Friday, February 7, 2014

More Thoughts On The Lego Movie

And now for my non-gender related thoughts on the movie. As with my other post, this will contain SPOILERS for The Lego Movie. Also, rambling. A lot of rambling.

1) Voice Work: I think Will Arnett as Batman and Alison Brie as Uni-Kitty really knocked it out of the park. Not only were they perfectly cast but they really seemed to have fun with their roles and give it their all. They also both had great comedic moments that they really sold well. Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius was Morgan Freeman, but he did a great job being Morgan Freeman. I thought Liam Neeson was a little disappointing in the Bad Cop role. He did a fine job but it was just a little disappointing with the bar that Will Arnett and Alison Brie set. I found Chris Pratt to be a little bland as Emmett but I thought it worked because his character was supposed to be somewhat generic and ordinary so he didn't really need a unique voice and he was never required to go to emotional extremes. I thought Elizabeth Banks was probably the weakest member of the cast. Her voice was too flat and I wish she would have given Wyldstyle a bit more attitude. Another actress probably could have done more with the part. Charlie Day was fine as Benny. There was nothing all that distinct about his voice or performance but he had a great moment towards the end of the movie. Will Ferrell was just alright as Lord Business/President Business but I understood why he was cast for the live action part of the film. As I said in my post on gender representation in the film, it gave me serious Jumanji vibes which I actually liked.

2) Animation: I thought the animation was fantastic as someone who isn't a fan of Lego. I will still probably always favor 2D/hand-drawn animation and a softer look but the movie was bright and colorful and I think it did a great job cleverly adopting a style that mimicked the sense of playing with Lego sets. Almost everything was made to look like part of a Lego set in the movie. The water in the shower, the bullets fired from the guns, the smoke emitting from the train, the rolling oceans were all done with Lego-like pieces in a very impressive way. Of course everything did not have that look. There were some written materials and a few scenes where things in the background lost the look of the bricks or individual pieces. And the abyss leading to the real world did not have the look of Lego pieces which really should have been a bigger hint earlier in the film.

3) Conformity/Nonconformity: The film presents a totalitarian state but unlike dystopian settings like those presented by Orwell, in Emmett's world, everyone is genuinely happy and pleasant. I didn't get a sense that the cheerfulness was forced upon them or that it was similar to a Pleasantville situation but there was an emphasis on positive energy. People followed instructions for happiness that involved saying hello to everyone (and other things I did not take notes on). The theme song of the movie that everyone in the community loved is called "Everything is Awesome." There is a marked contrast between the face President Business presents to the world and the real demeanor of Lord Business. The emphasis is on cheer and positiveness and Taco Tuesday.

The messages of conformity and nonconformity abound throughout the film. The construction workers are instructed to "take everything weird and blow it up" and build it "exactly how it looks in the instructions." The moment before he touches the piece of resistance, Emmett panics and doesn't know what to do because he doesn't have his instructions. Emmett is even more of a conformist than the other citizens of the state. In the video footage interviewing people in his life he is described as a "blank slate," "nothing," and someone who just says yes to other people's ideas. You might assume that since the film is against conformity that Emmett will save the day because he is "special" and there is something unique about him. You would be right and also wrong which is part of why this movie's message on the subject feels confusing. On the side of nonconformity, Emmett has strange but original ideas. When they need something that spins to attach to a wheel, he attaches his own head. He also invents a double decker couch which ends up saving our heros when their submarine is destroyed even though his idea has been described as "the worst." Metalbeard calls upon him to save them "with ideas so dumb and bad no one would ever think they could possibly be useful." But the plan he formulates relies on his knowledge as a member of this conformist society and not his special, unique qualities as a master builder. He tells them they must "follow the instructions" instead of building something unique because it's what their enemies won't expect. He teaches them to work as a team, having seen them struggle to build the submarine because they were all building their own versions of the submarine at the same time. This is a lesson he has learned from a construction worker and working as part of a unified collective. The way he distracts the robots is by singing "Everything is Awesome." Vitruvius celebrates Emmett as "the special" because his "mind is already so empty there is nothing to clear away." I thought this would come back when I saw the Think Tank that Lord Business created. Surely by trying to hook up Emmett's mind to the Think Tank it would somehow short circuit the device. Nope. Of course, that would have been a different movie that did not have the live action component. But when Emmett returns from the live action world, he is a master builder. So, individuality again?

And yet, when Wildstyle asks the citizens to ignore the promise of Taco Tuesday that distracts them from the realities of their world and what President Business is doing, she calls their liberation Freedom Friday (but still on a Tuesday) and asks them to exercise their imaginations and "break the ground and build the things that only you can build." So is the movie urging extolling the benefits of conformity and teamwork or uniqueness and individuality?

President/Lord Business' goal is to establish order. He wants to "keep things exactly the way they're supposed to be." Since he's the villain, this suggests that we should be against order and rigidity. He captures the master builders and hooks them up to his Think Tank where he uses their creativity to generate the instructions that drive the world he has created. Which implies that unified thought is a positive thing because it can be very powerful and because the instructions are what allow the citizens to be so productive (Emmett specifically talks about how they were able to build the giant tower/office building).

