Great tricks with bricks
The Lego Movie (PG)
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