It's been 65 years, 560 billion bricks, 83 set themes, 90 retail stores, 53 video games, a clothing line, a theme park, and something called BrickCon since the dawn of the LEGO, and only now are we getting our first big screen incarnation of the omnipresent children's toy. And though you'd think among the various extracurricular incarnations of what started out as a simple amendment of the building block that we'd have seen a Lego movie by now, the right Lego movie wouldn't have come along sooner. Spiting expectations, The Lego Movie doesn't shoot for the gimmick. This isn't capitalization on a familiar property for no discernible reason beyond the frugality of name brand entertainment. We're hit with the surprising realization early on in the movie that this is a story about Legos. About the tacit struggle that plagued all young builders — the war between following the instructions and letting your imagination run wild — and just how much value there is in each.
In fact, The Lego Movie steps well beyond the confines of its 32-square-peg green mat to tell a subtextual story about children who play with, and find themselves through, this incredible toy. Centering on the fantastical quest of a plain-faced everyman named Emmet (Chris Pratt, whose Parks and Rec enthusiasm is not bridled by his plastic form) who is whisked out of his cozy lifestyle by prophecies, secret societies, inter-world missions, and nefarious plans to destroy the entire Lego universe, the film hammers in the simple conceit that being yourself is not only okay, but abundantly important. But a profound sensitivity to its message does not mean that The Lego Movie holds back on the fun. On the contrary, this might be the silliest animated movie to hit theaters in ages.
From scene one, The Lego Movie is maniacal in its comic delivery. Sharp gags from writer/director team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (responsible for the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs films and the 21 Jump Street movie alike) get fair treatment from a capable band of voice actors — Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, and so many others. Liam Neeson as a menacing policeman is the surprise MVP of the bunch, although supporting players Nick Offerman and Charlie Day contribute some memorable laughs. The comedy is fresh, rarely if ever pandering, and in such rapid supply that any failed joke is immediately overshadowed by a real doozy.
In fact, with such clever material at bay, it's the film's insistence on shoving its action sequences to the forefront that have us a bit frustrated. As an adventure movie, and one set in a land where a child's imagination would be the word of god, the inclination is not surprising. But beyond a chuckle or two at the initial gambit, there's not much favor to be found in the movie's long supply of large shoot-'em-ups and grappling scenes.
But soon enough, we get back to the jokes, the message, the characters. Although second banana Wildstyle (Banks, playing a hyper-competent secret agent whose primary goal is to get Emmet to the finish line) is a disappointing turn for what is otherwise an intelligent, progressive movie, the film's heart is where it really wins. The throughline message of channeling the creative machinations that make you you only builds as the film plucks onward, offering surprising turns that help to really strike a chord with any youngster battling a fear of individuality, or any adult who ever has.
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As deeply as Toy Story understands what dolls can do for a lonely young kid, The Lego Movie knows what it means to create whole worlds, the people within them, and the adventures they take. While the movie doesn't discount the merit in learning and deriving inspiration from "the instructions" (oh yes, it's quite indubitably a metaphor), it knows that the far more valuable path comes from our own minds and hearts, and asks viewers young and old to realize that the best things you can give this world come wholly from you.
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Horror movies aren't tailored for little children — but that's who they impact the most. With their imagination in its prime most kids eventually find themselves breaking parental codes and soaking in the terrifying twisted conjurations of genre filmmakers. There might be thick plots that make little sense to young minds but at that moment in time it's all about imagery. Spooky memorable and like little else in the real world.
Tim Burton captures that experience in Frankenweenie a horror primer for kids that playfully dabbles in the past of creature features without overcomplicating itself. Stuffed with Burton's signature oddities the stop-motion animated film follows a young boy named Victor as he attempts to use science (a maligned line of thinking in his conservative hometown of New Holland) to resurrect his dead dog Sparky. The experiment is a success but the reanimated pup causes a stir in the middle school crowd. Suddenly everyone wants an undead best friend.
