In some alternate universe where this postmodern filmic collage was released about ten years ago, it’s my favorite film. Now, in 2014, it’s pretty great anyway.
I was supremely hesitant about The Lego Movie before seeing it. Not only is it pure corporate branding, but the trailers were sort-of awful. Of course, it’s hard for me to ignore a 95%+ on Rottentomatoes for any film, so fate intervened and held I was to see the movie.
The film, as it is, starts off well enough, cleverly poking fun at society through its Lego-microcosm by having its lead character, an everyman, take genuine joy in a life he has self-policed to fit with the produced, constructed life social elites want him to have. The initial jokes are pretty obvious, but I’ll run with it, especially when it introduces a character as brilliantly named as President Business in its first minute of existence. I also really liked the directorial duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s first animated film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, so I’m willing to give them a chance.
And then something happens: this film goes off the deep-end in the best, most vigorous, and most pleased-with-itself way possible. As the film goes on, all manner of new layers are revealed that fundamentally alter the nature of the narrative, not only reflecting the director/ writer pair’s commitment to exploring the endless possibilities of their aesthetic, but in fact commenting on their own self-constructed limits. Naturally, they aren’t about to say “yeah, Legos can’t cure cancer” or anything such as that to openly limit the power of the brand, but there’s evidence enough they are peeling the layers of their own film back in a semi-critical manner to actually explore the essence of branding, childhood, and films about childhood in some decidedly fascinating ways, by pop standards at least.
Of course, they also deeply appreciate the power of these products, the Legos, to do what they want to: shake things up and, above all, deconstruct the limits of environment. It’s a deft turn that the film gleefully, joyously hammers into our faces with visual and humorous aplomb. As the film goes along, it provokes a central tension in its narrative about an every-man named Emmet (Chris Pratt) who must come to terms with the limits of his imagination and overthrow President Business (Will Ferrell), who has taken over the Lego universe and subsumed its pleasured chaos under ruthless order. Things get crazier and characters from all manner of popular brands show up, are mocked, do some heroism, and eventually come to join Emmet in his quest. All the while, the film upholds and simultaneously challenges its fundamental “chosen one” narrative in subversive fashion. Now, I’ll get to the aforementioned tension later, but let’s just say that it relates to the ways in which subverting narrative and corporate branding by championing the very branded object the film innately must champion isn’t as easily resolved as the film wants to think it is. So you win some, you lose some, but of foremost import is that the has a whole lot of fun while complicating itself.
Visually, Lego Movie is a sight to behold, holding to its aesthetic in full force and going so far as to include Lego fire, water, smoke, and all other manner of effects. Perhaps more important though is just the sheer visual kineticism and energy on display at all times. While the film pauses, especially late in the proceedings, for some genuinely affecting emotional manipulation, most of the way through this is pedal-to-the-metal imagination, combining characters, worlds, jokes, and all manner of features just like the children who do the same with the film’s titular product. It’s anarchic, more-so than any children’s movie in years. It’s almost too much of a confection, but it’s so damn alluring and charismatic it’s almost impossible not to get involved with all the fun. Best of all – it keeps going. This film doesn’t blow its load or use up all its tricks early on like you might expect it to. Quite the opposite. It continues to introduce us to new locations, characters, and general lunacy until the film ends, and that’s quite an achievement. The only downside is that the pure revelry of it all runs the risk of turning the film into a game of “looking around the backgrounds and missing what’s going on in the central foregrounded narrative”. Toward the end, it all starts to become wearying, but only slightly.
The real star of the film though is its humor. This is a film with surprising texture and depth, but it uses its funny bone to makes its points, preachy as they often get. This is laugh-a-minute stuff, tackling all manner of subjects, broad and pointed, and packaging them into a whole that’s almost impossible to dislike. The film has plenty of candy-coated sugar-rush action to appeal to the eyes, but the verbal punnery and sly meta-textual humor on display never gets lost amidst all the razzle-dazzle. And it has a snarky, caustic spine too, even if it’s one made out of cotton candy. Make no mistake – aside from the sharp, lighting-paced direction, colorful characters, and bright, ebullient visuals, this film’s truest strength is its open-faced satire of corporations and tired products, especially the kind Hollywood produces week-after-week these days. The long-time blockbuster icon du jour, the “chosen one” narrative, and the Western individualism implicitly backing it, get skewered with particular insight. And it does this all with a sky-high 100 mph gleeful exuberance that’s hard to pass over.
However, as mentioned, this leaves a profound irony at the core of The Lego Movie. It is, after all, a product designed to sell toys, exploring their power and the fantasy that comes from them at every turn. But it’s also one of cinema’s finest parodies of corporate branding and similitude. It not only pokes fun at it, but it skewers it. At the end of the day, the sensation we get is that maybe, just maybe, once in a blue moon, when all the stars are aligned, and all that nonsense, corporate products can do something right. The film is almost chaotic enough to hide the tension here. Almost.
For all the film’s brilliant corporate-smashing, deep down, it’s hard to argue that President Business would probably accept and even champion, as capitalism often does, a little playing around, a little subversion, as long as it’s done with their tools, their products, just to make it seem like we have more freedom than we really do. As The Lego Movie implies, the product is but a tool that can create and inspire imagination; what isn’t mentioned is that it also limits it. You can create new things with your Legos, but you’re still going to want to buy the new Harry Potter ones or Avengers ones to add them in on the fun, subverting the characters by creating new ones based on bits of old ones, but also necessarily defining your new characters based on those old pre-determined ones.
For all its subversion then, this film will still sell Legos, and it will still help big corporations, namely the corporations which produced this film, by giving them oodles of cash, and President Business can still go laughing his way to the bank. That’s because these corporations, and capitalism in general, can take a joke – they are completely willing to adopt a self-mocking attitude if it’ll help them out. This makes people think what they’re viewing is something that challenges capitalism and corporate wealth rather than continuing it in a shiny new self-critical package. It’s the kind of safe attack that appears to challenge capitalism and tired Hollywood branding and packaging, but it really just reforms it, in fact appropriating attacks on itself for itself so that people do not see that Hollywood and capitalism are still running the show. One can imagine a sort of post-structuralist Lego toy product that openly flaunts a satire of the Lego name, and people would still want to buy it, thinking the company is cleverly mocking itself, rather than truly using this knowledge to repel the company. One can imagine this, but one doesn’t have to, because it’s been made and released into theaters. Maybe the film is self-deprecating, but self-deprecation has always seemed to turn a profit, especially when capitalism subsumes it for it’s own use.
If this sounds off-topic, it’s perhaps to the film’s credit that it at least invites such commentary, and at least it criticizes the sort of individualist “lone-hero saves the day” attitude in favor of a genuine belief in community through imagination. How often do we see that in a genre, and a nation, suffused with Ayn Randian individualism in its blockbusters (taken to the extreme in films such as The Incredibles)? And The Lego Movie, combining the sheen and well-produced craftsmanship of a product and the genuine wild-man zaniness of a child using, abusing, reforming, destroying, and creating with that product, does something so wonderful it is hard not to consider the value of this sort of imaginative corporate product, if only for a moment. The claim that subversion works best when under the guise of something nominally perpetuating the status quo only adds fuel to the fire. But that’s a dangerous claim, and I’m still not convinced this isn’t a dangerous film. It also happens to be a very good one, but I can’t shake the feeling that it is dangerous for the wrong reasons.