Sean K. Cureton

The LEGO Movie as Mass Market Commodity

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on March 1, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Theatrical Poster

The LEGO Movie
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
3 out of 4 stars

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made quite a reputation for themselves as directors of gimmick based films that have proved to be better than they should have been. Starting with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs in 2009, which has already spawned its first lucrative sequel as a franchise this past summer, as well as the 21 Jump Street reboot/teen comedy from 2012, starring the unlikely but successful comedy duo of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, also slated for a highly anticipated blockbuster sequel coming out this summer, The LEGO Movie feels like the next logical step for this ridiculously successful filmmaking team. Centered around the already highly marketable, monetary powerhouse that is the LEGO toy company, The LEGO Movie is a grand marketing scheme masquerading as a family friendly, animated motion picture, swathed in post-modern, self-referential gags and one liners, sure to appeal to the inner fanboy in all of us. For all of its inventiveness and quick-witted intelligence, Lord and Miller’s new film shouldn’t work as well as it does on the viewer, as its ulterior motives as an advertising campaign for the LEGO company is much too apparent to be ignored. Nevertheless, The LEGO Movie is for all other intents and purposes a great movie, espousing the kinds of lessons and values that every parent would want for their children to learn, even if those values are being delivered within an advertisement for a toy company.

The LEGO Movie is about an everyman voiced by Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt, an aptly cast construction worker whose entire existence is dictated by the instruction manuals familiar to anybody who has ever owned or played with a LEGO construction set. As the film progresses, Pratt’s Emmet Brickowoski is shown an entirely different way of seeing his world through the introduction of a group of LEGO denizens known as the Master Builders, LEGO people who build things from the popular plastic bricks according to their own imaginations and ambitions, effectively thinking for themselves instead of giving into the mob mentality typified by Emmet’s instruction manuals, as well as his homogenized taste in music. The way in which Lord and Miller’s film delivers this grand lesson in accepting the self and celebrating individual personality is heartwarming and well delivered, bright and cheerful for the kids begging their parents to take them to see the film, as well as clever and self-aware for the parents and hipsters more in tune to the film’s numerous allusions and masterfully orchestrated sight gags. However, there is a certain irony to the film, as mentioned previously, in that the film is ultimately a supersized advertising campaign for the LEGO toy company, using the film as a means to sell more LEGO play sets and franchise memorabilia, including a wildly successful line of video games, making The LEGO Movie a rather duplicitous entity, neither film nor marketing campaign. In this way, Lord and Miller seem to have broken the ultimate movie making code, designing a film around marketing and advertising without abandoning substantive content, selling you a product you then assume you had intended to buy in the first place.

With a sequel to The LEGO Movie already in the works, as well as Lord and Miller’s stellar track record so far when it comes to constructing massively successful franchise pictures, the recent success of The LEGO Movie is intriguing to say the least. There is no doubt that Lord and Miller’s newest picture is a success as a film, offering some of the best choreographed animated sequences in an animated feature since Pixar’s Toy Story 3, all of it backed up by a deep well of intelligence and a hyper-articulate screenplay. However, the fact that the film is also designed to sell a high commodity product is unnerving, betraying the very concept of film as art by denigrating the film to the status of cultural currency, ready made catch phrases, shallow sing-along musical numbers, and a plethora of screen print trademark t-shirts preloaded into its very structure. There is also the overwhelmingly positive reception that the film garnered leading up to its initial release only a few weeks ago, seeming almost pre-designed and coordinated by the producers backing the film in order to sell a picture that, presumably, a large amount of the film’s core audience already wanted to see. The LEGO Movie is one of the most successful and critically lauded genre pictures to be released over the past couple of years, owing largely to its built-in marketing campaign, which makes much of the film’s broader lasting appeal ring hollow and vaguely sinister.

All of this is not to say, however, that Lord and Miller’s new film is un-enjoyable. On the contrary, The LEGO Movie is the most fun that you could possibly have at a movie theatre, pulling from the large history of genre pictures in order to appease its assumed audience of sci-fi and fantasy geeks, eager to consume large amounts of Star Wars and Batman gags that refer to the very films that they hold the most near and dear. The film also pitches itself incredibly well to its marketed audience of families with young children, delivering an easy to digest narrative supported by uncomplicated metaphors and action centered fight sequences, making it immediately pleasing and fun to watch. However, the level to which the film engages in post-modern self-reference is ultimately shallow, betraying its larger purpose as deceptive advertising. Unlike 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, which also depended on allusions and a vast knowledge of the history of its pre-established genre, Lord and Miller are trapped by the very same intelligence that makes their film so enjoyable, never moving beyond meta-narrative allusion towards a more all encompassing grasp of the larger world. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The LEGO Movie is the best film to come out so far this year by and for an American audience; what’s not so certain is whether or not that’s a good thing.

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