Friday, February 28, 2014

The LEGO Movie, a Review

I went into The LEGO Movie hoping for something like Wreck-It Ralph, last year's paean to vintage arcade video games--a movie that uses toys to illuminate something about living in the adult world, while mining the past for jokes. Technically, that is what I got, and yet The LEGO Movie doesn't quite hit the target it is aiming for.

I have a couple of theories about why that is.

1. Expectations.
Expectations are so important in how much one enjoys a movie: too many assurances that "you're going to love this movie" and "this is so funny" inevitably oversell the experience. Even if it is funny, and you do like it, somehow you don't like it  as much as you were promised.

I tried to remain unspoiled about The LEGO Movie, not reading reviews or listening to podcast discussions, because I already knew that I wanted to see it, and I didn't want to risk being oversold on it. Yet somehow, I think that is what happened. Somehow, the very volume of the discussions I wasn't participating managed to signal that this was something worth talking about. The theater showtimes page showed the Rotten Tomatoes score of over 90%, so even when trying to just get the information about when to see it, I got some strong indication that this was going to be a Very Great Movie--possibly even awesome. Even knowing that the signature song was "Everything is Awesome" may have fed into the inflation of my expectations.

And there really isn't anything to be done about that. I was aware of the risk, but it's a tricky proposition: how do you dampen your excitement enough so you aren't disappointed, but not so much that you just don't go at all?

Perhaps I could have gone when the movie first came out, and that was my plan originally, but life (and a nasty head cold) intervened. I went as soon as I feasibly could, and that won't change unless I stop making choices and just go see everything.

In any event, I am willing to concede that my disappointment in this movie might be idiosyncratic.

After seeing this movie, I did go back and read quite a few reviews, many of which started with the traditional Critic's Jaded Skepticism about whether a branded movie could be any good, before swiftly reassuring the reader that this one was. I didn't go into this with that kind of discouragement.

2. Uncanny Valley

Ordinarily, this term is used to describe the place where animation tries to look like live action, but falls just short. Human brains are apparently happy with actual humans on screen, or else exaggerated and stylized versions, but there is a point where the animation approaches looking life-like where the brain can only process the "off"-ness. That's not strictly the problem here.

Instead, there is a sort of blending of stop action animation and CGI that creates its own Uncanny Valley. The brain knows that actual LEGO blocks don't work like that. It's hard to point to specific examples, but some of the environments seem fudged--the water on which the pirate ship sails has an eerie curviness to it that just can't be accomplished with square edges. So at some points, I abandoned the storytelling in favor of trying to decide just how my brain was being fooled. Did they create the wave shape they wanted, and then superimposed LEGO forms digitally? And if "water" is made out of LEGOs, then what is "underwater" made of? And how relationship does the "water" in the "ocean" have to the "water" that came out of the shower at the beginning of the movie?

And then we are off into questioning the world building--how much artistic license am I willing to grant? Am I supposed to believe that everything represented onscreen is an actual, pre-existing LEGO item? Do LEGO sausages actually exist, or were they just created for this movie? If they do exist, why do they exist?

Once you are on that level of critical thinking, it's hard to appreciate the movie. Because the fundamental premise--this is a movie about LEGOs--has been undermined. It isn't a movie about LEGOs, it's about LEGO-like items that have been digitally rendered and deformed. It's inconsistent, which makes the jokes about the oddity of LEGOs no longer work. How do the figures' hands work when they are just claws--it doesn't matter, because other rules have already been broken, so there's no reason to expect this one won't be either. (For the record, I don't know if it was or not.) The limitations of the story are being flouted, and I'm no longer seeing a clever movie about clever things one can do with basic blocks--I'm seeing a simulacrum of LEGO.

I go into a movie willing to suspend my disbelief. In return for buying into the premise of the movie, I want to be told an interesting story about that premise. In this case, I go in willing to accept that LEGOs actually operate the way the things they look like operate. I'm willing to give them facial expressions for purposes of the storytelling. I'm willing to believe that LEGO televisions actually display programming that is filmed using LEGO cameras. I will accept that LEGO food is actually edible by LEGO people, and that LEGO showers dispense LEGO pieces that look like water and that water actually cleans LEGO bodies. But when those rules are randomly violated, then the fragile social contract is broken, and I stop suspending the disbelief and start analyzing the world critically.

