Friday, February 14, 2014

The Lego Movie: Imagination & the Nature of Play

There have been many films based on toys, and even more films with tie-ins to real-life toy franchises. The Lego Movie presents us with both, but in doing so it manages to say something unique about creativity, imagination, and how we all approach the act of play. Living in a clockwork Lego city, the tiny plastic Emmet must rise to his role as. “The Special” and stop the evil Lord Business from putting a stop to their existence, brick-by-brick. The premise may sound less than inspired, but in The Lego Movie, toys come to life in more ways than one.

The Lego Movie’s visuals are incredibly varied and rich in detail. The film employs CGI to great effect in its attempt to recreate a stop-motion feel, which is undoubtedly the way the movie would have actually been made in years past. True stop-motion would not have been able to achieve the heroic visual scope on display here, however – thousands of disparate (and recognizable) Lego pieces fly across the screen in frantic volleys, creating exciting and visually breathtaking sequences and settings. Nods are made to classic Lego sets (such as the blue spaceman of the 1980s Classic Space series, who looks appropriately weathered and play-beaten and is hilariously voiced by Charlie Day), and there are very few things in the movie which aren’t made entirely of Lego – even the muzzle flashes of characters’ guns, to give one small example, are re-purposed flower stem pieces. The Lego Movie is full to the brim of this kind of inventiveness and visual creativity. The only problem was the inclusion of 3D, which felt tacked-on and served only to dim the film’s vibrant colours.

It’s rare that a picture which is ostensibly not a comedy can produce literal laugh-a-minute gags, through both pop culture references aimed at the parents in the audience and the slapstick humour and verbal wisecracks made for the kids who are the film’s target demographic. Creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller inject the dialogue with the same sauciness they displayed in their debut cartoon TV series, Clone High, keeping the humour consistent and the energy high throughout. The vocal performances are equally spirited and the characters are well-cast; I particularly enjoyed Will Arnett as the self-absorbed Lego Batman.

Even though it can easily be read as a feature-length toy ad in the vein of Transformers, The Lego Movie is brave enough to take potshots at advertisement, branding, and corporate greed, thanks to the sharp and irreverent script. The major theme of the film, however, digs past consumer culture and into the nature of play itself. Unlike other toy-based films like Toy Story or Wreck-It Ralph, which placed emphasis on the desire of anthropomorphized toys to have someone play with them, The Lego Movie speaks directly to the viewer and to the different approach that each of us might take to the act of play. Toy Story relied on the audience’s sense of nostalgia for a time when their young minds believed that toys were real and could exhibit human personalities and foibles. Wreck-It Ralph had a more subversive attitude, exploring why the framework of “good guy versus bad guy” is restrictive and untrue to life, even in the elementary world of classic video games. Neither, however, had the courage to validate an individual person’s unique approach to play. The Lego Movie doesn't try to suggest that following the instructions is wrong, or that making your own creations is right – rather, it posits that both approaches are equally valid, which is a remarkably shrewd choice, since the product that the movie is about also encourages both styles of play. This idea is presented in the film’s ending, which makes a jarring but well-implemented leap to live action in order to deliver this thematic payload. Expressing this core idea while retaining the humour, momentum, and sentiment of the rest of the film is the chief strength of The Lego Movie.

An interesting note: I attended a matinĂ©e screening, and there were no children whatsoever in the audience. In fact, the small number of people who were there were all in the same twenty-something demographic as me, which might suggest The Lego Movie inspires a similar nostalgic feeling to something like Toy Story. Then again, it might just mean that I’m not alone in my enduring love of Lego. I must admit that in recent years I’ve strayed from the more creative path, relying on the instructions to build complex sets – gone are the days of the plastic crate stuffed with a rainbow of pieces – but as the film itself suggests, that’s just my way of playing, and that’s just fine.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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