Friday, February 28, 2014

The Lego Movie is lovely, and attempts to be subversive

The Lego Movie has generated a lot of positive buzz since its release on February 7, and the rating over at Rotten Tomatoes is hovering around 96%. In fact, box office success has been so great, the Warner Brothers studio is wasting no time planning for a sequel to be released in 2017. My favorite geek site The Mary Sue has given The Lego Movie a positive review. However, if you look at the comments for that linked article, and if you have recently read their piece on a nostalgia LEGO ad from the 1980s and the article that inspired it, this fun family movie and the toy it is based on has created some complicated feelings in fans of both LEGO and of films, myself included.

1981 lego ad

I've had some experience with LEGO in my life. Having two brothers who were big fans of the toy, I was constantly exposed to play sets encouraging creativity and others meant to be models that would easily snap together by following the instructions. Pirates, Jedi Knights, space exploration, and Bionicle cyber warriors were common games with my brothers that would inevitably implicitly or explicitly exclude me. I was also constantly exposed to the idea that LEGO was not for a girl like me, as shown by how my brothers would hoard all the pieces in their room and that LEGO was only found in the boys' section at toy stores. If I wanted to make or build something, I would have to content myself with LEGO knockoffs in pink and purple, or play with a different brand entirely such as K'Nex. Granted, my brothers didn't want to share any of their toys with me, mostly because I terrorized my older brother since I could walk by stealing his toys, but that's a story for another time. My point is, when I saw this movie advertised, I wasn't expecting them to cater to a female demographic at all, based entirely on my childhood experience with LEGO.

Now after seeing the film, let me say that the primary description I can give of this movie is FUN. The characters, music, humor, and the animation all give a feel of what I remember LEGO being about -- a fun time for kids to build and be creative. It's very childlike in its comedy and for most of the story. It does do some unique plot turns, but overall remains a quintessential monomyth, as the movie poster says, of a nobody who saved everybody. Monomyth, as described by Joseph Campbell, as some may recall from my analysis of Disney and Pixar films, is a pattern theorized to occur in pretty much every world mythology and influences many stories today (watch a video essay of this topic here). This film, for all its promise of nonstop action, fun, and adventure, is about that opposing force in LEGO for either unrestrained creative building, or to build a perfect model by following the package instructions. It also gets really meta, but it's not hard to spot the hints of this plot thread as the film goes on. Another positive point is that the animation in this movie is especially incredible. It is CGI, but the frame rate is dropped and all the characters, environments, and even special effects such as fire or lasers are done so that it looks like a stop-motion animation style made with real LEGO toys! Heck, there is one scene out in the ocean, and the entire ocean surface is behaving like water, but has each little bump on the surface as if it was made from real LEGO!

That being said, there is a lot of debate in various internet forums over whether the two most prominent female characters, Wyldstyle and Princess Unikitty are positive representations of women. There are legitimate points on either side of this argument, which because the film is also a giant advertisement for LEGO, also brings into question how LEGO markets itself and creates gendered dichotomy in its toys. This complexity about female representation, in addition to other points in the plot that really didn't gel with the rest of the story for me, keeps it from being perfect in my mind. Still, if you like silliness, action, adventure, and LEGO, there's no reason not to see The Lego Movie at least once. I will warn you though, there is a song in the beginning that will meld with your mind and never leave.

Final rating 4/5 stars. Click on the jump for a discussion on the gender representations in this movie. Spoilers!