Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: The Lego Movie

One cannot fully evaluate the merits of The Lego Movie—a movie as fun for both kids and adults as the titular brick toys themselves—without taking into consideration the film to which it owes its existence, Toy Story. No studio on the planet would have greenlit this wacky, hyperactive, often-subversive, and really pretty weird movie had Toy Story not demonstrated to the hyperconservative Hollywood system that movies with all-toy casts can be successful. (Now we need a similar revelation for female-character-heavy casts, which The Lego Movie itself proves the absence of).

The success of The Lego Movie—following as it does the Toy Story franchise and the similar Wreck-It Ralph—introduces the distressing possibility that all the best kid's movies from now on will revolve only around toys. Whether that grim harbinger of things to come proves accurate or not, at the very least we'll have a curious little "golden age" of quirky kid fare.

I suppose it would not be the best use of my time in this review to tell you that "Everything Is Awesome!!!" about this movie; you likely already know that most of it is. Therefore, I will focus on expectation-management: what are the places where The Lego Movie falls a little short, so that those of you who haven't seen it don't get your hopes up?

Issue #1: Insufficient Attention to Secondary Characters

Toy Story managed its larger ensemble cast a bit better than The Lego Movie manages its smaller one. Apart from Batman (Will Arnett, nailing it, of course), whose love triangle with Emmet nearly earns him top billing, the secondary characters are Metal Beard (Nick Offerman, sounding like a generic pirate), Unikitty (Alison Brie in higher-pitched mode), and Benny the '80s Space mini (Charlie Day, basically being Always Sunny Charlie, for which your mileage may vary). Of these, Unikitty and Benny get one or two solid character moments, but are largely forgotten otherwise; Metal Beard has a good-sized introductory scene but little else to do later that couldn't have been done by any random support character.

This is especially a shame because these characters are brilliantly conceived and loaded with potential. I can't begin to express how warmed my tiny charcoal heart was upon seeing a character voiced by Charlie Day building an '80s LEGO spaceship very close in design to one whose instruction manual I might still have someplace.

My hunch is running time was the major determining factor here. The Lego Movie's world-building (so to speak) is strange and elaborate enough to require some significant setup. Contrast this with Toy Story, where, after just a few minutes, most every viewer will get it—allowing the story and characters to develop at a more natural and thorough rate.

I take some comfort in knowing a sequel is already in the works. The announced screenwriter is new, though; hopefully Lego II: Hard Plastic Boogaloo won't suck.

Issue #2: Just a Bit Too Much Sentimentality at the End

I don't want to spoil anything, but it gets a little maudlin right around the climax. I understand the reason for it—the subtext would've been too opaque for young audiences otherwise—but I noticed it anyway. I also couldn't help but find it a little distasteful in light of the movie's basis in merchandise.

Issue #3: Liam Neeson Was Miscast

I mean, I get it, they wanted the stunt casting of getting Nolan Batman's mentor/nemesis in there. And it's not that his performance is bad. But Liam Neeson's delivery has always been understated, even in Star Wars, and it doesn't suit such a vibrant and knowingly ridiculous movie. Morgan Freeman has a major role in this too, but he's got more experience with silly, and it shows here.

These are arguably nitpicks, though. I found The Lego Movie more fun than Wreck-It Ralph (probably because my LEGO collection was a foundational part of my childhood) and at least as charming as the Toy Story movies. The cast is star-studded (SEE I CAN DO LEGO PUNS TOO) and amazing, the animation is flawless and funny, the Batman stuff just never got old, and I can't think of the last movie I saw that was this imaginative. Nobody with any knowledge of LEGO should miss this, and no full-on LEGO nerds should wait another moment.

Afterthought: I saw this in 2D and I can imagine it being a bit overwhelming in 3D. The stop-motion-style animation made a few of the action sequences hard to follow, and while muddled action sequences are hardly new to cinema (animated or otherwise), the fact that whooshing bricks comprise most of what we see might make it hard to track what's going on in 3D. I'm speculating here, granted, but the bottom line is I'm glad I didn't shell out the extra bucks for 3D.

Star Score: 4 out of 5

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