Thursday, February 13, 2014

Culture Shock 02.13.14: 'Lego Movie' fast, fun and deeper than you imagine

Judging by the children who shared the theater with me, "The Lego Movie" is a perfectly entertaining and enthralling hour and 40 minutes.

It's fast-paced, colorful and funny on multiple levels, which should satisfy both kids and their parents. But it's more than a movie. For children, Lego is the hottest toy of the age, inspiring clubs, camps and competitions. For parents, Lego plays to our nostalgia. Lego has been around since 1949, yet it has never been as popular, as omnipresent as it is now.

At first glance, "The Lego Movie" is only a slightly better idea than making a movie out of the game Battleship. Consider me a skeptic won over. The only thing "The Lego Movie" and "Battleship" have in common is Liam Neeson, who voices Bad Cop, a henchman who can spin his head to become Good Cop, providing one of the movie's best running gags.

Just as Lego blocks are what you make of them — the message at the heart of the movie — "The Lego Movie" is what you make of it. Produced by Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures, it's reminiscent of another deeply layered Warner/Village Roadshow production: Lana and Andy Wachowski's "The Matrix," plus a bit of Disney's "Tron."

The difference is "The Lego Movie" knows what "The Matrix," with its highfalutin pseudo-philosophy of raging against the machine, can't dare admit: It's more fun inside the matrix than outside. Live in a world where you can defy gravity and learn kung fu in an instant, or live in the post-apocalypse? Is that even a question? Like Willy Wonka, I'll take the world of pure imagination.

Chris Pratt ("Parks and Recreation") is Emmet, a construction worker. Like any good construction worker, he always follows the blueprints, but he takes that philosophy to the extreme. From breakfast to bedtime, everything he does is according to "the instructions," a kind of self-help manual read and followed by just about all of the Lego people in their shiny, orderly Legoland.

Emmet is more into following the instructions than most, until he spots an unfamiliar person lurking around a Lego debris pile, falls down a hole and unwittingly discovers the Piece of Resistance.

Suddenly, Emmet finds he is the chosen one, prophesied to save the world from Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an evil overlord scheming to eliminate all change from the world.

Lord Business wants everything just so, so that it will be perfect and according to plan. And once it is that way, he intends to keep it that way.

Naturally, a resistance group seeks to stop him, because, ironically, that's the plan in these sorts of movies. There's the beautiful, spunky heroine with the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool name Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). There's the wise, old Merlin/Obi-Wan/Morpheus figure Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). And there's Batman.

Yes, Batman, voiced by a scene-stealing Will Arnett ("Arrested Development"). Only this Batman has a bigger secret than the fact he's also Bruce Wayne, which everyone knows anyway. And it turns out Batman and his fellow DC Comics superheroes aren't the only pop-culture characters who appear, but saying more would ruin one of the film's best and funniest surprises.

It's unusual for a Hollywood product — and movies are products — to admit it's possible for corporate brands to coexist with creativity and spontaneity, much less admit a corporate brand can aid and abet creativity and spontaneity. But ask the kids playing with their Legos. They know it's true.

"The Lego Movie" satirizes bland corporate music and vacuous corporate "self-help" programs, but like Bad Cop and Good Cop, there's another side to the story.

Is "The Lego Movie" a 100-minute commercial? Obviously, but just weeks removed from the Super Bowl, where the commercials were, as usual, more entertaining than the marquee event, why is that a concern? Commercial art has been a thing since before Andy Warhol conned his way into art galleries.

If "The Lego Movie" teaches us anything, it's that commercialism doesn't have to be the bad guy.

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