THE LEGO MOVIE

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By R. David

Published February 8, 2014

The phrase “an animated film that parents will enjoy too” gets thrown around pretty liberally these days.  Any cartoon feature that traffics in a fair amount of pop culture references and grown-up satire seems to automatically be deemed entertaining for adults, never mind how obvious, simplistic or downright out of place these references are.  Shrek and his donkey breaking into a dance number to some ’80s one-hit wonder or a Smurf dropping a Britney Spears jab does not automatically equal adult entertainment.

Animated features that are truly enjoyable for children and adults alike are not cloying, pandering, lazy flicks simply relying on the occasional, random wink and nod at grown-ups, but rather those that speak to the child in all of us.  Films that appeal to multiple generations are not simply ironic or sarcastic, but they speak to the heart; drudging up childhood memories, feelings and experiences.  Think “Toy Story” and the best of the Pixar films.  These movies have heart and imagination, not just a truck load of puns.  If the barometer of quality adult entertainment in non-animated films is guaged by things like a captivating story, smart dialog, and originality; that too should be the foundation of any animated film hoping to appeal beyond the kiddie demographic.

Imagine my surprsie to discover that the filmmakers behind the “The Lego Movie” understand this better than anyone this side of the Pixar universe.

At first glance, “The Lego Movie” could not feel like more of a crude, exploitive corrporate tie-in:  A movie conceived by beancounters and studio honchos who will throw any piece of junk into theaters as long as it is conected to a recognizable brand name to help put butts in seats (the “Battleship” movie, anyone?); and all the better if its aimed at kids (“Hey, they’ll see anything and because parents have to take them, double the money!” – Every Studio Exec Ever). But it is my sincere pleasure to report that this movie is not only the complete opposite of a film made with no other inspiration than pure corporate greed, but also the rare excepttion to the rule that animated movies promising to be for the whole family generally only pay lazy lip service to adults.

“The Lego Movie” is truly a smart, clever, original, joyous, vibrant and exciting adventure for kids, as well as the kid in us all.  It is a dizzying success, both technically – it is an animation marvel – and in terms of how throughly realized its story and characters are for a film based on tiny interlocking blocks.  It helps, of course, that “The Lego Movie” has 60-plus years of product history to build upon, and the fact that nearly every pop culture phenomenon has been Legoized through the years; hence why this film features not only Batman as a prominent character, but also Superman, Milhouse(!), and Star Wars characters and vehicles, as well as “1980-Something Space Guy”.  If that last bit of info tickled your funny bone, that is the sort of irreverent humor “The Lego Movie” has in spades; an example of how cleverly the film winks at both audience and its subject matter.

The film is a sureal funhouse of clever gags, surprising cameos and smart satire.  If you were to pour the “South Park” movie through a gentler, Pixar-esque filter, you’d get “The Lego Movie”.

The story involves construction worker Lego, Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), who wakes up every morning to the same routine in a world filled with Lego characters all limited to the specifications their character titles demand (“Cop”, “Fireman”, “Doctor”, etc.), most of which don’t question their drone-like existence, happy to be cogs in the wheel that makes the greater Lego universe turn.  They all stroll through their day singing their brightly conformist, earworm anthem “Everything Is Awesome” (good luck not spending the rest of your night singing its refrain).  Naturally, there are a few rebellious personalities who refuse to be confined by the personality roles they have been assigned and question their greater purpose.  Like Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), a rabblerousing, punk-chick who delights in questioning authority and dates Batman (Will Arnett).  She mistakes Emmet for “The Special”, a master builder who might just be the key to saving the (Lego) world from evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell).  Lord Business’ motives aren’t immediately apparent, but Emmet, who has feels like a fish out of water amongst his peers and has had always had to struggle to fit in, is convinced by Vitruvius, a God-like spiritual guide of sorts (voiced by Morgan Freeman, naturally), that he is the savior Lucy and her superhero pals (including Shaq – because, yes, there is a Shaq Lego) have been looking for.

“The Lego Movie’s” theme of being yourself and not being afraid to take risks is fairly well-traveled ground in animated features.  But there is a reveal in the last 10 minutes or so that takes this lesson even deeper.  And story elements and ambitions aside, “The Lego Movie” a rollicking good time, punctuated by a wonderfully irreverent and absurdist sense of humor (credit co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was similarly tongue-in-cheek).  Will Arnett’s over-dramatic, self-absorbed Batman in particular is a comedic highlight, and a perfect example of where this film succeeds in tickling the funny bone of adult viewers and their children alike.  Similarly, the film’s design and action sequences employee a winking charm; lushly animated in most instances (impressively, the movie is able to keep all the film’s elements looking like they are made of Legos, despite their movements flowing naturally, ie Lego water, Lego fire, etc.), but every once in a while breaking away to a live action shot of Legos on a string and a human mimicking explosive sounding effects, just to remind us how all this action typically takes place.  It’s an insanely effective comedic maneuver; randomly breaking the “fourth wall” and momentarily pulling the audience out of the illusion the extraordinarily detailed animation otherwise wraps us in.  The film is also willing to poke fun at itself and the insane breadth of the Lego universe, not just by shoehorning in some of the more random examples of pop culture characters who have been Legoized over the years, but by including many of the different worlds the company has explored over the decades; from pirates, to space, to high tech city landscapes.

“The Lego Movie” has some of the familiar beats of the average animated film and gets a bit bogged down late in the game with a few climaxes to many.  But these are minor gripes.  On a whole, the film is surprisingly engaging – yes, even for adults – and a fast-paced, funny and sweetly mocking ride that encourages imagination and creativity.

Just like the toys it is based on.

3½ Stars (Out of 4)

A WORD OR TWO ABOUT ‘BATFLECK’

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photo credit: npr.org

By R. David

On August 22, 2013 – a date that will live in internet infamy – Warner Bros. announced that Ben Affleck will be the new Batman in director Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” sequel.  And immediately, as is now universal custom whenever a major pop culture casting decision is revealed, the Twitterverse and blogospheres lost their collective shit.

Frankly, no matter who was named the new Batman, things likely would have gone down pretty much the same way.  After all, what else is social media for if not to bitch about pop culture news?  Well, okay; that and shit like Grumpy Cat.

Actually, for once, I’m not sure the Internet had come together in agreement on the perfect choice for the new Dark Knight.  I don’t think there was even a fanboy Top 5 that formed something resembling a general consensus.  I heard Ryan Gosling’s name floated a bit (which would have been a terrible pick) and there was some (apparently premature or flat-out false) indication that Josh Brolin was the front-runner (I can see that).  Beyond that, there was a lot of talk about virtual unknowns and guys that you’d only want to be Batman because you watch “True Blood” getting the part.

Ultimately, Warner Bros. decided to go with a big name star and someone who’s career is on a critical and commercial hot streak at the moment (if you’ve forgotten, the last movie Affleck was in – which he also directed – just won the Best Picture Oscar).  If nothing else, from a business standpoint, I can’t fault their logic.

Oh, but the all-knowing fanboy masses apparently can.

Early internet chatter on the casting news has been overwhelmingly negative; with comic book fans, movie buffs, and even people who clearly don’t really give a shit who plays Batman caught in some weird Twitter competition to determine who can deliver the zaniest pun.  The real crazies went so far as to say things like “I’ll never see another Warner Bros. movie again,” and wishing harm to Affleck so the role would have to be recast.  Hell, within 24 hours there was already a change.org petition protesting Affleck’s casting.  Petitions, fer cryin’ out loud, people!

Most of the outrage comes from people who, ten years later, still feel burned by Affleck’s turn in “Daredevil”.  I’ll grant you guys, he wasn’t exactly an acting powerhouse in that one, but it was a shitty movie all around; a Marvel Comics’ movie before Marvel started making decent movies about their second-tier characters.

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image credit: tasteofcinema.com

Also, Affleck was a much different actor – and all-around person, some would argue – 10 years ago.  So this also goes for the people bringing up “Gigli”, “Reindeer Games”, or “Pearl Harbor”:  Whatever work the guy did at the height of his “Next Big Thing”, paycheck(no pun intended)-cashing, “Beniffer” days is probably not the greatest barometer with which to judge his acting skills – never mind his ability to portray Batman/Bruce Wayne.

I used to be as big an Affleck-hater as the next guy.  He seemed incapable of giving a performance without projecting an irksome air of bland smugness into every role (because, I figured, he probably was an irksome, bland and smug dude and just too shitty an actor to hide it on screen).  And nearly all of his film choices in the first two-thirds of the 2000s were utter crap (except for the time – ironically – when he portrayed “Superman” actor George Reeves in “Hollywoodland“).  But he has made a career turnaround in the last 6 years or so that is right out of a classic Hollywood comeback tale.  “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” and “Argo” is as impressive a trilogy as any current director has delivered, never mind as their first three films out of the gate.  Granted, his directorial chops say nothing about his ability to play Batman, but it’s worth noting that he also starred in “The Town” and “Argo” – both brooding character dramas, not unlike Batman thematically– and to great dramatic effect.

image credit: film.com

image credit: film.com

Also, Superhero movies have a way of chewing up and spitting out the guys who seem perfect for the job, while proving those initially thought to be miscast as revelations.  Michael Keaton, generally a comedian and in no way physically imposing, as the first cinematic Batman; Heath Ledger, untested in anything resembling dark, psychological drama, as The Joker in “The Dark Knight”; relative unknown Hugh Jackman as Wolverine; and to one generation Robert Downey Jr. was a Hollywood punch line and to another he was, “who?”, when cast as Tony Stark/Iron Man – all were met with the same sort of venom-spewing indignation from obsessive comic book fans as Affleck is receiving at the moment .

Conversely; George Clooney, an up-and-coming Hollywood A-lister, was seen as the perfect choice to carry on the  Batman torch; Eric Bana was supposed to bring a certain gravitas to the role of the Hulk that often proved unattainable in big, Hollywood blockbusters; Nicolas Cage – still doing better-than-average box office numbers on his name alone at the time – in “Ghost Rider”; and Ray Stevenson (here’s your argument for – or against, depending on how you want to look at it – casting a relatively unknown TV actor as the titular hero in a comic book movie) was supposed to be the guy that saved “The Punisher” movie franchise.

