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!

To give further context regarding gender in this movie, except for some uncertainty during certain crowd scenes, I'm pretty sure this film doesn't pass the Bechdel Test, despite having quite a few speaking female roles; the names for some of these characters had to be gleaned from tie-in merchandise and the film's IMDB page:
Mrs. Scratchen, Cat-lady
Gail, Female Construction Worker
Wyldstyle, Master builder
Ma Cop, Mother of Bad Cop
Princess Unikitty of Cloud Cuckoo Land
Wonder Woman, DC superhero
The Computer at President Business' headquarters

One might think that with such a range of explicitly female characters, there could at least have been a conversation between two of them. Another point against The Lego Movie is that even though they try really, really hard to make Wyldstyle and Princess Unikitty badass, the movie isn't about them. It's about Emmet, the nobody who ends up being the hero. Which, as some online forums have already pointed out, parrots The Matrix and other stories similar to that plot arc to the point of parody. Plus, Wyldstyle is fulfilling the action girlfriend trope with Emmet, which no matter how awesome she is, is still defining a female character in relation to the men around her. Having Batman as a boyfriend does not detract at all from this aspect of her character. I'm sure they only put her with Batman so the writers could squeeze in a Dark Knight joke at the end of the movie. That line fell flat for me largely because it felt like Wyldstyle was being treated as an object instead of a person. Then again, I've yet to see a Batman work that depicted him as a good boyfriend.

On the other hand, Wyldstyle is an accomplished Master Builder, able to create a motorcycle from scrap materials, change it mid-ride into a flying jet, in addition to her other projects throughout the film. Subtracting the love triangle with Batman and Emmet still gives her personality and agency. In fact, I think she starts liking Emmet in that way that girls will sometimes fall for an underdog type of guy despite the guy being a massive dork that happens in movies. Both of them also have the same concept, "I want to be someone special." When Emmet sacrifices himself to give the Master Builders a chance to fight President Business once more, she immediately takes charge to inspire all the LEGO worlds to fight against President Business' evil plan. I don't like that she basically has to use Emmet as a "hey, if this guy could do it, so can you!" kind of speech, but I guess the theme of "a nobody can be someone special" had to be preserved.

As for Princess Unikitty, despite being an alarming rendition of pink, glitter, and rainbows, also has a dark side that is very predictably going to result in a Hulk-esque burst of anger and destruction. She delivers splendidly. The problem with Princess Unikitty is that they use her primarily for laughs, which is a problem since she's the only character overly associated with traditionally feminine traits. For this type of movie, casting someone like that in such a negative light can create the implication that those sorts of things are bad. I suppose there weren't any other means the writers could think of to include more feminine types of characters in this movie, though, because actually including more women would have been difficult, I suppose.

With the other characters, I would have liked more Wonder Woman. All she got to do was appear and crack off one liners just as was shown in the trailers, which could be said for a lot of the cameos actually. I mean, the Superman/Green Lantern joke was old by the third occurrence, and don't get me started on asking why Wonder Woman is the only female superhero in this film. As for the remaining speaking women roles, they exist to vocalize drama that's happening in a scene, snap a one-liner, and create some small amount of diversity. Which goes into the overlapping issue with representation that Hollywood has with the extreme lack of people of color. The only racial diversity in the film is Morgan Freeman, whose character is also the only dark skinned one among the cast. However, for some reason there is a visual difference between famous white characters and regular LEGO yellow characters, so I'm not sure if that means there is a racial difference or not.

Related to the story, when Emmet falls out of the LEGO world and the big meta plot twist is revealed, I agree with some other reviews I've read that it would have been better structure to have everything in the movie be part of the young boy's imagination. What I would have liked to see here is the inclusion of a girl in the basement scene. Maybe two friends or siblings who really like playing with LEGO instead of yet another rehash of the father-son relationship. Then it could be a mutual play thing, and that would be way more inclusive, as well as adding diversity. When the Emmet figurine starts moving on its own, it doesn't seem to fit within the context of a boy struggling for creative expression against his father's toy collector habits and need for order in creating his model city. To have the child take Emmet back on his own initiative and send him back into the LEGO world without the inner monologue from Emmet would have been a lot less like Toy Story. I should mention though, that a girl sibling is mentioned at the end, but it's played up for laughs and setting up for the inevitable sequel.

Another thing that annoyed me here in the story is that despite all the claims that everyone can be special by believing in themselves, it's still Emmet who has to save the day, because again, the movie is about him. For someone who was played up to be special by his 'nobody' or 'ordinary' status this whole film, he gained the power of the gods quite spectacularly. I won't gripe about that point too much though, as that trope is deeply embedded in folklore, plus his sudden abilities as a Master Builder aren't really what save the day.

Going back to the beginning of this post, LEGO has really struggled with expanding their market to girls. The LEGO Friends line is a terrible idea. It specifically creates products that can't be mixed with any other toy sets by LEGO because of the sizing of the pieces and its figurines. The brand also seems to struggle with what to promote girls should do and want to do. Take this LEGO Friends news van and the official description of it:

“Break the big story of the world’s best cake with the Heartlake News Van! Find the cake and film it with the camera and then climb into the editing suite and get it ready for broadcast. Get Emma ready at the makeup table so she looks her best for the camera. Sit her at the news desk as Andrew films her talking about the cake story and then present the weather to the viewers.”

Why does a journalism van need to be taken up by such a large makeup table? Where are all the cameras and editing equipment? How is this toy even promoting that journalism is a profession?

A toy line that defines itself as for boys without acknowledging that girls can play too sends a terrible social message about gendered play. This constant failure on the toy's part to give young girls the same opportunities as boys, as well as the conflicting themes and messages in The Lego Movie really bog down what otherwise should have been a fun and engaging experience. I can only hope with the next installment, which will hopefully go into the Duplo wars, that having a little sister be part of the family's play means there will be more gender diversity onscreen. It would also be nice to have more persons of color in the voice cast. Or both, but really one or the other will be a good and positive baby step.