Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Lego Movie

I have noted with grave concern that for many years now Lego has steadily increased its production of violent toys, so the idea of sitting through a 100-minute commercial for Lego toys was not remotely appealing. On top of that, going to the opening-day screening of an animated blockbuster was also not my idea of a good time. But three factors made me take the plunge anyway: 1) the major critics have given The Lego Movie rave reviews; 2) I could tell this film was destined to be one of the highest grossing films of 2014; and 3) it was my only chance to watch the film before my next Media Matters deadline.

Unfortunately, most of my worst fears were realized. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with so many mixed messages. What do you call a film that makes attempts at satirizing consumerism, the business world and even its own products and yet is obviously promoting the sale of those products with every single scene (virtually nonstop product placement)? And what do you call a film that beautifully challenges the myth of redemptive violence so prevalent in Disney animated films (and animated films in general) while feeding us an endless display of violent Lego toys in action, including multiple scenes of decapitation and of Lego people exploding or being crushed? The word ‘hypocritical’ comes to mind.

The Lego Movie tells the story of Emmet, an ordinary Lego builder who is focused on following instructions every minute of his life because he literally doesn’t have a single thought in his head. He is a lonely, unpopular and forgettable figure until one day he meets Wild Style, a woman who thinks he may be the ‘special’, someone who can save the world from the evil Lord Business, who is determined to make sure every Lego toy is permanently stuck in its perfect place. This is an opportunity for Emmet to be a superhero, joining the ranks of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and many other heroes in the film. But the prophecy says the ‘special’ is supposed to be a super-creative master builder, not the empty-headed Emmet who only knows how to follow instructions, so what went wrong? 

From this brief description, one can see how The Lego Movie is trying to convey positive messages to children, messages like: everyone is special; being creative trumps just following instructions; life isn’t about everyone doing the same perfect thing every day (diversity is good); and so on. Amid those positive messages are many gorgeously-animated fast-paced scenes full of clever, wise and very funny dialogue. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Without going into detail about how each of the positive messages in The Lego Movie has its confusing counterpart, I will simply note that for every piece of intelligent dialogue there are inane and sophomoric attempts at humour in a rather weak chaotic story (until the end). I suppose if you are aiming the film at eight-year-olds, this may be appropriate, but I found it frustrating.

But let me take you back to the opening scene, which I watched in a sold-out theatre full of eight-year-old children. In that scene, Lord Business kicks an old blind prophet (voiced by Morgan Freeman) off what amounts to a cliff, presumably to his death (or at least serious injury). The children around me laughed uproariously, as they did for a scene in which another ‘baddie’ (Bad Cop/Good Cop, brilliantly voiced by Liam Neeson) kicks a heavy metal object into the air precisely aimed to crush one of his fellow officers as he flees to avoid injury. Hearing the laughter of those around them, my own children, had they been watching as eight-year-olds, would have run out of the theatre in tears at that point. And rightfully so.

The graphic violence in The Lego Movie is, of course, plastic violence. Many will argue that I need to get a grip and understand that this is just about toys. They may also point to the ending, which shows that there are other, and better, ways of dealing with evil than violence. Taken in the context of the ending (which I cannot reveal), all that has gone before can be viewed in a new light, showing how we grow as we build our stories.

Such arguments are valid, but for me they don’t address the bottom line: Lego makes violent toys and The Lego Movie is a 100-minute ad for those violent toys (and the violence is definitely meant to entertain, not to make children cringe). While I would like to hope that children who view the film will see that violence is not the way to solve our differences, the realist in me sees children demanding that their parents buy more violent Lego toys so they can experiment playing all the violent scenes in the film.

In other words, I think it far more likely that The Lego Movie will fuel consumerism and violent play in the children who watch it than it will promote peace, justice and self-worth. But let’s try an experiment to verify this.

If you have children, you will almost certainly have to take them to see The Lego Movie because all of their friends will be watching it and telling them how wonderful it is. And you and your kids will laugh and smile and nod appreciatively at all the funny and poignant moments in the film. You will enjoy The Lego Movie because it’s a well-made joy ride and you may think it only creates problems for people who over-analyze films; people like me.

Fair enough. But do me a favour. Discuss some of this stuff with your kids after the film and observe their actions the next time they play with their Lego toys. Are they shooting each other, blowing things up, decapitating the Lego people and begging you to purchase all the different figures and sets depicted in the film? Or are they getting the message that they are special, that God wants them to be creative as God is creative and that violence is not the answer? I await your responses.
In the meantime, despite the much-appreciated ending, The Lego Movie gets **+. My mug is down.

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