Discuss: Is The Success Of 'The Lego Movie' To Be Celebrated...Or Feared?

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by Oliver Lyttelton
February 12, 2014 12:00 PM
11 Comments
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This past weekend brought the first bonafide blockbuster of 2014. Despite terrible weather and the Winter Olympics as competition, Warner Bros' "The Lego Movie" came in just south of $70 million, marking it the second-best February opening, and the fourth-best non-sequel animated opening, of all time. More surprising, at least to some, was the wild critical adulation that greeted its release: at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, it has a higher score than all but two of the Oscar nominees this year (for whatever a RT score is worth). Hell, even notable contrarian Armond White liked it. On this occasion at least, the consensus is right, because "The Lego Movie" is a total delight, the best animated movie since Pixar still gave a shit, and by some distance the most inventive and enjoyable wide release of this young year.

That's wonderful and all, but given that the movie is a four-quadrant targeting celebration of a toy, featuring a masterclass in corporate synergy thanks to the showcasing of Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Gandalf, Dumbledore and various other Warner Bros. properties as characters, it's hard not to feel that a Pandora's Box has been opened. Or has it?

It's remarkably easy to celebrate "The Lego Movie" on the surface. The faux-stop-motion look of the film is a marvel. It's wildly imaginative, with more ideas in a minute than most movies in its genre(s) have in their entire running time. Like writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s equally imaginative previous films, "Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs" and "21 Jump Street," the structurally satisfying animated film manages to pull off parody so that it feels like celebration, rather than a cheap gag. It's laugh out loud funny, has a giant heart, and features a bold, potentially movie-breaking third-act twist that takes the film into surprisingly rich thematic territory. So yeah, go see it.

But then again, is a vote for "The Lego Movie,” at least what it represents on the surface, a vote for everything that's been wrong with studio movies in the last few years? Over the last decade, creatively bankrupt studio executives have shifted away from sequelizing everything they can get their hands on to, well, sequelizing everything they can get their hands on and/or greenlighting almost exclusively projects that are based on existing properties (comics, video games, toys etc.) in the hope that they come with some in-built brand recognition that makes the marketing job easier.

The results of toy-based movies ("Transformers," "Battleship," "G.I. Joe" etc.) have had mixed success financially, though it should go without saying that they've all been fairly bad movies. But the successes are tempting enough that there remain countless similar projects in development, from "Stretch Armstrong" to "Candyland," few of which have much creative promise in them. That's part of what makes "The Lego Movie" so dangerous — with a reported budget of $60 million, it's going to be wildly profitable, and likely to encourage studio executives to roll the dice on similar toy tie-in movies that will probably have much less thought put into them. After all, the lesson most executives took away from "The Avengers" wasn't 'let someone who truly loves these characters write them, and it'll likely connect with fans and the general public alike,' it was 'audiences love characters crossing over, so let's create our own shared universes and copy their paradigm lock, stock and barrel in hopes of the same blockbuster success.'

Even aside from the movie's box office, there's the hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandise sales about to be raked in. For all of its wit and innovation, "The Lego Movie" is still, at heart, a toy ad. A great one, because it gets to the core of what makes Lego appeal to the young and old alike, but it's an ad nonetheless. Not to rain on anyone's parade, but that makes it commerce, not art, and you don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist to feel a bit odd celebrating that. Is the movie really any different from a particularly funny, well-made Super Bowl ad? Because for all the craft put into those, I'm not sure I'd consider those art.

But "The Lego Movie" might be different. For one, as a toy commercial, it has no problem mocking its masters. The superheroes and similar characters are made fun of endlessly. For instance, Batman is a fratboy douchebag in love with his own darkness, and the chances of Green Lantern ever being taken seriously again — if they weren't already ruined by the Ryan Reynolds movie — are probably even slimmer thanks to his appearance here. It also helps that, with "Star Wars" and "The Simpsons" characters also popping up, this isn't just a one-studio show, but something closer to a reflection of the toys that a kid might actually own (though, disappointingly, it is a very male version of what it is to play with toys, for the most part).

Lego itself isn't necessarily beatified either. The movie's message comes down more to a celebration of creativity than an ad for the benefits of the product itself, and some of the company's more obscure ranges are mocked, along with the very idea of being an adult that collects and builds with Legos (which one suspects, in this nostalgia-happy age, is a significant proportion of customers of both the bricks and the movie).

