Some Blocks off a New Chip
My deceptively cherubic seven-year-old nephew has, obviously, inherited nothing from me in terms of actual genetic material, but he did receive several large containers full of Lego. I should mention that much of these are now third-generation bricks, as I got them from – I believe – one of my own uncles when I was young. Nephew is at the age where he is consumed by his passion for Lego, and I must confess it is one of the things (along with his youth, financial prospects, and interesting hair) that I am almost envious of. There was a time when 6627 Convertible or 6685 Fire Copter 1 was enough to set fire to my own imagination, and to be honest I sort of miss that.
Speaking of missing things, I also managed to let the first Lego Movie pass me by, along with the Lego Batman Movie and so on. Well, it was a computer-animated children's movie about little plastic bricks, what could there possibly be to interest a serious, mature pretend film critic? Possibly quite a lot, judging from the glowing reviews most of these films received. So with the coming of The Lego Movie 2: the Second Part (directed by Mike Mitchell, who I feel obliged to mention also did Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, but don't let that put you off), I felt it incumbent upon me to go and check it out. (Lord and Miller, who did the first one and are regrettably perhaps best-known these days for getting fired off the last stellar conflict movie, are still around as producers and writers.)
I had done my due diligence and so had a vague idea of the premise of these movies, which certainly helped: I imagine it might otherwise be a bit confusing for newcomers. What superficially looks like a rather frantic slapstick comedy is actually a story of startling subtlety, imagination and wit, operating on a number of levels simultaneously. On the most obvious level, it concerns the inhabitants of Apocalypseburg, a gritty, harsh settlement inhabited by tough, harsh people – all except for Emmet (Chris Pratt), who has managed to retain his innate sweetness and optimism (so far, anyway). But Apocalypseburg is periodically ravaged by cute pink invaders from the Systar system, who seem to be attracted by anything not gritty and mature. In the course of their latest attack they kidnap Emmet's best friend Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), along with Batman (Will Arnett), Benny the spaceman (Charlie Day), and several others. The abducted group are whisked off to the Systar system where Batman is threatened with a coerced marriage to Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Can Emmet, despite his general cheery uselessness, rescue them and save the day?
However, what's also going on – do try to keep up – is that a boy named Finn and his younger sister Bianca are squabbling over how to play with their Lego collection – Finn just wants to make cool stuff, but Bianca likes things that are cute and sparkly, which is a problem when she wants to join in with him. In the end she ends up stealing some of his Lego (including the mini-figures) and incorporating it into her own games. The main plot of the movie is actually an extended metaphor for this.
Now, it's true that the film isn't entirely consistent in its presentation of this idea – there are points at which the Lego characters are acting out the squabble between the children, and others when they seem to have an odd, Toy Story-esque independent existence, of which Finn and Bianca seem entirely unaware. Even so, for a film to be based on such an ambitious notion, and execute it as well as it does, is still quite noteworthy. The last thing The Lego Movie 2 is is any sort of lazy cash-in.
Much of this will probably sail over the heads of the younger members of the audience – although perhaps not quite as much as their parents might think. That said, there were no children whatsoever at the showing we went to, just adults laughing uproariously and generally having a great time – this isn't exclusively a children's film, either. Kids will certainly enjoy the invention and visual spectacle of the film, along with many of the sight gags, and there is a reasonably straightforward storyline going on here too. But much of the fun of the film also comes from elements that children are almost certainly not going to get. There is a joke about Die Hard, there is a joke about Radiohead; there is a series of jokes about the absence of Green Lantern from the current DC movie series.
Of course, you have to be able to get all these references, but if you have the appropriate grounding in pop culture then this is an extremely funny film. In one of my meaner moments I would have said that playing a Lego figure was more or less the perfect role for Chris Pratt, but he reveals himself to be a notably good sport here, also featuring as a character named Rex Dangervest who is a parody of most of Pratt's film career to date. The knowingness of the film is relentless and almost irresistible – the song playing over the closing credits is about the kind of song you generally hear playing over the closing credits of films, while the film's most diabolical creation is a song called 'Catchy Song' (refrain: 'This song's gonna get stuck inside your head'), which is indeed quite possibly the earworm to end all earworms. (If observational comedy is more your thing, there is also the inevitable gag about how painful it is to stand on a Lego brick.)
Normally, the problem with doing this kind of knowing, self-referential humour is that is robs a movie of the ability to have any kind of genuine emotional impact (see either of the Deadpool films, for instance), and possibly the most impressive thing about The Lego Movie 2 is that this doesn't quite happen: somewhere in the middle of the madly fizzing visual invention and relentless jokes is what's actually quite a touching story about growing up (or not) and togetherness. There is also a hugely timely message about how being cool, gritty and dark isn't necessarily better than being bright, cheerful and slightly daft – one can only hope that the film's partners at Warner Brothers, makers of the DC superhero movies, continue to take this on board.
I suspect there are still some people who will be sniffy about The Lego Movie 2 simply because it is based on a toy line and is family-friendly. Well, this is their problem and not the film's. This is a movie with a great script, great performances, great songs, great jokes, and great visuals; I thoroughly enjoyed it. If every movie aimed at an adult audience had this level of wit and intelligence and sophistication, cinema in general would be vastly improved.
Also This Week...
...All is True, Kenneth Branagh's film about the final years of the life of Shakespeare, as written by Ben Elton. Good performance from Branagh, naturally, and Ian McKellen contributes a typically classy cameo, but it works too hard at being serious and worthy and the result is a slow, static film choking on its own earnestness. Stick to adapting the actual plays, Ken.