Studio-financed American comedies are in a grim state. We’ve got underedited Apatow productions aplenty, and they all seem to have been directed by people whose primary influences were episodes of “Friends”. We’ve got our Will Ferrell’s and Adam Sandler’s and Jim Carrey’s inserting the same-exact persona into scripts apparently written by people who have only seen movies featuring the stars they’re writing for. We’ve got a rush of likeminded juvenile animated movies, all about being brave or epic or whatever other empowering adjective was in vogue when the pictures were produced. We’ve got a full-blown torrent of cheaply-produced sub-80-minute spoof movies made to capitalize off brand names; the afterbirth of franchise filmmaking; “Haunted Houses” and “Scary Movies” and “Hangover Games” and the like.
We also have Phil Lord & Chris Miller, though, and while they’re hardly the second coming of Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, they’ll do for now. Lord & Miller’s third picture, The LEGO Movie, opens this weekend, and manages to confirm them as outliers in that prickly genre so underserved by visually-minded filmmakers, and more recently, by literate ones. They’re not throwing improvisation at a wall and seeing what sticks. They’re not leaning on prior-built personas and coasting on star-power and gravitas. They’re not haphazardly throwing together a mass of footage with no eye for composition and no feel for rhythm. It’s as if – holy storyboards, Batman – they actually construct their movies with the end product in mind from the start, instead of just getting some funny people on a set and seeing what happens. (Or, in this case, instead of massaging all the weirdness and eccentricity out of an animated movie until it was just a blob of would-be action figures acting out an advertisement for branded products.)
This is about the time in the review where the plot is normally detailed, but when talking about their “LEGO,” it seems inappropriate. The movie itself renders its narrative an afterthought: There’s a scene, not too deep into the picture, where tough-girl female protag Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) finds herself catching up everyman-out-of-his-element male protag Emmet (Chris Pratt) on the goings on of the film’s complicated narrative, and all we hear her saying is a litany of industry jargon. Her character literally drones on, “Backstory, backstory, primary name,” and so on, and so forth.
In short, though, Emmet and Wyldstyle are on a quest to save the (Lego) world from the maniacal President Business (Will Ferrell,) the two heroes aided by a blind sage voiced by Morgan Freeman (natch,) Batman (Will Arnet,) and a small ragtag crew. Yes, it’s a cutesy making-fun-of-rote-narratives-while-also-indulging-one thing. It very well may have been insufferable in other hands, but under the filmmaker’s guidance, the narrative isn’t the point. The point is the fun – and the sheer strength of the craft displayed – in the frames, in their margins, in the asides, and in the brazenly satirical gags Lord & Miller have smuggled in.
First off, those frames: this film is gorgeous. Not thought-provoking art-movie gorgeous, no, but certainly oh-my-do-you-see-those-colors, they’re-so-full, it’s-like-they’re-popping-out-of-the-screen gorgeous. The CG compositions have been designed as if it were made in stop motion with brick Legos themselves, and as such tiny textural details – little plastic specs on clouds, tiny rigid green leaves glimpsed briefly during a long pan-out of a brick-city – catch your eye and divert your attention in each individual shot. There’s not a single sequence here where you can’t entertain yourself merely by basking in the roughshod-handmade look afforded to the animation.
The craftsmanship extends past the animation to the comedy. You can check the brand-name-related cynicism at the door. Yes, Batman shows up, and so does Michelangelo (the Ninja Turtle) and Michelangelo (the Renaissance artist) and Abraham Lincoln and Superman and Han Solo and a bunch of other recognizable faces, all rendered in plastic brick-form. Yet the film doesn’t rest on “hey look, that guy” or “hey look, that movie reference” humor. This is where the “smuggling” I mentioned comes in. There’s a rapid-fire pace here that allows surprisingly subversive jokes to be packed in as densely as inserts in a Wes Anderson movie.
Emmet gets his day started montage-style, one piece of which details him buying a $37 coffee from a chain location. He then watches a sort-of State of the Union address, where President Business announces some particularly troubling security reforms, the details of which Emmet promptly forgets about once the next media-distraction rolls around on his television. It should be noted: The LEGO Movie is not a satire. Jokes in the spirit of $37 coffees aren’t coming fast-and-furious for 100 straight minutes. This isn’t Dr. Strangelove. But it’s still a whole universe away from the pat morality plays the majority of kid-focused movies devolve into.
The directors don’t break the rules of conventional filmmaking, but they play with them, and stretch them, and see what previously unfound fun can be unearthed from flipping them upside down. Action sequences – car chases and Batmobile chases, particularly – are deliberately structured with the cut-up structure employed by the Bays and Nolans of the world, tongue firmly-in-cheek. Later, when a character has a spiritual experience, shots and color-fills flood the screen with rapid speed; for a fair few moments, it’s like Lego’s unabashedly weird take on a Ken Russell freakout.
Lord & Miller are capital-D Directors; not just joke-tellers; not just footage-herders; not just brand-name hawkers and rebooters. The humor in their films derives just as much from the use of film grammar and screen space (i.e. Jonah Hill dancing by wire in long shot in “Jump Street”) as they do from dialogue and satire and parody.
Put it this way: the Sergio Leone standard, the widescreen-close-up-on-eyes shot, has shown up in all of their pictures. The formalist construction of the duo’s movies is sincerely more akin to Leone’s all-about-screen-space oeuvre than it is to, say, Judd Apatow’s yukfests, or to their peers in contemporary animation. Lord & Miller aren’t looking to detonate tropes or re-wire cinema, but they make exposition beats fun, and action beats silly; they fill every frame with pertinent details and refuse to waste a moment on needless improvisation; they take established genres and narratives and seemingly inject as much eccentric self-aware humor and aesthetic strangeness as studio exec overlords are willing to allow. Their films aren’t quite subversive, but they’re not far off, either. Call it skewed commercialism.