Why 'The LEGO Movie' Is the First Animated Film About Remix Culture

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by Sam Adams
February 7, 2014 12:13 PM
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On a weekend when George Clooney's The Monuments Men, once touted as an Oscar contender, is meeting with distinctly diffident reviews, the critical favorite is, let's see here... The LEGO Movie

Indeed, since critics first got an eyeful last Saturday, a movie based on the scarred, semi-opaque bin of plastic blocks that once lingered in your childhood playroom has emerged as the first (almost-) universally loved wide release of 2014.

This isn't the first time Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have spun straw into gold -- who would've thought adapting a forgotten '80s cop show or a book about edible precipitation would turn out well? But with The LEGO Movie, Lord and Miller have tapped into something profound about the state of 21st century culture. (Yes, really.)

The battle in The LEGO Movie is, more or less, one between freedom and fascism, the latter represented by the tyrannical Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell), who has turned the citizens of Legoland into brain-dead conformists. Consulting "The Instructions" the way A Canticle for Leibowitz's monks pored over their holy shopping list, they go about their pre-molded lives in perfect lockstep, literally marching to the beat of the same drummer. Even for a plastic figurine, Emmet (Chris Pratt) lacks an inner life, but he lives a happy(ish) life as a generic construction worker making identical structures that are apparently built and knocked down and rebuilt ad infinitum.

Lord and Miller's dystopian block-world has plenty of familiar parts: The hit (and apparently sole) TV show Where Are My Pants is a PG-rated spinoff of Idiocracy's Ow, My Balls! and its vision of themed worlds -- The Old West, Cloud Cuckoo-Land -- living obliviously side-by-side is an admitted swipe from Time Bandits. But rather than hiding their influences, Lord and Miller flaunt them, and not simply for the fleeting dopamine spike that accompanies the recognition of a pop-culture reference. In both plot and form, The LEGO Movie preaches the joys of mixing and matching: Put the head of a horse on the body of a Medieval knight, or make a craft that's half pirate ship, half woodland cottage. A third-act conceptual coup which I won't reveal here makes it explicit: It's about ripping good things into pieces and making those pieces into something new -- which is not unlike what Lord and Miller do with the assignment to turn a box of blocks into a feature film.

It's commonplace for children's movies -- even ones, like The LEGO Movie, best appreciated by adults -- to extol the virtues of invention and individuality: Be yourself, everyone's an artist, blah blah blah. But in The LEGO Movie, creativity is expressed not by starting from scratch but through the unplanned-for fusion of disparate parts. In other words, it's the first animated movie about remix culture.

The gags in The LEGO Movie fly fast and furious, and rather than try to smooth them into a continuous whole, Lord and Miller emphasize the gaps between them. Although the movie's animation (by Animal Logic) is largely CG, it emulates the herky-jerk 12-frame cadence of stop-motion, and the editing at times is deliberately jagged, as if to suggest a crudely made panorama put together in a child's basement. It's the cinematic equivalent of hip-hop in the days of 3 Feet High and Rising and Paul's Boutique, before the crackdown on music licensing forced artists to constrain their imaginations or at least better disguise their raw material.

Once it became clear that The LEGO Movie was on its way to rave reviews, critics started playfully trying to top each other with outlandish praise. (Scott Renshaw tweeted "Really don't want to over-hype it, but everyone at my screening of The LEGO Movie immediately understood the true nature of God.") For me, its frenetic pace was at times more enervating than electrifying, especially early on, when it evoked some of the scattershot, if-we-move-fast-we-don't-have-to-make-jokes tone of Tim & Eric. But as it gathers steam, it also takes on weight, like a pop song that burrows into your brain and rearranges your thoughts while you think you've forgotten it.

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Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

The fantastically liberating concept of The LEGO Movie, then, is one that's both fundamental to the toy on which it's based, and a lesson for every filmmaker handed a brand-name and told to go build something with it. Because the magic of these little blocks for youngsters has always been what happens when you take a few pieces from the Harry Potter set and some from the pirate ship and see what happens when you stick them onto those Star Wars vehicles. Lord and Miller have taken that childlike sense of possibility and applied it to the whole concept of a blockbuster. 

Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle

The movie is a wonderful surprise, cleverly written and executed brick by brick with a visual panache. Filled with humor and action, the Warner Bros. movie pulls off an emotional finish that rivals some of Pixar's best work. You can argue -- and not sound completely crazy -- that this is a better film than a few recent Academy Awards best picture nominees.

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

I’m probably overselling it, but at one point during The LEGO Movie, I found myself thinking, "This is it. This is the one. This is the film that our entire shared experience of pop culture has been building towards."

Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

In sequel-crazy Hollywood, where corporate partnerships increasingly are calling the shots, Lord and Miller are the best in the business at making creative, intelligent comedies out of pre-existing properties such as Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street. They care, unlike the paycheck-cashers who churn out movie versions of Hasbro toys as though they're just connecting starlet A to plot point B by rote.

David Fear, Nashville Scene

Call it Fisher-Price's My First Joseph Campbell, a boilerplate tale of a hero with a thousand faces and twice as many interchangeable outfits. But narrative doesn't matter here, any more than it really matters to a child (recommended age: 8 to 14) who throws away the instruction booklet and whiles the hours by making mutant hybrids out of pilfered spare parts.

James Rocchi, Cinephiled

I thought from Lord and Miller’s prior work (including the dizzy, silly and razor-sharp Clone High) that they might be able to make The LEGO Movie into something good-ish. And yet what left me not merely amused but amazed, not merely diverted but instead delighted was the level of real heart and soul Lord and Miller put into their plastic-and-pop-culture universe.

Keith Phipps, The Dissolve

Lord and Miller tap into why LEGO has remained so popular for so long: With enough bricks and inspiration, kids can make little worlds all their own -- then take them apart and rearrange them on a whim.

Robbie Collin, Telegraph

Andy Warhol would have been knocked sideways by The LEGO Movie. The new animation from Warner Bros. takes art and commerce and clicks them together as naturally and satisfyingly as a pair of plastic bricks on their way to becoming a castle or spaceship. Never before have I felt less like a film was selling me a product, and then left the cinema more desperate to fill my house with the product it wasn’t selling.

Dana Stevens, Slate

As Lord and Miller skillfully balance an impressive array of narrative and thematic spinning plates -- order and chaos, adults and children, practicality and magic, the real and the imaginary -- it becomes clear even if this anarchic celebration of the creative capacity of play centers around the struggles of one-and-a-half-inch-tall minifigures, it’s built on a distinctly human scale.

Armond White, City Arts

Millennial conformity is attacked in Emmet's anxious need for instruction -- he seeks a manual for life that will confirm "How to Fit In. Be Liked. Be Happy." That cowardly affirmation could be the motto for film critics as well as Pixar drones.

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1 Comment

  • Klarion | February 11, 2014 11:04 AMReply

    The Warhol comment gives it away. As branded myths get diluted (their underlying illusions are made visible), a new force is necessary to revive them. That's what Warhol did, lend the bizarre respectability of a collector class: now you must observe the brand in a rarified setting. That's a frightening transition, one that's occurring here as well. Instead of letting children be the final arbiters of this realm, adults are hired to revive and transition this plastic medium into a more rarified setting (the playroom to the theater). However clever, Lego doesn't evade the basic nightmares of the materialist-state: you are what your myths are built from. And here, they're fossil fuel derived forms that gain their magic from socially contrived conflicts (and individual fantasy), now coopted by the corporate state at all levels of advertising to make their viral reach fantasmal. Dominant. We won't be fooled again or we want to be fooled again. Take your pick.

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