The Lego Movie (2014)

I’m going to do a thing I don’t usually do, and I’m going to draw your attention to my rating. I’ve given this film three-and-a-half stars, because that’s the highest I’ll go for a film that is essentially a feature-length product placement. There are few movies I’ve ever seen in which cross-promotional brand awareness is more hard-wired — not even Cast Away (2000). It’s in the title, it’s in every frame, and it’s even in the overall theme: Lego™ can free your childhood imagination, and allow you to do whatever you can imagine (though I’m not sure this configurability extends to every product in the Lego back catalogue). What makes it better than just a mere advert, though, is the script, which is witty and, crucially, very funny.

It also helps that as the voice of the central character, the construction worker Emmet, Chris Pratt is very good. He hits exactly the right tone of someone who is happy to conform to rules, playing up to the same simple-minded everyman he portrays in, for example, TV’s Parks and Recreation, but with just enough self-awareness to see his limitations, and respond humorously to challenges to it. Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle is the woman who makes him realise that there are more ways of dealing with the world, while Morgan Freeman is of course an elder (Vitruvius) who dispenses sage advice.

The setup starts all very broadly, with the deranged Lord Business (Will Ferrell) stealing a powerful weapon from the clutches of Vitruvius, which allows him, now re-branded as President, to rule over a conformist world that sticks to his single-minded vision. But things quickly move into more interesting comic variations and imaginative reconfigurations of this world. We get Liam Neeson’s Janus-like Bad Cop/Good Cop, Will Arnett’s snarky Batman, and a perky rainbow character verging on the psychotic (almost predictably voiced by Alison Brie, again channelling a TV role, Annie from Community).

It’s all very broadly pitched, but the humour is knowing and self-referential enough that I also found myself wondering if kids would get it. We’re very much in the same nostalgic 80s ballpark as Wreck-It Ralph (2012), another slyly knowing children’s animation. What’s impressive is that all this plays out while the animation remains solidly based on the original plastic creations. Expressiveness comes from the animated mouths and the talents of the voice cast. Everything else is resolutely stop-motion in effect, if not creation (I’m fairly certain it’s CGI). And then there’s a late introduction of a surprise (but not, in the end, surprising) twist that really brings home the pathos — and, for those of us so afflicted, a few tears.

In the end, it’s a warm and impressive film with an unforced religious allegory, a bit of shmaltz and, importantly, enough strong and inventive gags crammed into every scene, that you almost forgive it its baldly capitalist pedigree.

The Lego Movie film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller; Cinematographer Pablo Plaisted; Starring Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 9 February 2014.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

It’s surely the most trailered and hyped-up release of the season. There were few places to turn where Will Ferrell’s Anchorman persona, newscaster Ron Burgundy, has not popped up at some point ever since he announced the return on US late-night TV talkshow Conan well over a year ago. The original film of 2004 has found an ever more committed fan base since being released to DVD and remains familiarly quotable. With the sequel, the setting has moved forward a bit from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, and from the West coast of San Diego to the Big Apple of New York, meaning all the period references have been overhauled. There are a huge number of additional cameo appearances, and all the core cast have returned. So maybe that explains why the feeling of finally sitting in a cinema to watch this return was so deflating for me. I can’t say it entirely lacks laughs, but it does lack cohesion. I don’t doubt the cast had fun making it, but the experience of watching it is a little wearying, especially for a comedy film that nudges two hours in length.

I don’t in all honesty have much energy for getting into it all in detail. It just felt fairly slipshod, like a series of only barely-linked skits, held together by the character tropes so familiar from the first film. Ron remains a media dinosaur, unable to keep up with social changes that threaten to relegate him to a racist, misogynist relic (and yes, we get a bit of both here, presented within a context of media satire — after a fashion, considering it’s about thirty years late). Paul Rudd’s Brian is a woman-chasing lothario with indifferent success, David Koechner’s Champ is filled with barely-repressed feelings for Ron not to mention very little knowledge of the sports he reports on, and finally there’s Steve Carell’s weatherman Brick, still with a very low IQ but now with an incipient love interest (the well-matched Kristen Wiig, who manages to remain a charming screen presence for all the brief time she’s on). Finally, there’s Ron’s on-again off-again love interest Veronica (Christina Applegate), who basically plays the straight man to all of Ferrell’s comedy stylings.

The film’s central thesis is that news has become a vapid attempt to secure ratings, which is not exactly a groundbreaking idea, but at least it’s put across with some gusto. The bad guy is a blatant mashup of Rupert Murdoch (Australian media mogul) and Richard Branson (blond goatee and an airline) as the owner of the 24-hour television station which recruits Ron and his team, and needless to say, Important Lessons Are Learned by the film’s close, both for Ron, for his friends, and for the mogul. There are good scenes and funny ones too (and I did laugh at the dinner Ron shared with his black female boss and her family, for example), but the individual pleasures all feel so very transitory. Stylistically, it feels like something that will work much better on a TV-sized screen, but here comes across as cheap-looking and rather flat.

Still, it’s a comedy and it has some laughs. It will no doubt make many of its viewers pleased, especially those who’ve come to enjoy these fashionably retro characters. I like the first film, and I liked this one too, just not enough to want to think too hard about it, because every time I do it makes me feel less warmly towards it. Perhaps that’s the key though. Try not to think too hard. It seems to work for Brick.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues film posterCREDITS
Director Adam McKay; Writers Will Ferrell and McKay; Cinematographer Oliver Wood; Starring Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Monday 23 December 2013.