This past weekend brought the first bonafide blockbuster of 2014. Despite terrible weather and the Winter Olympics as competition, Warner Bros‘ “The Lego Movie” came in just south of $70 million, marking it the second-best February opening, and the fourth-best non-sequel animated opening, of all time. More surprising, at least to some, was the wild critical adulation that greeted its release: at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, it has a higher score than all but two of the Oscar nominees this year (for whatever a RT score is worth). Hell, even notable contrarian Armond White liked it. On this occasion at least, the consensus is right, because “The Lego Movie” is a total delight, the best animated movie since Pixar still gave a shit, and by some distance the most inventive and enjoyable wide release of this young year.
That’s wonderful and all, but given that the movie is a four-quadrant targeting celebration of a toy, featuring a masterclass in corporate synergy thanks to the showcasing of Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Gandalf, Dumbledore and various other Warner Bros. properties as characters, it’s hard not to feel that a Pandora’s Box has been opened. Or has it?
It’s remarkably easy to celebrate “The Lego Movie” on the surface. The faux-stop-motion look of the film is a marvel. It’s wildly imaginative, with more ideas in a minute than most movies in its genre(s) have in their entire running time. Like writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s equally imaginative previous films, “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs” and “21 Jump Street,” the structurally satisfying animated film manages to pull off parody so that it feels like celebration, rather than a cheap gag. It’s laugh out loud funny, has a giant heart, and features a bold, potentially movie-breaking third-act twist that takes the film into surprisingly rich thematic territory. So yeah, go see it.
But then again, is a vote for “The Lego Movie,” at least what it represents on the surface, a vote for everything that’s been wrong with studio movies in the last few years? Over the last decade, creatively bankrupt studio executives have shifted away from sequelizing everything they can get their hands on to, well, sequelizing everything they can get their hands on and/or greenlighting almost exclusively projects that are based on existing properties (comics, video games, toys etc.) in the hope that they come with some in-built brand recognition that makes the marketing job easier.
The results of toy-based movies (“Transformers,” “Battleship,” “G.I. Joe” etc.) have had mixed success financially, though it should go without saying that they’ve all been fairly bad movies. But the successes are tempting enough that there remain countless similar projects in development, from “Stretch Armstrong” to “Candyland,” few of which have much creative promise in them. That’s part of what makes “The Lego Movie” so dangerous — with a reported budget of $60 million, it’s going to be wildly profitable, and likely to encourage studio executives to roll the dice on similar toy tie-in movies that will probably have much less thought put into them. After all, the lesson most executives took away from “The Avengers” wasn’t ‘let someone who truly loves these characters write them, and it’ll likely connect with fans and the general public alike,’ it was ‘audiences love characters crossing over, so let’s create our own shared universes and copy their paradigm lock, stock and barrel in hopes of the same blockbuster success.’
Even aside from the movie’s box office, there’s the hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandise sales about to be raked in. For all of its wit and innovation, “The Lego Movie” is still, at heart, a toy ad. A great one, because it gets to the core of what makes Lego appeal to the young and old alike, but it’s an ad nonetheless. Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but that makes it commerce, not art, and you don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist to feel a bit odd celebrating that. Is the movie really any different from a particularly funny, well-made Super Bowl ad? Because for all the craft put into those, I’m not sure I’d consider those art.
But “The Lego Movie” might be different. For one, as a toy commercial, it has no problem mocking its masters. The superheroes and similar characters are made fun of endlessly. For instance, Batman is a fratboy douchebag in love with his own darkness, and the chances of Green Lantern ever being taken seriously again — if they weren’t already ruined by the Ryan Reynolds movie — are probably even slimmer thanks to his appearance here. It also helps that, with “Star Wars” and “The Simpsons” characters also popping up, this isn’t just a one-studio show, but something closer to a reflection of the toys that a kid might actually own (though, disappointingly, it is a very male version of what it is to play with toys, for the most part).
Lego itself isn’t necessarily beatified either. The movie’s message comes down more to a celebration of creativity than an ad for the benefits of the product itself, and some of the company’s more obscure ranges are mocked, along with the very idea of being an adult that collects and builds with Legos (which one suspects, in this nostalgia-happy age, is a significant proportion of customers of both the bricks and the movie).
But the satirical targets are wider than that, as Fox News have already picked up on, attacking the film for calling its villain President Business. The film’s attacks on corporate culture, and a culture of uniformity, are there, and they’re funny, but they’re hardly razor sharp (believe it or not, the “Robocop” remake is arguably more pointed when it lays into its targets), on about the same level as Chris Cooper‘s Tex Richman in “The Muppets.” But where the film becomes truly subversive is its message.
As Bilge Ebiri wrote on Vulture, the film serves as something of a response to the “chosen one” narratives of almost every blockbuster from “The Matrix” to “Harry Potter,” not to say the virtually Ayn Rand-ian politics of Pixar’s “The Incredibles” and “Monsters University.” By acknowledging that the movie’s central prophesy is made up, and putting the film’s climax in the hands of those who are not extraordinary, but ordinary. I’m not sure I’d go as far as the Vulture subs and call it “practically Communist,” but it’s certainly egalitarian in a way that’s rare for this kind of movie.
Perhaps more touchingly, it’s a celebration of being weird. The movie itself is the strangest tentpole release in memory, full of space-chair-piloting Abraham Lincolns, and pirate Transformers with sharks for hands, and a deeply-repressed, psychopathic cat/unicorn hybrid, and a hallucination sequence that’s more Ben Wheatley than “Dumbo.” It also sports an omnipresent earworm pop song not by, say, Taylor Swift, but by indiepop duo Tegan & Sara, a joke about Batman wanting to fuck Chewbacca, and a surprising third act shift.
None of this changes the fact the movie was created to sell toys, and will do a damn good job of it. Indeed, no movie since “Cars” (which sells around a billion dollars a year of related claptrap) is likely to set off a merchandising bonanza like this one. Far worse is that every studio executive in town likely spent Monday morning trying to inquire about the rights to Mega Bloks or K’Nex, or digging up old scripts about He-Man, Monopoly or Voltron. A successful toy movie — especially a toy movie with critical approval, loved by adults as much, if not more, than by kids — will only beget other toy movies, and studios are probably now thinking of any number of properties that are just sitting there, waiting to be exploited. There’s no guarantee that the already in development sequel to “The Lego Movie” will be as smart or interesting as the first movie: Lord and Miller opted not to return for “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs 2,” and the result was a mediocre shadow of the original. Not to mention that the hiring of Jared Stern — writer of the loathsome Google commercial “The Internship” — for part two, doesn’t really bode well either.
That’s the dilemma — on one hand, by smuggling smart stuff into a family blockbuster/toy commercial, you have a chance at not preaching to the converted (which, let’s face it, is the problem of most satire) and actually making a difference. On the other, if your satire is making a corporation a billion dollars, and makes them look like good sports while they’re at it, then maybe you’re just propping up the system further. For all the on-screen change of heart he goes through, it’s hard not to feel that President Business is the real victor here.