But the satirical targets are wider than that, as Fox News have already picked up on, attacking the film for calling its villain President Business. The film's attacks on corporate culture, and a culture of uniformity, are there, and they're funny, but they're hardly razor sharp (believe it or not, the "Robocop" remake is arguably more pointed when it lays into its targets), on about the same level as Chris Cooper's Tex Richman in "The Muppets." But where the film becomes truly subversive is its message.

As Bilge Ebiri wrote on Vulture, the film serves as something of a response to the "chosen one" narratives of almost every blockbuster from "The Matrix" to "Harry Potter," not to say the virtually Ayn Rand-ian politics of Pixar's "The Incredibles" and "Monsters University." By acknowledging that the movie's central prophesy is made up, and putting the film's climax in the hands of those who are not extraordinary, but ordinary. I’m not sure I'd go as far as the Vulture subs and call it "practically Communist," but it's certainly egalitarian in a way that's rare for this kind of movie.

Perhaps more touchingly, it's a celebration of being weird. The movie itself is the strangest tentpole release in memory, full of space-chair-piloting Abraham Lincolns, and pirate Transformers with sharks for hands, and a deeply-repressed, psychopathic cat/unicorn hybrid, and a hallucination sequence that's more Ben Wheatley than "Dumbo.” It also sports an omnipresent earworm pop song not by, say, Taylor Swift, but by indiepop duo Tegan & Sara, a joke about Batman wanting to fuck Chewbacca, and a surprising third act shift.

None of this changes the fact the movie was created to sell toys, and will do a damn good job of it. Indeed, no movie since "Cars" (which sells around a billion dollars a year of related claptrap) is likely to set off a merchandising bonanza like this one. Far worse is that every studio executive in town likely spent Monday morning trying to inquire about the rights to Mega Bloks or K'Nex, or digging up old scripts about He-Man, Monopoly or Voltron. A successful toy movie — especially a toy movie with critical approval, loved by adults as much, if not more, than by kids — will only beget other toy movies, and studios are probably now thinking of any number of properties that are just sitting there, waiting to be exploited. There's no guarantee that the already in development sequel to "The Lego Movie" will be as smart or interesting as the first movie: Lord and Miller opted not to return for "Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs 2," and the result was a mediocre shadow of the original. Not to mention that the hiring of Jared Stern — writer of the loathsome Google commercial "The Internship" — for part two, doesn't really bode well either.

That's the dilemma -- on one hand, by smuggling smart stuff into a family blockbuster/toy commercial, you have a chance at not preaching to the converted (which, let’s face it, is the problem of most satire) and actually making a difference. On the other, if your satire is making a corporation a billion dollars, and makes them look like good sports while they're at it, then maybe you're just propping up the system further. For all the on-screen change of heart he goes through, it's hard not to feel that President Business is the real victor here.


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11 Comments

  • Some Guy | February 19, 2014 7:52 PMReply

    Pandora didn't open a box; she opened a jar. Get your facts straight...

  • yea | February 19, 2014 1:35 PMReply

    My kids absolutely LOVE Legos, and wanted to see the movie because they already love them. They are a fantastic, wonderful toy that hugely sparks the imagination, and can become almost anything you can dream up. I've watched it for years. I have imaginitive inventions spread all over my house and all over the table in our basment set up especially for Lego world. If there is any toy I am perfectly thrilled to see in a movie it is Legos. And the theme of the movie follows the idea of the toy- there are no limits to your imagination!

  • JKA | February 17, 2014 10:44 PMReply

    Dude, your thinking about all this the wrong way. a) The Avengers, the Lego movie etc. weren't created to sell a product, they were created because people already loved the product the movies were about. If all movies were created to sell toys then why haven't less successful products done it to boost their sales? And yes, they may make millions for the companies who own the rights, but so what? So long as the movies are enjoyable, does it really matter if their creators make money? I mean come on, even movies not made about toys are created to make money. Know one is going to produce a movie that fails.
    b) And please, this movie is not some kind of political statement. The ordinary people get to save the day because the point of lego is that you don't have to be a pro to build cool things. And, in a way, this again goes against the idea that the movie was made to sell toys because the company repeatedly insulted itself. Instructions, which come with nearly every lego set available, became a bad thing. And "President Business" was the bad guy- well Lego certainly isn't a small company. The movie was made just to have fun and express one of the childhood joys that is lego.

    c) If anything, this movie is a positive sign about companies that make movies based on their products. Its going to show them that by actually making a good movie, you can be more successful than just putting out any old film with the brand name on it.

    d) Advertising or no, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and even if the company did concoct the whole thing as an advertising scheme, than I am ok with that because the movie was good enough that they deserve it.