4) Corporation: Before you learn that President/Lord Business is a stand-in for Finn's dad who is consumed with his job (likely as an architect I suppose) the movie seems to be sending some kind of message that I was never able to decipher because of the live-action portion of the film. In the Lego world, Lord Business disguises himself as President Business and heads a company called Oxtan. I have no idea if that's an acronym for something or it has some meaning in another language but for the purposes of the film, it seems to reflect an anti-business, anti-corporation slant but it never goes anywhere because the villain isn't an evil dictator using a corporation to take over the world, he's a child's father trying to do his job. He also has the notable quip "It's not personal. It's just business" which feels like something an evil, unfeeling corporation says before doing something terrible. I'm sure it's a sentiment espoused by an evil CEO on multiple episodes of Leverage. I also felt like they were trying to say something about the close relationship between corporations and business and government but again, it didn't go anywhere as that didn't end up being the point of the film.

5) Commercial: This movie was basically a giant commercial for Lego. It featured many different Lego sets and highlighted characters and sets and franchises licensed by Lego. You are inundated with images of Lego products that you can go buy in stores. But the main message of the movie is also trying to sell you Lego as a brand and an activity. Lego is the brand of imagination and fun and possibility. Lego believes that everyone is special and that everyone is capable of building something that only they can build.

As with Disney movies, their inspirational message is focused on believing. When Vitruvius is training Emmett he tells him "All you have to do is believe. Then you will see everything." When Emmett is among the other master builders Vitruvius advises him "Don't worry about what the others are doing. You must embrace what is special about you." And once Emmett knows that the prophecy is a lie, Vitruvius tells him that he created the prophecy knowing that "the only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe you can be. I know that sounds like a cat poster but it's true." Now, not only is this an inspirational message but it creates the lowest possible barrier to entry. Go buy a Lego set. All you have to do is believe and the answers will come to know. You will know what to build. All of the townspeople are told that they should "build the things that only you can build." It's fairly clear that the movie is speaking to the audience. But in case you missed the subtlety of that, Emmett/Finn tells Lord Business/his father "you don't have to be the bad guy. You are the most talented, most extraordinary, most interesting person in the universe. You are the special and so am I. And so is everyone." Did you get that? And so is EVERYONE.

6) Target Audience: As a PG-rated animated film, this film is obviously intended for children. But it also attempts to appeal to a wider audience. First of all, I will say that this doesn't skew young (unlike a film like Tangled) and instead would probably appeal to a young audience between the ages of eight and thirteen. However, there are also references to older Lego sets (including an NBA Lego set) that are clearly targeted at older audience members who remember those sets. Benny the spaceman/astronaut is an older Lego character whose paint is starting to wear off. We see him struggling with a newer computer only to excel when he is confronted with 1980's technology. He is desperate to build a spaceship, recalling the set that he probably came with. This film also targets DC fans, making Batman a major secondary character with plenty of specific jokes. The film also sets up a fun dynamic between Superman and Green Lantern (voiced by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill respectively). As you can tell from my post on gender, I do not think this film is really targeted towards women. I think there are certainly signs that they tried to appeal to women but it still left me feeling shut out. Another demographic that I feel like this film might alienate is people who use Lego blocks for business models. The film implies that Finn's father is an architect. He tells his son that the models of buildings and towns that he has built aren't toys. He says "the way I'm using it makes it an adult thing." But the film rejects this idea of order and sets that are kept in place with Krazy Glue. It champions play over work. Which is all well and good but is that saying that Lego blocks are always going to be toys and that you shouldn't try and use them to make your city models?

7) Where's My Pants: There's a running joke about a bad sitcom called Where's My Pants in the movie. I'm not sure what it's trying to skewer if it is indeed trying to skewer something. I think it has something to do with keeping the populace occupied with mindless fare. Wyldstyle has a joke that seems to go along these lines when she says "you don't know me but I'm on TV so you can trust me."

8) Real World Elements: I love the way they incorporated real world elements into the film. The Kragle (Krazy Glue) was a fantastic reveal and it was a bit surprise for me at least when the "piece of resistance" ended up being the cap to a tube of Krazy Glue. And as someone who is more than a little familiar with nail polish, I also enjoyed the use of the Q-tip and nail polish remover to erase Bad Cop's good face.

9) Tropes: There are a lot of recycled ideas used to varying degrees of success. Obviously there is the idea of the "prophecy" and "the special" which is subverted nicely. There is the love interest who is initially impressed by the male protagonists abilities only to be disappointed when she learns the truth ("you're not the special. you lied to me [...] to think I was going to follow you to the end of the universe") only to then fall in love with him anyway because "he is the hero [she] deserves" and she must be his prize for saving the day. There is a romantic rival for the love interest's affections who does not appreciate her. When Emmett touches the piece of resistance, he has a Chuck/Matrix moment where images are downloaded into his brain, though this only returns when he imagines a creature that signals to Vitruvius that he had a vision. The explanation of the plan is presented in traditional heist movie fashion. There is an older mentor character who must sacrifice himself and who quite amusingly can't tell his predecessors (Gandalf and Dumbledore) apart. There is a core team with two minority feisty characters, one who is more of a tomboy and one who is more traditionally feminine. The live action portion recycles a familiar lesson about parent-child relationships as well as fitting into the father-son dynamic that is usually used.

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