemes? We’ll have to wait and see…
NOTE: This trailer from Comic-Con reveals more of the plot than the more familiar theatrical trailer.
Release date: November 5
Megamind poster Megamind (2010) Megamind (2010) Will Ferrell Megamind and sidekick Metro Man, Megamind, Roxanne Ritchi Megamind and Roxanne Ritchi Megamind from DreamWorks Animation Megamind in a good mood
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Land of the Lost – A Second Opinion

The big-budget feature film version of LAND OF THE LOST turns out to be an amiable summer popcorn movie, enlivened with eye-popping production design, impressive make-up and special effects, enthusiastic performances, and a handful of good jokes. Unfortunately, the best moments are all on view in the various trailers and film clips available on the Internet, which makes the experience of watching the complete film somewhat disappointing. It’s not bad, but for a film that seems to have been constructed simply to string together a series of laugh-out-loud comedy set-pieces, the results are oddly muted, mostly mild chuckles dispersed at discrete intervals. Without a strong story to engage the audience, LAND OF THE LOST winds up feeling disjointed and episodic, but at least it is so eager to please that you wind up wanting to like it perhaps a bit more than you actually do.
The basic premise is ripe for classic comedy: Will Ferrell plays a discredited scientist who builds a machine that warps him into another dimension where past, present, and future co-exist, and faced with numerous dangers, he inevitably makes the wrong decision about everything. Chief among those dangers is Grumpy the Tyrannasaurus Rex with a brain the size of a walnut (but wait till you get a look at the size of walnuts in the Land of the Lost!j).
As long as LAND OF THE LOST sticks to Grumpy, Chaka the ape man, and so forth, it is reasonably amusing. It starts to go astray when a new plot element is introduced: it’s not enough that our characters want to get home; they have to save the universe from an evil villain. Ho-hum, where have we heard that before?
Occasionally, director Brad Silberling seems uncertain of what tone to strike. Although LAND OF THE LOST is marketed as a family film, there are a few slightly crude jokes (like having Chaka cop of feel of the leading lady’s breasts). And as if to convince us that this is not just a silly comedy, Silberling gratuitously tosses the severed arm of an ice cream vendor who pops into the Land of the Lost just long enough to be devoured by dinosaurs. If the intent was to convince us that the film’s jeopardy is realy, it fails, coming across like a bad joke.
Ferrell is funny as the pathetic paleontologist. Also good is Danny McBride as someone accidentally roped into the time travel adventure, who offers his ordinary guy reactions to the scientist’s blase acceptance of wild and amazing sights around them. Anna Friel is mostly given the straight woman role (she is even reduced to damsel in distress at the end), while the guys get to do all the funny stuff. Leonard Nimoy provides the voice for one briefly seen Sleestak character.
Judging by the footage seen in trailers and clips that does not show up in the actual film, LAND OF THE LOST was shot with a free-wheeling, improvisatory style. No doubt, much of this footage will show up as deleted scenes on the DVD. Too bad with all that extra footage, the editor couldn’t come up with 100 great minutes for the theatrical version.
UPDATE: I just wanted to add that any film that not only contains the line “Matt Lauer can suck it” – but also makes Matt Lauer himself say it on screen – deserves at least some small measure of appreciation.

Grumpy the T-Rex reaches for some snack food.
Grumpy the T-Rex reaches for some snack food.

LAND OF THE LOST (2009). Directed by Brad Silberling. Screenplay by Chris Henchy & Dennis McNicholas, based on the Land of the Losttelevision series by Sid & Marty Krofft. Producers: Jimmy Miller, Sid & Marty Krofft. Executive Producers: Julie Wixson-Darmody, Daniel Lupi, Adam McKay, Brad Silberling. Cast: Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, Anna Friel, Jorma Taccone.
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Land of the Lost – Science Fiction Film Review

When it comes to putting dinosaurs on the screen, Universal is certainly the studio that knows how, and in LAND OF THE LOST the dinos do not disappoint, thanks to the wonderful creature design work of Crash McCreery (who worked on all three JURASSIC PARK movies) and effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer (THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE).  They were all ably assisted by a very large effects crew,  including over 30 key animators who toiled away under Rhythm and Hues animation supervisor,  Matt Shumway.
Which makes thinking about all the animation Ray Harryhausen accomplished in each of his movies, entirely on his own, truly astounding!
Unfortunately, the comic premise which delivers Will Ferrell and his two cohorts into this “Land of the Lost” is mostly of a standard issue variety, making the film susceptible to the same charges that always plagued Harryhausen’s films:  “The animated creatures are great, but the acting and script are nothing to get excited about.”
Actually, the first half of the movie works quite well, and is not nearly as bad as it might have been, since as soon as Ferrell lands in the alternate universe we are treated to an fearsome T-Rex, whose immediately pursues the explorers across a great chasm into a conveniently located cave.
From there, we get a truly surreal series of landscapes provided by production designer Bo Welch (a favorite designer for both Tim Burton and Mike Nichols),  almost as if the trio of adventurers had stepped into a live-action version of Bob Clamplett’s delightfully subversive 1938 WB cartoon, PORKY IN WACKYLAND.
Helping enormously in these scenes is the  location work done for  at Dumont Dunes and Trona Pinnacles, in the California Desert National Conservation Area, near Death Valley that mixes quite nicely with the huge studios sets built on the stages at Universal.  However, what works in a 7- minute cartoon is much harder to sustain over the course of a 100-minute movie, and as a result, the second half of the movie suffers accordingly, since  it soon becomes clear the filmmakers are willing to allow anything to occur for the sake of a gag, even if it’s a gag that doesn’t really work.  Such laxity tends to makes the laughs become less infrequent as the film proceeds from one disjointed episode to the next, until Will Ferrell’s final encounter with the T-Rex (named Grumpy), becomes so totally absurd it actually makes things less funny than if they they had just played it straight.
Presumably, this kind of “anything goes” comedy would have worked  if there were actors like The Marx Brothers on board for the ride, but needless to say, Will Ferrell and his partners are simply not comedians on that rarified level, so are unable to elevate such slight situations and material beyond the routine.
However for all Dino fans, there are several impressive CGI scenes involving a a whole rookery of Pterasour eggs that are about to hatch, a heard of small Compsognathuses, some Velociraptors hungry for either ice cream or the ice cream vendor, and perhaps best of all, a male and female T-Rex team,  one of which is colored red so it can easily be distinguished from it’s mate, who meets an explosive end.
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