The Lego Movie’s capitalist tour de force restores satire to animation
A $60 million animated film that looks as cheap as The Lego Movie must be some kind of avant-garde prank. Styled to resemble the punch pressed, interlocking plastic chips kids play with to build crude, child-proof versions of…everything, the trademark bright primary colors are muted and photographed bizarrely with carefully adjusted blur. Viewers are forced into virtually squatting-down for child’s-eye close-up scrutiny of the miniature pieces–as if by squinting at the chips (in 3D!) one joined a child’s imagination.
Refusing slickness recalls the ironic lo-fi look of Spike Jonze’s $100 million Where the Wild Things Are, one of the most original children’s movies ever made, whose fantasy dimension worked well on an adult level. The Lego Movie’s odd style (from Australian F/X house Animal Logic) comes close to that achievement: It is a proudly capitalist tour de force that actively rejects the totalitarian implications of such technological wonders as Pixar.
Even The Lego Movie’s plot is anti-Pixar: Lego-man protagonist Emmet (Chris Pratt), a construction worker who envies becoming a “Master Builder” (Ibsen gag noted) ponders his identity as well as his conformist society. He enters a make-believe realm where the struggle for power is not just mythological but a satire of dominant pop legends (from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings). Emmet awakens simultaneously to puberty (his attraction to female rebel Wyldstyle who has Betty Rubble eyes) and an awareness of political rebellion.
It is the totally unexpected political humor of The Lego Movie that makes up for its visual…shall we say, challenge. Any animated film that goes against the placid pretty perfectionism of Pixar has to be a work of political opposition and The Lego Movie’s first two-thirds is a reminder how irreverent and nonpartisan political satire used to be: 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.
The beehive society’s national anthem cheers “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!” to a manic, incessant beat. Forced complacency (unconscious hegemony) distracts the toy proletariat who worship an idealized leader, President Business, soon revealed as the nefarious, micromanaging ruler of the subconscious, Lord Business–which places Al Capp’s General Bullmoose somewhere near the White House. (Lord Business threatens a dissident: “Are you going to be stuck having a tea party with your mom and dad?”)
Emmet must find “The piece of resistance,” which resembles a Lego block but has a mysterious Ring-like property, in order to prevent Lord Business from releasing “The Kragle” (a stultifying antidote to The Force) upon the populace. This quest becomes a jamboree of non-stop cultural parodies taking Emmet, Wyldstyle and numerous Lego versions of pop icons and idols to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a super toy store/haven (“No government. No negativity”) where the consumerist impulse receives healthy mockery, not Pixar sentimentality. Directors-screenwriters team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller must be credited for resisting every kind of cuteness. Despite the frowzy, squinty esthetic, they turn the inherent adorability of toys and cartoons into a commentary on cultural conformity.
This isn’t cheap anarchy but a fulfillment of the capitalist freedom to scoff. The Lego Movie shows true irreverence in its joke on TV’s indignities (“Where’s My Pants?”), middlebrow Peter Jacksonism (Middle Earth logo-ized as Middle Zealand) and recent Lincolnesque sanctimony (“A house divided…is better than this”) including jabs at Warner Bros’ own franchises.
Advancing on the use of CGI and stop-motion animation, some of The Lego Movie’s chase sequences move uniquely–as if Lord and Miller got the message of Spielberg’s magnificent, convulsive The Adventures of Tintin, calling for a new, tactile vision of animation. Shill critics may praise The Lego Movie as thoughtlessly as they champion Pixar (and this film’s weak, unfocussed live-action framing device doesn’t hit hard enough to shake critics out of their lockstep hypemania) but just because reviewers confuse this with Pixar doesn’t mean that you should. The look of The Lego Movie is a conundrum but when a Lego William Shakespeare figure threw off his hat and protested “Rubbish!” I chuckled.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair