Sunday, January 25, 2015

Guest Post: Q. How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York? (The Lego Movie)

We finish off the run of guest posts with this piece from long-time commenter Sylocat on The Lego Movie.

The Near-Apocalypse of '09 launches next Sunday, February 1. If you'd like a taste of things to come, for a mere $2 a month donors to my Patreon can read up to 13 entries ahead of the public blog.

We got a master builder here!
One of the drawbacks of having a big amazing plot twist is that so many people will be talking about the Big Twist that the other points of the story sometimes get overlooked, including any little twists right before it. Paradoxically, the better the Big Twist is, the worse this problem becomes, even when the little twist is far more interesting.

And the Big Twist of The Lego Movie is good. Brilliant, in fact. It's also the most straightforward and least thematically-complex part of the movie. Oh, and one minor detail, the smaller twist is a bombshell that breaks down and inverts pretty much every single problem with Hollywood storytelling. So, why don't we talk about that for a while instead.


The concept of "Destiny," in fiction, has always been about keeping people in their allotted place.

Ancient dramas were geared around "destiny," because they were about challenging the fates and confronting the inevitability of death. Life was tough, random and mysterious back then, and it was considered hubris to strive for immortality, or even to step outside your station.

But now that we have a slightly greater understanding of how the world around us works (and slightly fewer things trying to kill us), we've stopped thinking so harshly of people who try to defy fate. Unfortunately, instead of ditching destiny as a plot device, it now just gets twisted around the other way. Now prophecies just tell the main character how awesome he (and it's almost always a he) is going to be, and just sits back and watches as everything goes according to the instructions, with all the pieces safely glued in place. Of course, destiny can also serve as the "Call to Adventure" checkbox on the Hero's Journey Checklist, with the bonus that the writers don't even need to spend any time developing character motivations (which is good, since writers want the main audience demographic of young straight white dudes to be able to project themselves onto the blank-slate character, so said character has to be utterly generic with motives as broad and unspecific as possible).

Fun fact: Joseph Campbell never wanted The Hero With a Thousand Faces to be a how-to guide for storytelling. It was an academic study of mythological anthropology, not an instruction manual. But when George Lucas credited it with helping him develop the pop culture phenomenon he spawned, every hack writer started xeroxing its diagrams, and grabbing every stock character and hackneyed plot device they could find, mass-producing them and assembling them together into a hodgepodge of said instruction booklet.

This is the danger of following instructions too closely: If the instructions you're working from don't apply to the pieces you have in front of you, they're not going to fit together. Unfortunately, common practice when faced with this dilemma is to either squeeze in or toss out any piece that isn't written there, then take whatever flimsy and hollow shell of a model you create, and call it a finished product. Then you act surprised when it falls apart.

You know, if the Star Wars prequel trilogy hadn't been so terrible, it could have been a brilliant deconstruction of the Chosen One/Destiny formula. Think about it: Anakin Skywalker is prophesied to be the one who destroys the Sith and brings balance to the Force... so all the good guys eagerly line up to fill out the standard stock-character roles as mentor figur(in)es and sidekicks, assuming that Anakin will follow the Joseph Campbell Checklist as faithfully as every other generic-white-dude protagonist. And then Anakin goes off-script, to put it mildly.

But that didn't work out, so now what we have is The Lego Movie.

The Lego Movie deliberately sets you up to think that it's playing right into this formula. Emmet, an ordinary guy voiced by yet another pretty white dude protagonist actor (also known as Star-Lord), is told he is The Special. The prophecy even lampshades itself:

One day, a talented lass or fellow,
A special one with face of yellow,
will make the Piece of Resistance found
from its hidden refuge underground.
And with a noble army at the helm,
This MasterBuilder will thwart the Kragle and save the realm,
And be the greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times.
All this is true, because it rhymes.

And the old white-bearded sage is even voiced by Morgan Freeman, which is just overkill (when I first saw the movie, I wondered why the last line of the prophecy wasn't just, "All this is true, because Morgan Freeman is saying it." But I suppose the audience would have felt too betrayed later on).

And in addition to telling generic White Guy Protagonist #(2.718 x 10^404e) that he is the greatest and most important person ever, the movie also brings in a Strong Female Character™ who introduces herself by kicking ungodly amounts of ass and building incredible and unique things in the blink of an eye, building her up as this omnicompetent take-no-crap badass. Of course, she becomes jealous when she learns that she wasn't the Special, but hey, you know how this will go, don't you? She just has to learn to accept that Emmet's the hero and her role is to be the sidekick and love interest and probably damsel-in-distress too at some point. The movie even pokes some fun at her taking the name "WyldStyle" because it sounds badass. She's just one of the pieces in a rebellious phase who needs to be settled into where she's supposed to be, amirite guys?

The movie does drop hints that all is not as it seems. The robot henchmen complain that they can't track Emmet by facial recognition because his face is so generic it matches every other face in the corporate database (gee, possibly because so many movies are about characters who look like him?), and Emmet's coworkers crack jokes about what a "Blank Slate" he is. And as a bonus, when Batman shows up, he provides a much-needed kick to the 90's-comics grim-and-gritty aesthetic that DC's movies have been mired in since 2005 (the trailer for every new Batman film or video game for the next half decade is going to have to endure a barrage of YouTube videos syncing it to the chorus of, "DAAARRRKNEEESSS! NOOOOOO PARRRENTS!").

