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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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!