3. Further Inconsistencies and Narrative Problems

I'm perfectly willing to accept Will Farrell as the voice of the Big Bad character, President/Lord Business--although, why "Business?" It's not an inherently funny word, it doesn't point out anything about the plot or the nature of the LEGO world, it's not clever wordplay in line with other elements, like the "kragle." I actually like Will Farrell better when he's not actually on-screen. But he's now done so many animated movies that he's bringing jokes from other movies into this one.

Most notably, he's reprising the "mispronunciation of words" schtick he did in MegaMind. There, the plot actually turned on realizing that his character is the only one who pronounced "MetroCity" as if it rhymed with "atrocity." Here, his character does the same thing with Band-Aid ("Ban-Da-Id") and "the blade of Exact Zero"--which doesn't even work, because the thing isn't spelled "Exact-0" but as "X-acto." Funny joke, except for the part where it doesn't work, and takes you out of this movie and into another one.

There's another serious inconsistency in costuming too, which I noticed around Wyldstyle. When she brings Emmett out of the construction world he's used to into the Old West, she gives him a poncho and hat to cover up his construction uniform. Meanwhile, she changes her punk-y leather look for a more period appropriate dress. How does this happen? It's not shown onscreen.

If these were actually LEGO pieces, it would be easy. You'd pop off her head from the one body, and stick it onto another, no biggie. But it has to be a big deal, because that's how Vitruvious was killed--his head was cut off. So the head can't come off the body without killing the character. So how did Wyldstyle change her clothes?

Other critics have noted the inherent contradictions of the story--the plot is set up to celebrate the value of free play, of using the bricks to build imaginatively, while LEGO the corporation continues to promote the boxed sets of bricks, assembled and designed to build a single item. (The market trend continues, as individual items from the movie are now available for purchase at $30 per set.) This is a fundamental disconnect between the branded movie and the brand itself, which is further exacerbated by the practice of selling kits to allow you to re-enact the movie, denying both creativity in building and in role-play.)

There is a further problem with the "imagination is good" message as it plays out it meatspace at the end. The final sequence of the movie takes place after Emmett falls out of the constructed world into the "real" world. He sees that his world is constructed in a basement on a series of tables--elaborate constructions made by "The Man Upstairs" who is, again (of course) Will Farrell.

And here the story turns "heartwarming." Because there is a son named Finn, who has come downstairs to play with the LEGO world. He's moved things around, and it seems like the movie has been the game he has been playing with his father's set-up. The two of them have a small conflict, resolved when Dad sees the error of his ways and the two settle in to play with the figures in the world dad has built.

But there is a threat--if son is allowed to come down and play with the dad's set up, then it's only fair that little sister gets to as well. The movie cuts to some disfigured Duplo characters invading the space, but not before we see the look of horror on the son's face. And this is the problem. He sees no problem with him being allowed to deconstruct and play imaginatively, but not his younger sister? She plays with them "wrong?" So there IS some value in protecting designs and not having them disassembled! There is a "right" and "wrong" way to play creatively?

Final cavil. I wanted to see the LEGO creations more clearly than we were mostly allowed to. Early on, there is a scene where Wyldstyle builds an escape motorcycle. The pieces didn't appear to have come from the surroundings, and the bike itself was never still long enough to have any appreciation for the creativity needed to build it. This problem repeated several times--a mismatched group of figures builds a submarine, and there is really no indication of where they are getting the pieces. Things just appear, and are incorporated into a design.

How much more fun would it be to see them source the materials? There is some hint of that as they are building the submarine: the characters call out which pieces they are looking for. Batman, for example, dibs all the black pieces. "I only work in black. Or very deep gray." But there is no corresponding discussion of where those pieces are coming from, or how they are creatively repurposed. They just appear out of nowhere and disappear later.

The giant mechs pirate Metalbeard, for example, disguises himself by transforming--yes, like a Transformer--into a copy machine to escape detection in President Business's office building. Which was cute, but what? He had far more pieces, and some of the pieces were far too large, for him to credibly make that transformation. Conservation of mass, people--it's not just a good idea, it's a law!

Same thing with Emmett's one invention--the double decker couch. At one point, six characters evade capture by hiding inside it underneath the cushions. But seriously? There is a major scale problem here! Earlier, when he was demonstrating the features, Emmett lifted one of the cushions to show the "cooler" that goes inside. Which was two single cylinder pegs. No way would any of the figures fit inside that structure--again, the limits of the actual bricks is dispensed with, undermining the whole reason for seeing a LEGO movie. If you want to make a movie about people who hide in couches, go ahead and do that. Pretending they are LEGO couches and LEGO people, when they are demonstrably not, is cheating on the rules you set up for yourself.

And that's my opinion about it!

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