Friday, 2 January 2015

2014: Film of the Year

Happy New Year! Why not celebrate the start of 2015 by spending a bit more time looking back over 2015? I'll be posting a Best Of thing every day for the next week or so, starting today with a spoiler-rich piece on...
 Lego Logo
My favourite film of 2014 was much easier to pick than my favourite game, album or any of the rest. Of all my selections, though, it was also the one which gave me the most pause.

I'm aware of how few films I saw at the cinema this year, and how that affects my decision. I have no problem with naming a kids' film as my favourite, but there is the fact that The Lego Movie is now the cornerstone of a big lumbering franchise about which I'm not too excited – and, you know, the whole argument that it's a feature-length advert.

I think at the time of The Lego Movie's release, people focused far too much on that last thing. The number of reviews which locked the film down into 'good for what it is' – meaning, good for a film produced as a piece of marketing, or good considering it had to negotiate the whims of a major corporation. It feels like a typically grown-up way of approaching something that's so full of joy.
Lego PrezBiz 
It's hard to deny that this in the mix, and one of the many things that is interesting about The Lego Movie is how it puts that conflict at its core. After all, the film's main villain is named 'President Business', whose nefarious plan involves drawing strict lines between each world, separating cowboy Lego from castles-&-knights Lego from Star Wars Lego – pretty much Lego's business model over the past decade.

People have accused Lego of stifling kids' creativity as its sets become increasingly reliant on building a single thing, with instructions and exact quantities of serial-numbered pieces. That's right there in the film too, with the contrast between the freedom of the Master Builders' creations and main character Emmett's inability to stray from the instructions.

So, yeah, it's kind of impressive that Lord & Miller managed to use Lego's license to create a 90-minute review of the product that isn't entirely positive. But if that's as far as you get with The Lego Movie – either boo consumerism or yay sticking it to the man – I'd say you weren't paying enough attention.
Lego City
Even if you insist with engaging with the film purely on that level, it's not just the Lego corporation that is under examination here: it's the users too. The whole film engages in this, showing three distinct ways of playing with Lego through the Master Builders, Emmett, and President Business, but by the time it switches to live-action, this isn't even subtext any more.

Let's just grab some sample dialogue from the Lego-enthusiast dad (and Lord Business alter ego) played by Will Ferrell in these segments:
“This isn't a toy! … It's a highly sophisticated inter-locking brick system! … The way I'm using it makes it an adult thing!”
Yeah, it's not exactly subtle, and at this point we could branch off into a rant about the insecurities of fans of games, comics and a thousand other niche nerdy pursuits, but again I think it would be missing what's actually important about these scenes, namely the father-son interactions.

Initially, the 'real world' is shot like a surreal horror film, but it slowly morphs into a low-key family drama which manages to be incredibly heart-warming given the short amount of time we spend with the characters. That it's just a secondary strand of the narrative, which doesn't undermine the reality of the animated Lego world and characters, is much more impressive to me than the biting-the-hand-that-feeds stuff.
Lego Ferrell
This third-act twist, if you can call it that, makes absolute sense. The entire film has the joyful energy of a child at play, constantly wanting to show you the latest thing it's come up with, so it makes sense that it would turn out to be authored by an eight year old boy.  

Here's an amazing vista rendered in coloured plastic bricks! Oh, here are some police alligators! Hey, you might want to freeze-frame this bit to check out all the background jokes! Oh look, here's Superman and Shakespeare and Gandalf and Milhouse from The Simpsons all just hanging out! Cool!

This seems like an apt time to mention that the film is gorgeous. It uses deep focus in a way that's reminiscent of photography, so that I had to check whether the animation was entirely computer-generated or if it used stop-motion models. It has endless fun with the restrictions of Lego, both for gags – characters pulling off their hair to put on a new hat, horses that leap around without moving their legs – and for spectacle – meticulously constructed fight scenes; handmade title cards; the way that the Lego sea moves.

The Lego Movie is absolutely packed with these moments of unique spectacle, and if pressed, I'd probably identify spectacle as the single thing I want most from cinema.
Lego Bats
...No, wait, Batman! That's the main thing I want from cinema.

I've heard people point to Will Arnett's Batman as the best depiction of the caped crusader ever seen on the big screen, and it's kind of hard to argue with them. I love that the film's Bruce Wayne is more Christian-Bale-in-American-Psycho-businessdouche than Bale's actual portrayal. Plus, the self-centred older boyfriend with his own car who writes songs about his tortured soul is an excellent unspooling of the 'Batman should be grim 'n' gritty' argument. (You can make your own connections back to the “The way I'm using it makes it an adult thing!” here, if you wish.)

At the same time, though, The Lego Movie also shows what is great about Batman. It features probably the best-ever version of That Scene where the whole Justice League gets taken prisoner but Batman escapes to save the day later on, condensed into maybe three minutes of screen time.
Lego cameos
That's how The Lego Movie rolls. It's incredibly dense – I was tempted to add '...for a kid's film' here, but I did the right thing and slapped my typing hand instead. It's too easy to say The Lego Movie is dense/complex/dark/weird for a kid's film. You just don't need that qualifier.

One of the things that allows The Lego Movie to get away with all this while also entertaining younger viewers is how well the themes are handled. They are constantly being stated outright by characters, but the film uses them as fuel for the plot, or character development, or jokes.

Another is the use of a simple, familiar Hero's Journey structure, which all of this hangs off. To quickly recap: 

A hero (Emmett) ventures forth from the world of common day (Bricksburg) into a region of supernatural wonder (Cloud Cuckoo Land, and then the 'real world'); fabulous forces are there encountered (the Kragl and other artefacts from the real world) and a decisive victory is won (spoilers!).

Other elements the film borrows from Campbell's Monomyth include 'the Mentor' (Vitruvius), 'the Prophecy' (the, uh, prophecy), and 'wearing enemy's skin' (Emmett and Wildstyle wrapping themselves up in foil to disguise themselves as robots).

Except The Lego Movie is too restless and too smart to swallow this formula entirely. It makes it clear that Emmett isn't some special hero, which is actually what allows him to succeed. Even the prophecy makes fun of the concept. Its phrasing is childlike (“The greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times. All this is true because it rhymes”) and, later in the film, the prophecy is dismissed as Vitruvius admits that “I made it up, it's not true”.
Lego Crew 2

The Lego Movie does hold onto one of the most common problems with Hero's Journey stories, though.

Wildstyle, the film's primary female character, is relegated to the role of love interest. The film tries to address this – Wildstyle says she's pissed off that the Protagonist role defaults to the male character as soon as he arrives – but the narrative essentially hushes her concerns by making it Emmett's story, and arguably turning her into his prize.

The Lego Movie just about gets away with this because there's so much else going on. The film constantly contradicts itself, never settling into a lecture on why conformity is bad (it also shows why total anarchy doesn't work either) or why children's innocence is important (it also emphasises the problems of trying to artificially fix a moment in time), or dealing in absolutes of any kind.
Unikitty: Here in Cloud Cuckoo Land, there are no rules: There's no government, no babysitters, no bedtimes, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind.
Wildstyle: You just said the word 'no' like a thousand times.
Unikitty: And there's also no consistency.
See what I mean about stating themes but turning them into gags?
Lego Emmett
So why did I hesitate about picking The Lego Movie? Possibly because, for all the intellectual arguments I've made for why it's great, they aren't the reason I loved it at the time.

I loved it because I came out of the cinema fizzing with excitement about the things I'd just seen. Because I laughed and gasped along with all the other eight year-olds in the cinema. Because of a massive personal bias which will be probably obvious to anyone who reads this blog regularly: the idea of kids and parents being able to find common ground by playing together is super important to me personally.

The short scenes between Finn and his Dad give the film a way to sidestep the tedious climactic brawl of most blockbusters (compare and contrast with the last half-hour of 2014's other cinematic vehicle for the charm of Chris Pratt, the one with spaceships). Beyond that, they ground all those themes I've spent the last one-and-a-half-thousand words talking about in something real and personal.

Even after it's rejected, that prophecy actually becomes vital to the resolution of the plot, even after it's rejected. So let's look at its wording again:
"The greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times."
To an eight year-old boy, what is that promise except for the one thing you most want to hear from an absent, or just emotionally distant, parent?

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.