  • Kurskij | February 16, 2014 3:10 PMReply

    @matt goldberg and @jason

    Really said it all.

    It is a good article, but "make a movie - sell a toy" isn't really a new concept, while Lego is a pretty good way to illustrate it.

    We can look at "Lego Movie" as a precursor to worse things to come - and they will come - but why not see it as a sign for something better? Movies will sell merch, they diff go ever and will continue to.

    But with Lego we actually have a good movie. And Lego blocks would have sold regardless. Nothing changed really.

  • Matt Goldberg | February 12, 2014 2:52 PMReply

    This is a well-written article, but I would take issue with its two central points.

    1) This is an ad almost in the same way any blockbuster movie is an ad. The only difference between LEGO and other easily-recognized brands is that LEGO doesn't come packaged with a story. It's not like Transformers, which has a mythology. In a way, LEGO is better than any blockbuster adaptation because its filmmakers had to be inventive rather than go through rote plot points because their might be backlash otherwise. Every blockbuster is designed to sell toys and merchandise. That's how they make their money, not through box office. Box office is only an indicator of how merchandise and other ancillary revenues will do. If you're writing an article where you're critiquing how LEGO is going to sell toys, that same argument can be applied to every superhero and family movie, but they didn't get editorials because they didn't start out as toys. However, they still end up at the same place.

    2) Studios were going to make toy movies no matter how well LEGO Movie did. They might move faster towards a greenlight, but again, the critique leveled at LEGO Movie could be leveled at any successful picture. As you pointed out, The Avengers has bred a bunch of densely-packed superhero movies, but they probably won't reach the quality of Joss Whedon's film. The blame for the inevitably of weak imitators shouldn't be laid at the feet of the successful picture. Does business "win"? Sure, if you call blowing money on films people probably won't see. There's a reason they call it "the industry". But we should be celebrating the good movie rather than bemoan Hollywood's simpleminded response.

  • Jason | February 12, 2014 2:33 PMReply

    The fact that The LEGO Movie came out and is actually GOOD is something that should be enjoyed, not regretted.

    Hollywood has been scraping the bottom of the barrel for years to try and find the next big thing. They're going to put out bad movies one way or another--that prospect shouldn't stop us from enjoying the good movies of the genre that do come out. If you want to stop making these kinds of movies, you end up throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  • Frank | February 12, 2014 12:09 PMReply

    I think it was Alan Moore who said that one day we'd have movies based on cereal box mascots. The Lego Movie is one step closer to that.

  • spassky | February 15, 2014 2:45 PM

    Yeah, and Moore is also a sadistic ahole who hasn't produced anything worthwhile in nearly 20 years.

  • Manni | February 12, 2014 1:35 PM

    Seriously, what are you talking about :D. This politics of making movies out of commercial stuff are well-known for years now and The Lego Movie it's not one step closer - those steps were already made when "Mac and Me" happened. Dig it up and you'll see.

    If anything, The LEGO Movie is one step ahead from those "Known Brand: The movie" of previous years, because it's simply a GOOD film. Smart, self-aware and with heart and tons of smart jokes. What really makes me wonder, is why NOW people start to wonder about actual "bussiness" being behind the movie. What a surprise! A movie about famous toy was made not to enterntain people but to sell more toys! NO WAY :O

    Let's be honest: this film would make a lotta money, even if it would be worse. I mean, look at how awful "Transformers" trilogy was or G.I. Joe nightmares. They're bad, but "Lord Business" was the winner anyway. But here we are: there's actual toy-themed movie that CARES, that has heart, guts, wits, creativity and some way of celebrating what their toy really did. Is it bad? Is it really so shocking, that the company want to profit from something that actually enterntains people in a best way possible? Not to mention that from all of the toys out there, Lego deserves to be bought and movie smartly depicts why.

  • Marko | February 12, 2014 12:28 PM

    Well there is Foodfight!

  • Rimbidimp | February 12, 2014 12:12 PM

    Wait why would that be bad?

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