'If you build it, they will come.' They'll come in droves. It's 2014 and at this point, it's safe to say that Hollywood has mastered the art of pandering to the masses. They deliver exactly what we are pre-conditioned to want. The box office charts each year are now completely filled by franchises and pre-branded efforts. Frozen, for example, isn't a true original, but the 12th episode of the Disney Princess franchise that's been breaking box office records since (gulp) 1937. It's now extremely rare for a non-sequel non-pre-branded film to ever become a mammoth hit; only one "original" per year even cracks the annual top ten now (Gravity in 2013, Ted in 2012, none in 2011) which is a big downturn from the Aughts which themselves weren't as original as the Nineties.
All of which brings us to this weekend's chart topper, THE LEGO MOVIE. With its built-in nostalgia for childhood as well as a huge swath of pre-licensed characters to dangle in front of your 3D glasses (Gandalf, Batman, Han Solo, Wonder Woman, and dozens more), it's easy to approach the new hit expecting the worst. But there's no need! I'll use Bad Cop / Good Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson) to illustrate the situation and my own immediate mood swing as the movie built its case.
[BAD COP] The LEGO Movie would be a massive hit even if it were terrible.
[GOOD COP] Who cares? It's wonderful!
Bad Cop/Good Cop isn't the only bipolar character in The LEGO Movie. There's also Unikitty who is 'half unicorn, half anime kitten and non stop dance party'. She's absolutely militant about happy thoughts until she gives up and Rage Kitty surfaces. Neither of them are the first animated character to change moods as quick as a head spin. No paternity tests required but I suspect both characters are descendants of The Mayor from The Nightmare Before Christmas
...who was probably a second cousin himself to Regan/Pazuzu, though unfortunately for her the head spinning didn't help her change moods back.
(Where was I going with this? Blame the movie's abundance of characters from other movies for the sidebar!)
Family trees aside, Bad Cop/Good Cop and Unikitty/Rage Kitty are perfect embodiments of The LEGO Movies quick-change pacing and comic flexibility. It strikes the near perfect balance between witty adult self-awareness and silly childlike imaginative abandon. It frantically mixes our perceptions and nostalgia for iconic characters and tropes with genuinely hilarious lines and good sight gags. It's a bit like watching a less soulful Toy Story movie while on a sugar binge. I mean this as mostly a compliment.
Though it doesn't have the visual flexibility of many animated greats -- those blocky LEGO figures arent known for their moving parts and the fight scenes are sometimes just explosions of bright color -- it overcompensates with a rich understanding of the haphazard logic of how people actually play with LEGOs. One of the sweetest comic beats is a hilarious cut from close-up to long shot as the top of a tower comes off like an independently powered space ship. The action flips instantly from looking like top of the line animated visual f/x to clunky amateur playtime, complete with the faint "whoosh" like noises of a child providing the sound effects as the top awkwardly floats away.
The story, memorably reduced to slow motion "blah blah blahs" in one early excellent joke, is about an everday construction worker Emmett (Chris Pratt) who finds the magical "Piece of Resistance" (haha) with which he must become a "Master Builder" and defeat Lord Business' (Will Ferrel) and his evil plans to destroy the world with a weapon called "The Kragle". There are many other characters, but best-in-show honors is a two man battle between Vitruvius and Batman. Morgan Freeman, voicing the prophet Vitruvius, scores big deadpan laughs when he's spouting incomplete prophecies or surveying the insides of Emmett's brain which he describes as "prodigiously empty". But then there's Batman, with Will Arnett deftly mocking and celebrating the world's longstanding love affair with the pompous brooding hero. His theme song is absolutely priceless and Arnett does a better Christian Bale impersonation than the one Christian Bale was doing in The Dark Knight Rises.
I tried to resist the movie. I know it's a crassly commercial ploy to sell more LEGO sets, and video games, and dozens more LEGO movies. But by the time it's brainwashy musical anthem "Everything is awesome" hit, I was sold and wanted to see the movie again and own it at home. And that was in the first ten minutes. The writer/directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord previously directed the surprisingly worthwhile 21 Jump Street (reviewed), which was itself sprung from a dubious source. If they're not yet quite the new Kings of Movie Comedy they're definitely Master Builders of the art of pre-packaged high concept brand movies. Since they built it, you should come.
Oscar Chances: It's a shoo-in for Best Animated Film but don't be surprised if Original Song happens a year from now, too. There was once a day when sound mixing and sound editing nominations were unrare for cartoons. Is that day long gone? (It's just 6 weeks until the April Foolish Oscar predictions for the 2014 film year arrive and we start all over again. Yay!)