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« 20 Days Til Oscar (1993 Flashback) | Main | Box Office: Lord Business Does Big Business with "The LEGO Movie" »

Review: The LEGO Movie

'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. 

Grade: B+
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!)

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Reader Comments (9)

How about Best Picture? I'm kidding of course, but it would extend the streak of Chris Pratt appearing in a Best Picture nominee to four straight years... Moneyball, Zero Dark Thirty, Her. Then again he still has Guardians of the Galaxy coming up. Fingers crossed.

Anyways, I'll be here singing "Everything is Awesome" over and over and over...

February 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Great review. I see two hilariously opposite objections from people who haven't seen it online - it's a total marketing sellout and it's anti-business (they call him Lord Business!). The idea that the movie could pull off both of these offenses at the same time cracks me up.

February 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I loved this movie. It is, like you said, a film that was made to sell more LEGO's. But Phil Lord and Chris Miller somehow by some miracle created something actually worthwhile! It embraces its absurdity, developed clever wise-cracking jokes while delivering a sweet, rich story that somehow all worked in perfect harmony.

Yep. A lock for Animated Feature and it SHOULD get in Original Song as well. You can't watch the movie and walk out NOT humming "Everything is Awesome".

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIrvin

I really think this movie is awesome. It embraces the whole concept of Lego. I do agree that the movie is a huge marketing ploy (I came out of the cinema humming "Everything is Awesome" and wanting to get myself a Lego set) but most of them are anyway. Product placement, anyone? Seriously hope it'll get 2 Oscars nominations next year.

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

Great review, Nathaniel. Most fun at the movies in a LONG time ('course I haven't seen Frozen yet). Echoing a tweet I saw this weekend, hooray for a movie that can truly delight four people of different ages and genders, with different tastes, at the very same time. Not since a viewing of Stardust, have we all agreed on a film's merits.

Casting Chris Pratt as the voice of Emmett was genius. Also loved Alison Brie and Liam Neeson.

For those interested, KCRW's The Business had a nice interview with Dan Lin, the movie's producer.

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Everything is awesome!
Everything is cool when you're part of a team!
Everything is awesome!
When we're living our dream!

...Now try to get that out of your head for the rest of the day.

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Whats wrong with selling more Legos? Best toy ever!

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Ryan T: Let's hope Chris Pratt doesn't have something happen to him so he becomes the next John Casale. That would be depressing.

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

This is one of the better reviews that I have read about the lego movie. I like how you were able to give great examples of how this movie in unique in it many senses. I feel at the end you hit the nail right on the head when you talked about your thoughts on the pre-movie. I think that most people felt that it was just something that they were making to be able sell more lego sets and games but after you experienced the move that you found that it was a great movie.

I my self had many thoughts and questions about a movie called the Lego Movie. I wasn't sure if is was just going to get people to buy more legos or if it was even supposed to have a plot. I my self am a big lego fan so I just had to see the movie just because. I was like a lot of people I feel that the plot was actually teaching us to use our minds and explore and that if we just keep to the "instructions" we can never reach our full potential. I felt that this review in way hit on that point and I find that very important piece to pull way from this movie over all.

Note: This is post is for an education assignment but my feelings and thoughts are true.

October 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCurtis

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