Obviously, how those supposed bone-headed casting decisions worked out VS the supposed sure-things says a mouthful about trying to predict what type of actor will make a great superhero.

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image credit: nerdacy.com

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image credit: www.telegraph.co.uk

But choosing a quality Batman doesn’t simply boil down to bold, eyebrow-raising casting decisions. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale were the only Batmen to make an impression because they shared one simple but generally overlooked trait that Val Kilmer and George Clooney lacked: the ability to give two separate and distinguishable performances – one as Batman, one as Bruce Wayne.  Keaton was (surprisingly) effectively stoic and heroic as The Caped Crusader, but had a completely different attitude and demeanor as Bruce Wayne; convincing as both the shrewd business man and cocky playboy of Wayne’s public persona, but also as the tormented recluse of the character’s true self.  So successfully inhabiting both sides of the Batman/Bruce Wayne character is what made Keaton arguably the best Caped Crusader yet.  It’s a shame Tim Burton’s two Goth-deco epics with Keaton never truly mined the depths of the Wayne psyche the way Christopher Nolan’s films and – to an even greater and darker extent – Frank Miller’s comic adaptions of the character did. I would have loved to see Keaton dig even deeper into the Batman/Bruce-public/private divide.

Christian Bale pulled off a similar feat in Nolan’s Batpics, though I was never as convinced of his fun-loving playboy persona, of course that was no doubt an intentional choice on his and Nolan’s part to portray and explore a much darker Bruce Wayne. That makes Bale’s Wayne less removed from his titular alter ego, however he was no less convincing in drawing a line of distinction between the two.

The two Joel Schumacher Batman films of the mid-90s had many problems beyond the choice of actors to play Batman. Perhaps if they had been in films less cartoonish, poorly written and overstuffed with supporting characters; and that were less of a gaudy, fetishistic visual nightmare – maybe in completely different movies – Val Kilmer or George Clooney could have been a quality Batman/Bruce Wayne. As it is, their portrayals offer no distinction between the two personalities and no exploration into the mind and motivations of the two alter egos.  They give the same performance out of the Batsuit as in, and mistake both characters for fun-loving, gadget-obsessed thrill-seekers.  James Bond in a rubber suit (and this time with nipples and a codpiece, everybody!)

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

I have no reason to assume Ben Affleck – or Zack Snyder for that matter; he is the guy giving Affleck his direction after all – understands this distinction and will not make the same mistakes that Schumacher, Kilmer and Clooney did.  However, I have no reason to assume he will make the same mistakes either. Christopher Nolan (you know, the guy who gave the world what is overwhelmingly considered the most complex and narratively ambitious rendering of the Batman universe on screen so far) is producing Affleck’s first stab at the character; Warner Bros. would never allow another debacle the likes of the Schumacher Batflicks; and Affleck has grown by leaps and bounds as not just an actor but as a true filmmaker who, by that very definition, should understand the necessity of character development and giving an in-depth, multilayered performance.

As much as I’ve come around to accepting The New Ben Affleck, I too admittedly have some concerns about him being the right guy for the cowl. Something about his demeanor just doesn’t scream Batman to me. And even though I think he’s been good in several dramas, I have yet to see Affleck go really dark, or tackle any psychologically complex characters. And I fear as Bruce Wayne, he will simply pull out the same smirky, smug, smart-alecky posturing he coasted on for so much of his early career, before donning the Batsuit and then simply grimacing his way through the action sequences.

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But honestly, those are concerns I would have of nearly any actor set to take this role.  But that’s why they call it acting.  Ben Affleck may not have a lot of the necessary cred under his belt to justify him landing this gig; but then again, neither did Michael Keaton or Christian Bale or Heath Ledger. Producers and directors have to be trusted to know which performers embody what they are looking for in their characters and give them the part based on how they fit into that mold – and hopefully how capable they are of breaking it. My hope is that Warner Bros., Snyder and Nolan genuinely see that in Affleck, and not simply a big name to potentially beef-up grosses when a lesser-known actor may have brought a more complex performance to the table.

Only time will tell and I may eat my words (and I will gladly admit fault if that time indeed comes), but I say Ben Affleck will end up surprising us all, and his Batman will be the next step in his impressive career evolution.

Frankly, I’m more concerned that Snyder and Co. botch the whole ‘Superman VS Batman’ concept and set Affleck up to fail by sticking him in movie that treats Batman as an afterthought or stunt-casting coupe simply to get people to pay for another bombastic-yet-empty “Man of Steel” flick.  We’re assuming Snyder’s take on Batman will even want to be as dark and morally complex as Nolan and Burton’s renderings. They could be shooting for a much more family-friendly, Marvel-like take on the character(s) simply to set-up the inevitable “Justice League” behemoth and position it as an “Avengers”-style, easily accessible crowd-pleaser.

Christ, I hope not.

There too, though:  deep breath, remain calm, positive thoughts.