Realized in crisp black & white and 3D that varies from eye-popping to barely existent Frankenweenie manages to unfold its youth-skewing screamfest with visceral scares that effectively (and appropriately) shock the young ones while delivering parent-friendly humor and adventure. The boy-and-his-dog setup pulls at the heartstrings (anyone who has ever had a pet prepare to "awwwwwww") but the real joy is Victor's wacky ensemble. Unlike The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride Frankenweenie is mostly "natural" characters albeit ones with horror movie personas. That makes for a wonderful blend of strange and human; the gleefully diabolical Edgar playing evil assistant to Victor the long-chinned teacher Mr. Rzykruski crazed over the power of electricity; and Weird Girl who... lives up to her name. Frankenweenie doesn't sport much in the way of drama or true thrills but what it lacks in tension it makes up for in its devilish sense of humor pitting kids against kids.
Frankenweenie is a light bonkers time at the movies that is enjoyable until the very last moments when a strange ending nearly pulls the carpet from under its feet. Nearly because little can detract from the film's throwback charm. Finally a horror movie for kids who can't stay awake until midnight.
Back in the 1980s, Walt Disney Pictures made one of the biggest mistakes in its storied history: the studio let Tim Burton go. The young CalArts graduate was an animator at the Mouse House and worked on films like The Fox and the Hound and TRON early in his career, but had ambitions to tell his own tales and convinced the company to let him create his own content. The result was a six-minute animated short Vincent and the 27-minute live-action Frankenweenie. Of course, in those days Disney wasn’t taking the kind of tonal risks it does today and dubbed Burton’s works unsuitable for children. They were never released, and Burton left the lot to stake is own claim in Tinsel Town. Fast-forward twenty-five years. The lauded auteur is now considered one of the most inventive filmmakers of all time and is without question one of the most successful in the industry, so Disney knocks on his door asking him to come back. He leaves his mark on Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland and helps make the Mouse the most successful movie studio of the year thanks to its $1.02 billion global haul. Now he’s got the keys to the Magic Kingdom and the full support of the studio brass, so what does he decide to do? Remake his original live-action short Frankenweenie, of course!
This time around, though, it’s going to be a much bigger deal for everyone involved, as I quickly learned when Disney flew me across the pond to see what Burton, producer Allison Abbate and all the good craftspeople at 3 Mills Studios in London are cooking up for the October 2012 release. Over the next few months, I’ll be checking in with a handful of updates and information regarding Frankenweenie, but to start off I’ll give you a little insight into what this flick is all about.
After unexpectedly losing his beloved dog Sparky, young Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan of Charlie St. Cloud fame) harnesses the power of science to bring his best friend back to life—with just a few minor adjustments. He tries to hide his home-sewn creation, but when Sparky gets out, Victor’s fellow students, teachers and the entire town all learn that getting a new “leash on life” can be monstrous.
If the above description is of any indication, “hand-sewn creation” barely scratches the surface of the amount of handmade production that’s involved in this film. Art director Tim Browning and his team have created every character, prop and set from scratch, as I saw in clear focus when I got to 3 Mills. He was able to tell me a bit about the unique process involved in bringing a puppet to life: “we look at the child who did the acting, and study what they did. Then we kind of exaggerate things; because it’s a cartoon, you’d want to make things a little more clear than the actual person would do it. And then it’s just the capabilities of the puppet.”
So why go the stop-motion route when making the movie using all CGI could eliminate any and all problems that physical assets create? “I think that this medium is gaining in popularity,” says producer Allison Abbate, who has been involved in every aspect of the film’s realization. “I feel like there has been a lot more interest in this kind of film because I think people are ready for something different. One of the things that appeals to me about it is [that it complements] the artistic sensibilities of the director. Tim [Burton] loves stop-motion and has always loved stop-motion. It’s his chosen medium. It’s perfect for his sensibility.” Just how perfect it is will remain a mystery to you until this Spring, when I unleash part two of my Frankenweenie set visit report! Stay tuned!
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.