Sunday, November 30, 2014

What I love (and don't love) about the Lego Movie!

If you've followed the Legos tag on my blog, you can probably guess that I approached this film biased towards wanting to like it. So you can take that as your grain of salt when I tell you that I found this film loads of fun -- and I felt that its clever and imaginative aspects were original enough outweigh the flaws.

The big item The Lego Movie got right was exactly the point the Lego Universe role-playing video game got wrong, as I explained a couple of years ago on one of my other blogs. "Lego Universe" (the game) was basically a generic adventure video game in which the characters and backgrounds happened to be made out of Legos -- but it totally ignored what makes Legos so addicting. You want to buy a given set because of the clever ideas they showcase in the instructions, and then when you get bored of that set, you can take it apart, put together the pieces (and ideas) in your own new ways.

The Lego Movie was built around the idea of how Legos really work. The tension between following the instructions and doing your own thing was the central conflict of the film (and neither was presented as the one right answer). I know that doesn't seem like much of a moral dilemma to base a film on, but it's a real question, and one that's unique to the world of Lego. So they took advantage of their assets to make something original.

Another original point I loved was the treatment of the prophecy trope. I just don't get what is supposed to be so compelling about the story of the young protagonist who is destined by prophecy to solve the universe's problems. I discussed this recently in Harry Potter and the three tropes, and then when my kids recently decided to re-watch the Star Wars films, I noticed they used the same damn three tropes. (Well, with one difference -- in Star Wars, but mom didn't sacrifice herself for her kids so much as randomly die when the plot required it.)

The Lego Movie gave us a far more interesting and entertaining look at how prophecies work. The film explored how belief a the prophecy affects people's behavior, and showed people continuing to hold their beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence (like the fact that Emmet was "the special" but wasn't a master builder).

One trope The Lego Movie unfortunately used in the traditional phoning-it-in way was to have the entire conflict center around the protagonists having to fight the villain who is evil just for the sake of being evil. As I've said before, I really hate this trope, and it drives me nuts that it is so ubiquitous. Can't we as a culture come up with anything more interesting than that to offer our kids? But I forgive The Lego Movie for this, and even for using the painfully unoriginal formula in which the villain ties the hero to a time bomb and leaves him there (to escape). I forgive The Lego Movie because Lord Business and Bad Cop were pretty entertaining as villains go -- and because insisting that films not use the "evil villain" trope would be to hold them up to a impossibly high standard, more challenging even than the Bechdel Test.

Speaking of the Bechdel Test, yes, The Lego Movie passes it. Not with flying colors, but, happily, one of the fun jokes of the piece (where Unikitty is listing off the things Cloud Cuckoo Land doesn't have) was an exchange between two named female characters. Overall, the treatment of gender wasn't too bad, but could have been a lot better. I essentially agree with this article by Tasha Robinson about how Wyldstyle's awesomeness served mostly just to demonstrate Emmett's awesomeness.

Although I think Robinson's analysis is right on the money, I want to temper it with a couple of remarks. First, it's not really true (as Robinson claimed) that "Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly". Wyldstyle has action sequences throughout and saves the day multiple times. The climactic win in the end was due to Wyldstyle's broadcast encouraging the ordinary citizens to use their own creativity to build whatever they want. Of course her brilliant idea centered around her great epiphany that Emmet was actually awesome -- thus proving Robinson was right with the second half of her claim about Wyldstyle's purpose: "to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner."

I mention my one technical quibble with Robinson above because I want to contrast it with what she said about How to Train Your Dragon II. I read her article before watching How to Train Your Dragon II, and thought about her claim about Hiccups mom, that "once the introductions are finally done, and the battle starts, she immediately becomes useless, both to the rest of the cast and to the rapidly moving narrative. She faces the villain (the villain she’s apparently been successfully resisting alone for years!) and she’s instantly, summarily defeated." And I went into the cinema thinking, "Oh, come on -- it can't be that bad." But it was!!

The mom's uselessness in the end of How to Train Your Dragon II struck me as really weird and incongruous because the action scene was just so damn long. Like a lot of films, the whole last section of the movie is a sequence of action segments as the heroes eventually defeat the villains. In all this time, they couldn't come up with one thing for this amazing mom character to do that is critical to saving the day? And it's the contrast with the Lego Movie in particular that makes the problem in How to Train Your Dragon II especially striking: in the action sequence at the end of the Lego Movie, every single one of the main hero characters (Emmet, Wyldstlye, Vitruvius, Unikitty, Metalbeard, Benny, Batman) gets an individual moment of doing something critical.

Of course, listing off the main characters like that gives another hint about the Lego Movie's gender problem: of these seven heroes, only two of them are female. OTOH, it could be worse -- it could be just one. Unikitty, by the way, is very cool and entertaining. She's not defined in relation to some male character. She's a princess, but her princessness is about running a fun fantasy land, not finding a prince. Plus, she has her own interesting personal conflict trying to remain cheerful at all times -- and learning how that doesn't exactly work (reminiscent of the "Turn it off" number from The Book of Mormon).

In The Lego Movie's favor, they cast a black character in a role that would stereotypically be played by a white character (instead of putting a black character in a stereotypical black role) -- and they played it up in a funny joke where Vitruvius confuses Gandalf with Dumbledore. I wish they could have done a little better at mixing it up for the ladies.

Personally, I'm the parent who is as interested as the kids in playing with our Lego collection. And I thought it was fun that the Lego Movie included such a parent character. The sad part is that if they'd cast that part as someone who looks like me -- i.e. a woman -- it would have been criticized as "tokenism" or as unrealistic or something. We're not at the point where I can simply watch an ordinary movie and expect to see a character I can relate to, in my own gender, and have it be perfectly ordinary and not even noteworthy. We've still got a long way to go, baby...

This point aside, the film has a lot of really clever, funny stuff in it. Looking at all of the amazing details of the Lego worlds in the movie makes me want to get to my Lego table see what I can build! (With the kids, of course.) We can make our own little world where everything is awesome!

1 comment:

The Sinister Porpoise said...

I have not seen the Lego movie, but I found "How to Train Your Dragon 2" to be unsatisfying on a number of levels. Many of the themes in the movie, while not exactly "adult" seem out-of-place in a movie designed for children. Sure, we get to see the rite of passage of Hiccup, but his father gets taken out almost as easily as his mother. This may have been done to show that the villain is powerful, but that was established earlier in the story. It may have been cool to see a Viking funeral presented in a cartoon, but it's rare to see characters die in such films. (And I will go see almost any film if it involves aerial or space combat of any sort. Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor is about the only exception.)