Thursday, February 27, 2014


Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra

2 out of 5

The remarkable career of Liam Neeson is filled with many detours, perhaps none more unlikely than his late-blooming action stardom and the creation of an archetype I like to call the "Neeson Hero."  This character, crystallized in 2008's Taken, is essentially a kindly father figure with a vicious mean streak that emerges when ever the innocent are threatened.  His sad, moony eyes and soothing brogue convey an innate trustworthiness, and his age - old enough to be thinking of grandchildren - means that he's typically fighting for something besides an inappropriately young love interest.  And his sensitivity belies his personal troubles, usually alcoholism or a lingering guilt regarding his relationships with family and friends.

Non-Stop is the latest project to emerge from this template, a mildly diverting hijacking thriller that simply runs down the Neeson Hero checklist without adding anything to it.  Neeson stars as Bill Marks, an air marshal aboard a transatlantic flight who receives a threatening text message that promises someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes unless a ransom is paid.  In the beginning, Marks attempts to follow procedure but runs into obstacles:  his skeptical fellow marshal (Anson Mount) surmises that the text is a prank; his superiors on the ground don't have enough evidence to ground the plane; and besides, they are over the middle of the Atlantic, hours away from the nearest landing strip.

What follows is a rote exercise in lone-wolf action and dubious logic with only intermittent flashes of sanity, as the unseen terrorist's plot evolves into an elaborate frame-up of Marks.  Non-Stop proceeds with this fanciful scenario despite the queasy subtext it engenders: a hectoring government agent storming through the cabin, making increasingly invasive and aggressive demands of the passengers, Neeson looks every bit like the bad guy he's set up to be, not the fiercely defiant hero the movie needs him to act like.  This is less of a problem for the other characters, however, easily forgiving a man appearing to abuse his authority and acting like a total bully, so long as he delivers heartfelt, reassuring speeches proclaiming is innocence.  (One passenger jumps to Marks' side literally moments after the marshal breaks his nose.)

Non-Stop is guilty of all the sins of a lazy action thriller.  It wastes Julianne Moore as an ally of Marks who reveals a huge personal secret irrelevant to the rest of the plot.  Everyone has a terribly cloying or cliched backstory, a small child is used as an instrument of peril, and the closely-guarded reveal of the villain's true intentions makes absolutely no sense.  The filmmakers also have a strange and distasteful fetish for encouraging the audience to see the characters as stereotypes.  They seem to take delight in making us suspicious of a bearded Muslim doctor and a defiant black passenger just so they can pretend to subvert our discriminatory notions with lame red herrings.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra tries to keep things fresh on the visual side by sending his camera swooping across rows of seats and down aisles.  He even sneaks in a couple of long takes that effectively build tension without feeling conspicuously stylized.  But this ultimately matters little when working with material this rote and hackneyed.  There's something to Neeson's against-the-grain appeal that keeps films like Non-Stop from complete failure; unlike lots of action-man automatons, he has emotional depths that make you believe he really is just a softie who's been pushed too far.  But the Neeson Hero inhabits an uncomplicated world where the good survive and the bad are punished, and, in the case of Non-Stop, all is tied together in a weird tarmac denouement that's oddly reminiscent of Snakes on a Plane.  He endures - even as his adventures become increasingly interchangeable.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Jump Cuts: Reconsidering Visual Effects and CGI

If editing is the invisible art of moviemaking, then special effects are its eminently visible counterpart.  It’s what we mean when we refer to the “spectacle” of the movies.  And once upon a time, the backstage craft of effects specialists was just as visible in the onscreen result.  Whether a special effect was produced through matte paintings, rear projection, miniatures, or some other ingenious form of optical trickery, they usually had some sort of tactile quality, making it easy for audiences to extend the same suspension of disbelief afforded to an actor playing a character or a director constructing a fictional world.

Then came the computers.  The ubiquity of computer-generated imagery (CGI) today is a story of a decades-long technological revolution that has completely changed the way we perceive special effects.  First, there’s the general audience fatigue that seals the fate of one or two CGI-heavy blockbusters every year.  There’s also the studio arms race to create films full of “trailer moments” that show off expensive effects work, paradoxically leading to subsets of jaded viewers clamoring for a return to “practical” effects, as well as eliding the fact that CGI is often used to enhance movies in smaller, more subtle ways.

As is often the case with the Hollywood rank-and-file, CGI artists toil in anonymity and rarely receive personal recognition when a film succeeds.  With the exception of George Lucas' pioneering Industrial Light and Magic and maybe Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, visual effects companies are not recognizable brands.  Aside from those two titans, the most famous effects house is probably Rhythm & Hues, which made headlines last year by filing for bankruptcy shortly before winning a Best Visual Effects Oscar for its work on Life of Pi.

The Rhythm & Hues case is indicative of how little respect the CGI craft receives from the public and the industry at large.  It's even reflected in the nomenclature: somewhere along the line we went from "special" to "visual" effects, underscoring the paradox that surrounds the effects industry that painstakingly creates the CGI wizardry we've come to expect in big blockbuster films, only to have its work dismissed with a yawn.  Been there, mo-capped that.  To that I say: CGI deserves better.  And to prove it, I'm looking at four films that demonstrate 1) how far CGI has come since the turn of the century and 2) how visual effects can give bad to mediocre films one of their few (and often only) notable qualities.

Animation has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to film technology, and CGI is no exception - witness the massive success of Toy Story in 1995.  But Disney's Dinosaur (2000) was something different entirely.  Hatched from an idea for a dialogue-free stop-motion epic from director Paul Verhoeven and effects legend Phil Tippet (who worked together on RoboCop and Starship Troopers), Dinosaur evolved into a more conventional Disney picture, albeit with a risky twist: it places completely CGI characters onto backgrounds that were filmed on location across the globe.  Telling the story of a herd of dinosaurs and their lemur companions struggling to survive after a cataclysmic asteroid impact, the movie has a surprising fluidity in its painstakingly detailed character designs.  And while the close-ups trend toward the uncanny valley - especially when framed by lush real-world vegetation - Dinosaur contains a number of striking images, the best being a procession of dinosaurs in long shot moving through a dry wasteland and silhouetted against a setting sun.  It's not only impressive, it's damn near poetic, and an important stepping stone in the compositing of CGI creations with live-action footage.  (Something had to fill the sizable gap between Blarp and Gollum.)

Much like Dinosaur, Kerry Condon's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) was an audacious experiment: the first studio film to be shot entirely on blue screen.  Form supports function in this swashbuckling actioner that imagines an alternate 1939 as a whirling dieselpunk fantasy where the famous mercenary Sky Captain (Jude Law) is called upon to find out why giant robots are terrorizing cities around the world.  Resembling the fever dream of a a kid obsessed with Indiana Jones, old-school flying aces, and pulp sci-fi magazines, Sky Captain has an entirely unique visual sensibility that nails the look of a 1940s action serial with big budget production values, right down to the classic low-key lighting that was (wait for it) mostly computer-generated.  Still, despite coming in at a modest budget by modern blockbuster standards, Sky Captain was a financial failure.  Many blamed the "gimmicky" technology for detaching audiences from an acceptable cinematic reality, but I would argue that the clumsy dialogue and overstuffed plot are the real culprits. 

Sure enough, other filmmakers began to follow Condon's lead.  Robert Rodriguez's Sin City and Zack Snyder's 300 proved the financial viability of hermetic blue screen cinema, paving the way for films like Frank Miller's considerably less awesome The Spirit (2008).  Miller (who co-directed Sin City with Rodriguez) was considered the perfect choice to bring Will Eisner's 1940s Everyman crime fighter to the big screen based on his long personal relationship with Eisner, despite Miller himself hinting that their friendship was oftentimes contentious.  There's definitely a major disconnect as the film oscillates between cartoonish, tongue-in-cheek action and Miller's tiresome faux-boiled attitude and creepy leering gaze toward the movie's considerable roster of femme fatales.  It's best to focus on The Spirit''s daring visual style, culled from Miller's hand-drawn storyboards and brought to life by effects artists who manage to make Central City the movie's most vibrant character.  The CGI suggests an alternate past that's moodier and more convincing than Sky Captain, but it's the subtle enhancements, like the splash of color in the hero's fluttering red tie and the glowing soles of his shoes, that give The Spirit a true personality and almost transcend some of the movie's conspicuously wooden performances.

Blue (or green) screen acting remains a market inefficiency few have capitalized on (see: Fraser, Brendan), and while Immortals (2011) is not a game-changer in that sense, it does illustrate how CGI re-affirms and deepens the old wisdom about cinema being a collaborative medium.  Director Tarsem Singh described the look of his 3D sword-and-sandals adventure as "Caravaggio meets Fight Club" and you can see every department of his crew pulling toward that visual benchmark.  Sumptuously detailed costumes, props, and built sets convey Singh's vision for both the audience and the actors (though Mickey Rourke's half-rabbit, half-piranha helmet is more menacing than any part of his phoned-in performance).  But it's incomplete without the work of the effects house - essentially a crew-within-a-crew - which conjures towering Aegean cliffs, the fortress of the gods above Mount Olympus, and every location in between from footage shot on Montreal soundstages.  Simply put, Immortals' heavy use of CGI sure beats the generic deserts of the Clash of the Titans remake, and adds a painterly quality that distracts from the film's gradual transformation into a brutishly violent revenge flick.  The spectacle, however, is appropriate for a story steeped in Greek mythology.  And as CGI becomes commonplace in movies big and small, such tensions between the "practical" and the digital, tactile craftsmanship and technological mastery, are being met more often with a simple question: why can't we have both?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Vampire Academy

Vampire Academy 
Dir. Mark Waters

1.5 out of 5

A bloody mess of romance schlock, horrendous dialogue, and supernatural gobbledygook, the misfiring Vampire Academy at least contains one moment where I could identify with flip heroine Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutsch).  Anticipating an attack on her best friend, the royal vampire Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), at the big school dance, Rose owns up to the unpredictability of the situation: "At this point, I can't remember who hates us or who loves us," she admits, "but let's make tonight our bitch."  It's a most appropriate tagline for an utterly confusing, poorly edited, and exposition-heavy film that, indeed, makes the basic language of cinema its bitch.

The hard-to-follow plot centers on Rose, a human-vampire hybrid called a "Dhampir" whose sole purpose in life is to protect a wealthy, telegenic class of full-blooded vampires known as "Moroi" from their uglier, more venal counterparts, dubbed the "Strigoi."  She studies her craft at St. Vladimir's, a training ground for young vampires and sorta-vampires hidden in the Montana wilderness where a majority of the student body is inexplicably British.  Vampire Academy is basically one massive information dump disguised as a film.  A pure wish fulfillment manifestation for the readers of the young adult book series on which it is based, it gives no quarter to audience members struggling to understand or care about the ludicrously rapid progression of romances, prophecies, and oblique clues that help Rose solve a mystery regarding the threats on Lissa's life.

Vampire Academy is clearly aiming for a Twilight-starved demographic that does not include me, but that's no excuse for shoddy filmmaking.  Siblings Mark and Daniel Waters certainly have the credentials - the former directed Mean Girls, while the latter wrote the immortal Heathers - to oversee a sassy, self-aware high school romp.  But the flimsiness of the material is echoed in its one-dimensional characters.  There's also a huge disconnect between the wisecracking Rose and the rest of her pouty, pompous peers.  Deutsch's nonchalance, though annoying at times, is the one thing keeping the movie from collapsing under the strain of its inane plotting.

To be fair, Vampire Academy wants nothing to do with the regressive gender and sexual politics featured in Twilight, and is far more reasonable regarding teenage relationships, both platonic and romantic.  That's an awfully low bar, though, and the movie isn't shy about establishing its own brand of creepy.  Vampire Academy is an enthusiastic proponent of inappropriate love interests, pairing the 17-year-old Rose with a hunky faculty member named Dimitri (Danila Kozlovsky) who's several years her senior.  But what's most offensive is the sheer volume of superfluous information foisted upon the viewer.  Though the filmmakers take pains to introduce a complex mythology and over-explain the vampire hierarchy, little of it is relevant to the film's rather mundane and obvious central mystery.  Maybe that last part is a relief.  For a movie that feels more like homework than entertainment, Vampire Academy at least has the courtesy to dumb down the final exam.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

RoboCop (2014)

RoboCop (2014)
Dir. José Padilha

3 out of 5

"Deferential" is the best way to sum up director José Padilha's approach to RoboCop, a remake of the 1987 classic about a left-for-dead cop reclaimed and re-branded as the savior of crime-ridden Detroit.  In addition from its main character and a few nods in the direction of its source text, Padilha and 
screenwriter Joshua Zetumer celebrate the legacy of the Paul Verhoeven-helmed original by recycling its cautionary tale of corporate malfeasance and connecting it to contemporary concerns such as artificial intelligence, state surveillance, and drone warfare.  And while the investigation of these themes is admittedly less than rigorous, their very existence gives RoboCop what so many other lazy, mechanistic remakes lack: a soul.

When Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is badly disfigured by a car bomb, his only hope for survival lies with Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), whose company manufactures combat robots for the American military.  Sellars wants to tap into a lucrative domestic security market ,but is barred by a federal law that prevents the use of robots as potential arbiters of life and death in a criminal justice system.  He needs to prove that he can create a machine with the empathy of a human.  Enter Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who fuses Murphy's remains with a state-of-the-art supercomputer and a powerful exoskeleton that allows him to continue patrolling the streets.  Here Padilha makes Murphy's connection to Frankenstein's monster more explicit than Verhoeven ever did, a motif that continues when Murphy's increasingly dispassionate behavior begins to alienate his family.  

However, this RoboCop is ultimately less about one man reclaiming his identity and more about the trials of any person - robotically enhanced or not - struggling to preserve their humanity within a corrupt system.  Padilha puts such a cerebral spin on the material that he loses much of the poignancy of Murphy's transformation and gradual acceptance of his new self.  But in pulling the focus away from RoboCop himself and onto his creators, the movie gains an intriguing subtext that suggests how Murphy could be a metaphor for the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood remakes.  As the corporate power structure pressures Norton to chip away at Murphy's personality and emotions, replacing them with predictable programmed behaviors, the doctor offers passionate but doomed resistance that's tellingly quashed by promises of greater resources.  Gradually lobotomizing Murphy tests Norton's conscience, yet he swallows all the excuses and believes that some good can still come of his work.

It's possible to read too much into Padilha's intentions, as he adheres to a far more conventional tone than the playfully subversive original.  The film's imagination is likewise limited to current trends in action cinema, as Murphy's upgrades (enhanced speed! incredible jumping ability!) belong more in the realm of superheroes than robots.  Still, Padilha's serious approach masks its rebel heart, and his social critique sneaks through in flourishes like Samuel L. Jackson's po-faced parody of a right-wing media demagogue.  Such authorial fingerprints, along with the stellar performances of an immensely qualified supporting cast, rescues RoboCop from the dustbin of forgettable PG-13 shoot-em-ups.  It doesn't quite redeem remakes - it's hard to imagine any film doing so, let alone a remake of such an influential and cultishly-adored property - but it wisely refuses to compete with the original, making an admirable attempt to engage its audience with more than just name recognition.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Adult World

Adult World
Dir. Scott Coffey

3.5 out of 5

For recent college graduates like Amy (Emma Roberts), the plucky heroine of Adult World, the first steps outside of the ivory tower can be a jarring experience.  There's a sense of progress embedded in the path to a diploma, as well as an intoxicating finality that hides the fact that there's much more learning to be done before any goals can be achieved, if they're even achieved at all.
But while the title conjures up all sorts of ideas about life lessons and the cruel realities of the "real world," director Scott Coffey and writer Andy Cochran are relatively uninterested in a pat exploration of post-grad disappointment.  There's a distinct lack of comfort in Adult World's quirky portrayal of the teeming possibility and abject shittiness of being young and full of dreams.  Amy's dream is to become a famous poet, a noble career path but one that has left her with few employable skills as she struggles to carve out her literary niche.  Desperate for a way to pay the bills, she gets a job at an old-school porn shop ("Salinger worked at a meat-packing plant," she rationalizes) - a position that lights a path to personal and artistic liberation, but not necessarily in the ways you'd expect.
Adult World is spot-on in its lampooning of a certain breed of young strivers.  Amy develops a fixation on her favorite poet, Rat Billings (John Cusack), stalking him in the hopes of obtaining a mentor.  Billings is initially repulsed, then amused, and agrees to take Amy as his unpaid assistant while dispensing anti-motivational nuggets of wisdom like "Fame is your generation's Black Plague."  Roberts and Cusack's excellent chemistry bolsters the film's unique and honest exploration of an oft-ignored generation gap.  Cusack is particularly brilliant as a once-great mind gone to seed, his Gen-X apathy and cynicism clashing with Roberts' Millennial type-A tenacity and cheerful self-delusion.
The duo is so good, in fact, that the rest of the movie feels a bit undercooked in comparison.  The porn-store angle is poorly developed, aside from contributing some welcome sex-positive vibes.  Several supporting characters are cut-and-pasted from the indie comedy template, from the wacky transgender diva Rubia (Armando Riesco) who occasionally takes Amy under her wing, to Amy's sensitive co-worker and love interest Alex (Evan Peters), a nonchalant heartthrob who's perfect for the film's lukewarm romantic subplot.  And though Adult World tries is damnedest to recreate the loose, semi-episodic rhythms of real life, it's undercut by moments of embarrassing sitcom zaniness or inexplicable plot coincidences.  (Or sometimes both, as in a scene when Rubia and Amy chase Billings' car on a stolen two-seater bike that someone just happened to be a snowstorm.)
Still, the intermittent pressure to go broad can't ruin Adult World's charmingly low-key bonhomie.  Even its third-act twist, which initially scans as aggravating, is secretly brilliant as it finally brings the film's hilariously curdled view of artistic authority into focus.  While so much of growing up seems like an invitation to obey rules and follow a rigid plan, Adult World cleverly casts it as a tale of managed expectations.  Like Amy herself, the film is not as confident as it initially appears, but at least Coffey remains open and undaunted as he tries to shape his movie into what he truly wants it to be.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men
Dir. George Clooney

2.5 out of 5

When big-name actors transition into the director's chair, over time they tend to reveal personal sensibilities that cut against the grain of their famous onscreen personae - think of Clint Eastwood's hardness melting into empathy for the discarded and downtrodden, or Robert Redford's slickness masking an affinity for social justice.  Five films into his directorial career, George Clooney is still an enigma.  His latest effort, the ensemble war picture The Monuments Men, reaffirms his fondness for the polish, glamour, and moral earnestness of old Hollywood while continuing his romp through the most popular genres of bygone eras.  (Screwball comedy? Check.  Political thriller?  Check.  Stoic black-and-white biopic?  Check.)  What remains clear is that Clooney, perhaps the last of the old-fashioned movie stars, genuinely enjoys old-fashioned movies.

Based on a true story, The Monuments Men centers around a special military unit created in the waning months of World War II tasked with identifying valuable works of art and protecting them from destruction during the Allied march to Berlin.  What begins as an academic enterprise quickly turns into a treasure hunt for professor-turned-soldier Frank Stokes (Clooney) and his handpicked, multinational team of art experts.  Together, they must become crack detectives and espionage agents as they search for the stolen artworks squirreled away by the retreating Nazis.

Split between solemn reverence and arch humor, the film struggles to find an appropriate balance.  It's both overlong and not comprehensive enough, shunting its characters off into self-contained adventures that blend lighthearted character antics with periodic bursts of violence.  The former is not a problem for the heavy-hitting cast full of stellar comic actors like Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Jean Dujardin, but the film's divide-and-conquer strategy prevents Clooney from establishing a consistent tone.  Likewise, the staccato narrative framework often pulls away from promising plot threads before they're given a chance to develop.  (The best subplot, involving Cate Blanchett as a French art scholar and reluctant Nazi collaborator who redeems herself by aiding Stokes' men, feels particularly slighted by the movie's structure.)

To be fair, Clooney bravely devotes a good chuck of screentime to oddball hijinks in a movie that could've easily been another warmed-over pastiche of war movie clichés.  The cast also has a genuine camaraderie that adds to the drama of the chase.  Still, there's something distastefully self-flattering about his slick and uncomplicated portrayal of this intriguing slice of the wartime experience.  The Monuments Men makes a misguided effort to engage with star power, which unfortunately makes the film appear glib and insensitive in light of the real sacrifices it portrays.  It's a confident film that radiates charm and idealism but makes you wonder what else is going on beneath that glossy surface.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Field in England

A Field in England
Dir. Ben Wheatley

4 out of 5

In the midst of the English Civil War, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a cowardly alchemist's assistant, tumbles through a hedgerow to escape a bloody skirmish.  There he meets three other deserters - the briney Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), the dimwitted Friend (Richard Glover), and the stern Cutler (Ryan Pope).  Jacob and Friend insist upon locating an alehouse, claiming to have heard of one just a few miles away.  All they have to do is cross one tranquil, harmless-looking field.
A Field in England is the fourth film from British director Ben Wheatley (Kill List), who's garnered a reputation for jumbling dirge-like avant-garde filmmaking with profoundly visceral action and emotion.  Through its elliptical editing and shambling, druggy pace, Field initially scans as more of the same - the best bad trip of the 17th century, if you will.  But it's really more than that: A Field in England is nothing less than a psychotronic journey of self-discovery involving hallucinogenic mushrooms, buried treasure, venereal disease, and other sundry pleasures of a day out in the country.
Before a brief meal where the group consumes the mind-altering mushrooms - save for Whitehead, who is fasting for religious reasons - the alchemist's assistant explains that he and his master have been searching for an Irish troublemaker named O'Neill.  In war, many scores are settled which have little to do with the conflict at hand, and this elusive man was the alchemist's intellectual rival, and stole valuable artifacts related to the academic study of astrology: "prediction, prophecy, divination" as Whitehead explains to his uneducated colleagues.  The men are still sussing each other out when they arrive at a rope wrapped around a post.  With much difficulty they unravel the rope.  At the end of the rope, somehow, is O'Neill.
That's neither the first nor last thing in this Field that comes from completely out of the blue, but it all grows organically from the film's carefully cultivated sense of mysticism.  Wheatley does a tremendous job of establishing this field as a place that does not conform to the normal laws of nature, leaving it to the audience to speculate the cause.  Is it the drugs?  Is it the intense superstition that even learned men like Whitehead accept as common knowledge?  Is it real, genuine magic?  All we know is that there's something about O'Neill's sudden appearance that compels the three soldiers to buy his promises of a hidden cache of gold buried in the field - especially when O'Neill conjures a spell that turns the defiant Whitehead into a sort of human divining rod.
Though portentous at times - this is a black-and-white historical fiction drug movie, after all - A Field in England is an alluring tale of dark magic and darker intentions, bolstered by Wheatley's impressive technical chops (the way he uses sound design to create a lingering sense of dread is positively Lynchian).  Its "head" sequences are balanced by measured doses of humor and action, in addition to something that's a rarity in psychedelic cinema - an honest-to-god character arc.  Whitehead's book learning and genteel manners are of little import in this unfathomable scenario.  He may be an impressively self-educated man, but he was essentially just a slave to one of his social betters before the field.  Now, he finds himself at the odds with another master magician whose only weakness lies within the field itself, in the same primordial source of energy that gives O'Neill his power.  Similarly, A Field in England is a gutsy movie guided by little more than a surreal sense of logic, far from coherent but undoubtedly bold and singular in its wild, trippy vision

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie
Dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller

3 out of 5

"Everything is awesome!" chirps the theme song of the lively-yet-formulaic The Lego Movie, which doubles as the motto of the film's protagonist, a naive construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt).  Like the rest of his fellow citizens in Bricksburg, he lives according to a set of instructions that enforce a cheerful conformity in everything from dress to architecture to sitcom viewing habits.  Emmet's pursuit of homogeneity extends to his occupation, where it's his responsibility to demolish "weird stuff" that threatens the sanctity of the instructions.  Everything changes when Emmet finds an unusual Lego piece with special significance to a secret society of creative freethinkers called the Master Builders.  Or, more accurately, some things change.  Though the Master Builders immediately hail his discovery of their sought-after "piece of resistance" as proof that he is the Special, a savior prophesied by the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), it never really occurs to Emmet - or the makers of The Lego Movie, for that matter - that if everything is awesome, then nothing truly is.

Now, wouldn't that be quite the subversive message for an unabashed 90-minute toy commercial?  To its credit, The Lego Movie sneaks in as much cheekiness and satire as its mission will bear.  That's mostly due to the sensibilities of co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, also known as the guys who helped re-imagine 21 Jump Street as a smart skewering of buddy-cop tropes.  And early on, The Lego Movie is indeed a surprisingly sarcastic takedown of modern corporate complacency, from the ultra-generic decoration of Emmet's apartment (complete with posters that advertise "A Popular Band") to the diabolical plotting of Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an insecure bureaucrat whose fanatical belief that the world of Lego should never be altered leads to the development of a terrifying weapon.  It's up to Emmet and a motley crew of Builders - including uber-secret agent Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), '80s technology fetishist Benny (Charlie Day), and Batman (Will Arnett) - to stop Business and return their world to the days of unfettered creativity.

The Lego Movie owes a heavy debt to movies like Toy Story, with which it shares a fundamental sense of humor about the secret world of inanimate objects, and adds belief that imagination cannot flourish within strict boundaries.  However, Lord and Miller punt on their most intriguing ideas as the film shifts into a rapid-fire pattern of riotous sight gags and self-referential humor.  It’s all exceedingly cute and clever - as if acknowledging the irony of forcing a narrative onto a toy designed to spark creative ingenuity - before taking an overly mawkish third-act turn that belies the film's wit.  At least the early ambition of the story is sustained in the visuals, as The Lego Movie looks unlike any other animated film.  Utilizing a mix of computer and stop-motion animation, it takes inspiration from every corner of the Lego universe to pack the frame with an incredible amount of detail and in-jokes, which sometime fly by too quickly to be fully appreciated.
Ultimately, there are two ways to play with Legos: follow the instructions in the box or let your imagination run wild.  While The Lego Movie wishes to capture the spirit of the latter, in practice it's more of the former, a precise and pleasant family entertainment that sticks to an esteem-boosting "everyone is special" message.  It's a little disappointing to see wry, genre-savvy filmmakers like Lord and Miller struggle with the limitations of the movie's conventional form, but at least they try to break that mold wherever they can, making The Lego Movie as awesome as it can possibly be.