But hey, this is probably just some cute little dodging of the issue, right? Like, if you acknowledge beforehand that something is bad, it mitigates it. Just like how the villain is named "Lord Business" even though the movie is financed and published and marketed and based on a franchise made, from start to finish, by people who doubtlessly epitomize that very archetype. Capitalism selling anti-Capitalism. The revolution has already been televised, and merchandised, and it's on sale for $19.95 at your local Hot Topic.

The movie even tells us to mock the bad sitcom, sports fandoms, soulless chain restaurants, pop music, and all those other safe targets (such as the bedtimes and babysitters that Princess Unikitty so vocally eschews) that mass-market counterculture prints instructions for the younger audiences to laugh at... but of course the movie would never dare to question the deeper underlying instructions behind those, right?

Just look at the merchandising for this movie. The whole story is about breaking free from the instructions and building your own ideas, and the LEGO manufacturers are selling piece sets of every supposedly "hodgepodge" set and vehicle from the film, and enclosing instructions on how to build things exactly like all the other nonconformists build.

But the movie doesn't follow those instructions either. Lord and Miller go off-script.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are rapidly gaining a reputation as "the guys you call when you have a really bad idea for a movie and want it to be really good." They have taken on a number of seemingly-impossible tasks, like adapting Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to the big-screen, and 21 Jump Street (and even worse, making a sequel to a movie like 21 Jump Street), and the things they've built from those hodgepodge pieces have ranged from pretty good to amazing. And here, they're tasked with making a movie out of LEGO, a brand so ubiquitous with its cheap tie-ins that, when Warner Bros. landed the distribution rights, they tossed in the LEGO tie-ins of every media franchise they had the rights to, from the aforementioned DC Comics, to Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles right down to the friggin' 2002 NBA All-Stars. And the problem is, most if not all of LEGO's "original" toy lines are thinly veiled ripoffs of all that stuff to begin with. In other words, the painfully obvious thing to do when building a LEGO Movie would be to just fill out the Joseph Campbell Checklist and call it a day.

So how do they make a good movie when those are all the pieces they have to work with? Simple: instead of just sprinkling in some cutesy self-aware jokes about how absurd this all is, they actually confront it. They actually address and take apart the underlying assumptions behind the very idea of a LEGO® movie, and moreover, behind the storytelling techniques that every film in this genre more or less has to use.

So the old magic wizard reveals that he made the prophecy up.

The generic-white-dude hero wasn't special because destiny said so, he was special because he was told he was, just like "Destiny™" in every bad movie tells him he is. Which means that the only thing stopping everyone else from being special is that they haven't yet been told they can be.

And thus the desecrated carcass of the Hero's Journey is finally exposed for the fraud that it is. Problems aren't solved by sitting around waiting for one person whose life story looks vaguely like the xeroxed instructions from that Joseph Campbell picturebook. They're not solved by taking one specific subclass of people and telling them that they were made to be heroes and warriors, while everyone else is just there to fill stock roles or occasionally look awed in the background of crowd scenes.

Our culture tells everyone who doesn't look like Emmet that they were manufactured to be sidekicks or love interests or villains or one-off joke characters... and that's wrong. Everyone can be a MasterBuilder just as easily. In fact, it's only when Emmet realizes this, when he understands that his specialness doesn't come from his being the Designated Protagonist but because that same specialness is in everyone, that he becomes able to build awesome things.

In case this was too subtle, WyldStyle looks out of the movie screen and spells it out directly to the audience.

"Hi everybody. You don't know me, but I'm on TV, so you can trust me."

During the first climax, which unfortunately got overshadowed by the Big Twist, WyldStyle and crew storm the set of a bad sitcom, hack into the network, and broadcast a speech onto every screen in the cosmos (or every herald's scroll, or whatever).

She reaches out to all the other people out there, the people whose faces don't match every other face in the corporate database, and tells them to build things that only they can build. Weird things, silly things, useful things, useless things, stupid things, brilliant things, and things that are all of those at once and more. To express themselves, to tell their own stories in their own worlds. And while they're at it, to tear down the orderly and prepackaged world around them and build something new in its place. Something strange, something risky... heck, maybe something so dumb and bad that no one would ever believe they could possibly be useful.

And whaddya know... their horrible ideas work as well as Emmet's did. When the big dumb (white) guy in the business suit comes to tear down all their creativity and shove everyone back into their allotted place, it's not anything Emmett built that give him pause. It's the funny-looking people's funny-looking creations, in all their clunky glory.

There are some parallels here with MLP:FiM, of course. Some truly great and sadly-overlooked art is made when creative people take prepackaged brands and sneak subversivity (and diversity… should that be "subdiversity?" I suppose that works, language is constructed by putting pieces together like that) past the studio bosses. Lauren Faust took a property designed to sell tea party playsets and plastic diamond tiaras to little girls, and turned it into one of the greatest feminist works of the 21st century. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller took LEGO, one of the biggest sellout brands ever, not to mention being contracted by Warner Bros. (a famously retrograde studio even by Hollywood standards), and made a movie that passes a set of revolutionary instructions to all the members of its audience who don't look like Chris Pratt... or like Jason Sand, despite his wonderful performance as the Small Creature who teaches the moral to the Man Upstairs.

Of course, the Small Creature doesn't quite know its own lesson yet. Witness its horrified, "What?" when the Even Smaller Creature's arrival is forecasted. And on a meta level, the voices of the Monsters from Planet Duplo sound exactly like that of the Even Smaller Creature, rather than the more diverse voice cast that the Small Creature imbues its own creations with.

Gee, I wonder what the sequel will be about.

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