Fun, But Mostly Plastic
by J. Scott Southworth
Watch it… if you’re not picky about a clear or attractive visual style to your animated movies, and would be satisfied with some clever, rapid-fire humor in an otherwise colorful and pleasant animated adventure.
Avoid it… if you’re expecting Pixar quality action and animation, for the necessary blocky-ness of The Lego Movie’s characters keeps it from developing the emotional core that could have brought it’s storytelling to the next level.
Before I get into any real details of The Lego Movie, it is first necessary to level with one thing: The Lego Movie is intended to sell toys. That is its first and primary purpose, over and beyond anything else it might mean as cinema entertainment. Does this make it a bad movie? Not necessarily. It’s hardly the first film to enter production with that purpose (the Joel Schumacher Batman films come to mind). But the transparency of that motive is something that permeates the production, sometimes (I found) to the point of distraction. Sometimes on television runs, movies will be interrupted in the middle by commercial breaks. In The Lego Movie, the movie and the commercial are the same thing.
With that said, there’s a decent story here to be seen, if a derivative one. I suppose it is in an odd way appropriate that a story about piecework Lego creations should be piecework in itself. There are bits of Tron: Legacy and Wreck it Ralph here. A few moments may even draw inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s plenty of self-aware (and self-kidding) humor to keep things moving along – in fact, much of the humor is reminiscent of the sort employed by animated comedy web series on YouTube during the past decade. The characters are bland enough to be easily identifiable, and functional and distinct enough to each be memorable in their own way.
The minifigs (the name given to the little human-shaped pieces in Lego sets) are a problem, though. The facial expressions have been animated, of course, but due to being made of (virtual) blocks, there is a lack of physical expressiveness from the film’s many colorful characters. This can lead to scenes coming across as rigid and wooden at times, most often at the times when natural, expressive movement is most needed. This is a particular problem during action sequences, which more often than not ended up becoming an indecipherable torrent of whirling blocks and minifigs. Marital arts sequences are tough things to choreograph when the participants can only move six ways.
The 3D was mostly unimpressive; there are no grand vistas to be found in a film made of blocks (I don’t think that grand vistas awkwardly constructed of blocks count), and many of the sorts of effects that would usually be spectacular in 3D (a chase through clouds of train smoke, a voyage under the ocean) lose their breathtaking aspect because everything in the film – yes, even the smoke and the water – is animated out of little Lego blocks. In particular, I found the quick movement of the blocks during these sequences to be almost visually painful, as the pieces rarely seem to follow any natural or consistent pattern of movement. This is one case where seeing the film in 2D might not only be cheaper, but may ease some pain on the eyes.
Kids will like the film. It’s visually bright, keeps a good pace, and the characters are all generally likeable. There is the mandatory heavy-handed “message” attached to the film, but for the most part it’s integrated well without being obnoxious about it. It helps that the film never takes itself too seriously, and therefore never builds to a point of being overbearingly self-important about its lessons.
There are a few scenes in the film that are unnervingly violent, including a couple of beheadings. I suppose that it’s an easier thing to get away with when the characters are minifigs instead of people, but these characters have been established in the film as alive – wouldn’t it be horrifying if in Toy Story, Woody’s head was chopped off and his severed head was left to utter a few words on the ground before he died? The Lego Movie gets away with just such a scene a ways into its running time. Parents who think their children may be disturbed by such a scene may do well to keep away.
Otherwise, it’s a good, fun romp that’s a little less fun than it could have been because of its unique visual limitations. One might even go so far as to call it good Saturday morning television fare. Indeed, The Lego Movie is a bargain as a TV program, and if it ever comes to television on some Saturday in the future, I may sit down to watch it. I’m not sure it belongs in a movie theater, though. All but the most dedicated Lego fans may do well to wait until it comes to TV and streaming before checking it out. For parents determined to take their families to it, I can only say good luck, and afterwards, be sure to guard your wallet.