Great tricks with bricks

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Evan Wil­liams

The Lego Movie (PG)

Na­tional re­lease

AT my pre­view screen­ing of The Lego Movie, some­one from the Syd­ney an­i­ma­tion firm An­i­mal Logic was on hand to as­sure us that the film was “awe­somely, in­sanely beau­ti­ful and amaz­ingly spe­cial” — and “the great­est Lego movie of all time”. I hadn’t known there were any oth­ers. Even al­low­ing for some hy­per­bole from the film’s an­i­ma­tion de­sign­ers, this seemed like high praise. Then one of the an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tors, Chris McKay, who is to di­rect a se­quel, in­formed us that The Lego Movie is “not just an­other 90-minute toy commercial”. So what is it ex­actly? What makes it so spe­cial — apart from the fact it earned $450 mil­lion in cin­e­mas be­fore its open­ing in Aus­tralia and looks set to be the high­est­gross­ing an­i­mated block­buster since Toy Story?

To be hon­est, I’m not sure. It may not be a 90-minute toy commercial (the print on re­lease in Aus­tralia runs for 101 min­utes), but nei­ther will it do the Lego brand any harm. It was made with the en­thu­si­as­tic co-oper­a­tion of the Dan­ish toy­maker. Ev­ery­thing we see is as­sem­bled from real and com­put­erised Lego pieces. Not only is The Lego Movie made out of Lego; it is a movie about Lego. It goes to the heart of the phi­los­o­phy said to have in­spired the prod­uct’s man­u­fac­tur­ers: the pos­si­bil­ity of build­ing en­tire imag­i­na­tive worlds from dozens of sim­ple parts. The vil­lains of the film are those who want Lego builders to con­form to strict rules. The Lego Movie is in­deed a first — the first post­mod­ern, self-ref­er­en­tial an­i­mated cartoon aimed at young au­di­ences.

The toy it­self has been around for more than 70 years, pre­dat­ing the in­ven­tion of plas­tics, and ev­ery­one has some mem­ory of it. My wife re­calls one of our small sons rush­ing up to her one day to an­nounce in great dis­tress: “Mummy, I think I’m go­ing to die. I swal­lowed a piece of Lego.” For­tu­nately, emer­gen­cies on this scale were a rare oc­cur­rence in our house­hold, and a call to the lo­cal doc­tor soon as­sured us that the swal­lowed piece — as it turned out, two pieces stuck to­gether — would reap­pear in due course.

The idea of a Lego piece dis­ap­pear­ing into a strange in­ter­nal pas­sage­way ac­tu­ally has an echo in the movie. For Em­met, our young hero (voiced by Chris Pratt), things go sud­denly hay­wire when he’s work­ing on a con­struc­tion site and falls through a deep shaft into an­other world. Em­met’s un­der­ground ad­ven­tures take him to many dif­fer­ent worlds — the wild west, the mod­ern city of Bricks­burg, some me­dieval lo­ca­tion — where he en­coun­ters all kinds of real or imag­ined he­roes in Lego form (Su­per­man, Bat­man, Robin Hood, Michelan­gelo, Cleopa­tra, Dum­ble­dore) much as the dog­gie hero did in Mr Pe­abody & Sher­man, last week’s 3-D ac­tion fan­tasy.

Never hav­ing played with Lego my­self, I wasn’t sure if the prod­uct con­sisted wholly of shiny, in­ter­lock­ing plas­tic blocks or whether fully formed ac­tion fig­ures were mar­keted as well. It seems that ac­tion fig­ures are an au­then­tic part of the Lego tra­di­tion, and that Em­met, with a cou­ple of black dots for eyes and no ex­pres­sive fea­tures, be­longs to an early gen­er­a­tion of Lego fig­ures be­fore other brand im­ages were adopted. But how was I to know? Au­di­ences of a cer­tain age may find them­selves at a dis­ad­van­tage in this film. Ev­ery time I see an an­i­mated kids’ movie in­tended for fam­ily au­di­ences I feel the need for a new cen­sor­ship clas­si­fi­ca­tion. In ad­di­tion to PG (Parental Guid­ance rec­om­mended), we need a CG (Child Guid­ance rec­om­mended) to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion to adults on ju­ve­nile themes. (Over to you, Ge­orge Bran­dis.)

But to give praise where it’s due, The Lego Movie is a bril­liant tech­ni­cal achieve­ment. The di­rec­tors are Amer­i­cans Phil Lord and Christo­pher Miller, who made Cloudy with a Chance of Meat­balls, and the an­i­ma­tion ef­fects, to quote our An­i­mal Logic man, are “amaz­ingly spe­cial”. In ev­ery shot we can see those lit­tle plas­tic studs where the bricks are joined, and there are star­tlingly real­is­tic Lego im­pres­sions of smoky clouds and rip­pling wa­ter. As in most an­i­ma­tion films these days, the noise lev­els are high and the pace is fre­netic a hel­ter-skel­ter jumble of flash­ing fig­ures and fast close-ups, com­bined with the stan­dard Hol­ly­wood ac­tion in­gre­di­ents — chases, crashes, collisions — which or may not have some rel­e­vance to the story. But why so loud? Like the Mec­cano sets I played with as a kid (and when will we see The Mec­cano Movie?), the at­trac­tion of Lego, at least for adults, is that it en­gages young­sters in long hours of quiet and soli­tary con­cen­tra­tion.

The bad guy of the story is Pres­i­dent Busi­ness (Will Fer­rell), who is also re­ferred to, puz­zlingly, as Lord Busi­ness, as if the film­mak­ers hadn’t quite de­cided what to call him. I won­der if Lord Busi­ness was the name in­tended for non-Amer­i­can ter­ri­to­ries and some­how the two were mixed in the lo­cal re­lease print. Any­way, Pres­i­dent (or Lord) Busi­ness is an evil mas­ter­mind, de­ter­mined that the Lego uni­verse over which he pre­sides will con­form to strict rules of con­struc­tion. His three-word slo- gan is “Fol­low the in­struc­tions” — in other words, do as the in­struc­tion book says and don’t in­vent ob­jects of your own. To en­force con­form­ity and sti­fle imag­i­na­tion, Pres­i­dent Busi­ness wants to glue the Lego uni­verse to­gether with some­thing called Krag­gle — his se­cret weapon. Only Em­met and his cutie com­pan­ion Wyld­style (El­iz­a­beth Banks), she with the pink ears and enor­mous eyes, can thwart his plans. Em­met is in pos­ses­sion of some­thing called the Piece de Re­sis­tance, a Lego brick that, ac­cord­ing to an­cient prophecy, will save Bricks­burg for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Of course it all sounds mon­u­men­tally silly, but if you can fol­low the story with­out ben­e­fit of CG, it makes some wacky sense.

In­tended as a fam­ily crowd-pleaser, the film of­fers its share of emo­tional up­lift and in­spi­ra­tional mes­sage-mak­ing. Most of this is pro­vided by Vetru­vius (Mor­gan Free­man), an an­cient sage con­vinced that Em­met, how­ever timid and un­skilled he may seem at first sight, is “the most tal­ented, most ex­tra­or­di­nary, most in­ter­est­ing per­son in the uni­verse”. Vetru­vius has his own three-word slo­gan, “Be­lieve you’re spe­cial”, which works won­ders with Em­met.

But is this re­ally a film for chil­dren? Most of the lit­tle ones at my screen­ing seemed re­mark­ably quiet through­out — which could be in­ter­preted as a sign of rapt at­ten­tion, bore­dom, in­com­pre­hen­sion or in­no­cent slum­ber. I’m not sure which. And Em­met is hardly the most charis­matic char­ac­ter I’ve seen in a re­cent film. But on no ac­count be tempted to leave be­fore the end. The an­i­ma­tion is ter­rific (it must have cost an arm and a Lego) and the fi­nal 15 min­utes deliver a truly un­ex­pected shift of tone and nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive. I’ll say no more, ex­cept that the real vil­lain of the story is un­masked. He’s the guy with the glue pot, and he de­liv­ers a stern warn­ing to those who won’t fol­low the in­struc­tions: “I’ll make things the way they’re sup­posed to be — per­ma­nently!” It takes all of Em­met’s pluck and charm to win him over.

Scenes from The Lego Movie

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