Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 09, 2014 9:45 pm 
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The mechanical encrusted on the living

Like most American blockbusters The Lego Movie is mainly physical action. Based on the game of Lego, it's an elaborate virtuoso display of tiny fixed interlocking parts creating a universe populated with buildings, figures, objects, all rectilinear and multicolored and plastic, yet, through the magic of animated film, brought to life, as seen through the eyes of its toy hero, Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt). What makes this one of the better animated films (it's by the Australian animators Animal Logic) is it's delightful, virtuosic, and fun for young people, but still manages to maintain a sophisticated, reasonably complex point of view. Its writing provides delight and meaning on multiple levels.

Lego pieces can be made into a setup that's never changed, and adults like making models with it. But that adult use in a sense perverts Lego's status as a game, its multiple shaped interlocking pieces being designed for constant recombination and play. Lord and Miller have unpacked the metaphors for human society of rigidity versus flexibility. The movie's real-world coda focuses on the tyranny of adults over children. Earlier, though, it also clearly if subtly -- without getting in the way of the fun -- refers to other tyrannies, particularly those of business and capitalism, bosses and politicians.

As in Toy Story the underdog comes from the world of a child's playthings. But Lord and Miller's film avoids the sentimentality and manipulativeness of the Toy Story animations and substitutes a cooler, dryer sensibility. Its toy protagonist and POV isn't a pathetic victim but a self-made proletarian hero. Initially Emmet is a naive, mindless Lego "construction worker" who takes silly, happy pleasure in everything as "awesome." But all is not complete for Emmet. He lives alone and has no friends but the objects in his apartment. His coworkers on the construction site mostly seem not even to be aware of his existence among them. But Emmet slips accidentally into the secret world of power, and, dodging the interrogations of a two-faced "good cop/bad cop" (Liam Neeson), eventually comes into possession of the "piece of resistance," a key Lego block that can explode, blowing up conventional rigid order, making way for creativity, individuality, and individual freedom.

This may sound like a heavy-sounding burden for what ostensibly is first of all an animated movie made for kids, just charming and imaginative entertainment, a diversion. But while not heavy-handed, these themes are clearly there, and grow very logically out of the Lego game that's the basis of the whole film, as the coda, plainly but still a little surprisingly, spells out for us.

Emmet lives in a city with construction sites, giant cranes, and mechanical gadgetry, that could be a giant playroom controlled by a finicky, obsessive, immature adult. The greatest danger is that malevolent ruling powers will stick all the parts of the world permanently together, turning the game of Lego into a rigid tableau, a self-satisfied masterpiece (in their eyes) that can't be tampered with -- a private totalitarian empire.

Emmet manages to stay unglued, win the girl, delight the child, and become the hero of his universe, breaking up its (adult-conceived) rigidity into exploding, miraculous, multicolored, mysterious "things." A nice feature of this movie is that sometimes there is stuff in the image that you can't quite make out, thus escaping the tendency in animation for the artists to control every aspect of the frame. Another virtue is that though this is elaborate, glossy computer animation, it manages to evoke stop-motion, like its primitive, charming Belgian analog, St├ęphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's A Town Called Panic, (2009) which animates plastic toys like Cowboy, Indian and Horse. Lord and Miller weave in figures like Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Batman (Will Arnett) as well as Gandalf (Todd Hansen), Han Solo (Keith Ferguson), and many others.

Too many, perhaps: they can't maintain the simple boldness of that Belgian film and The Lego Movie gets too elaborate at times, becoming too busy and diffuse, while also being replete with crazy jokes. It's too much of a hodgepodge, as well as obviously a riot of product placements. But all the complexity is tied together neatly in the short finale, where the voice of President Business and Lord Business turns out also to be that of the real-life "Man Upstairs" or father figure (Will Ferrell), the magic resolved into a child's dream, and a child's transgression (playing with his father's DO NOT TOUCH out of bounds Lego setups) that is forgiven. This ending is a little bland given all the satire of pop aesthetic and consumer conformism embedded in the bulk of the film, but it's classic. Otherwise, the nonconformist critic Amrond Whilte ("even" he, a story notes, likes this movie) is right in predicting that many reviews will praise The Lego Movie mindlessly, missing its salutary "anti-Pixar" bent.

The Lego Movie, 100 mins., opened in the US 7 Feb. 2014, in the UK, 14 Feb.

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