The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing. This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.
One of the great documentaries about film is Martin Scorsese’s “A Personal Journey Through American Movies,” in which the esteemed filmmaker outlined the various roles that a director can take. There was the director as storyteller, the director as illusionist, the director as iconoclast, and most importantly the director as smuggler. The “director as smuggler” referred to the way that filmmakers, especially those working within the Hollywood system, would often use commercial films as a sort of Trojan Horse as a means to tell stories with themes that were secretly personal, subversive, or political without offending or boring their audiences. I bring this up because the filmmaking team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have not so subtly seemed to build a career by smuggling semi-subversive commentary into films that otherwise appear hopelessly commercial. Their 21 Jump Street films, for example, appear from their trailers to simply be raunchy comedies based on a crappy old T.V. show. They are that of course, but to liven things up Miller and Lord filled these movies with in-jokes about the banality of Hollywood franchise thinking.
This approach works to their advantage firstly because it allows them to get the films made because of their veneer of commerciality, but also allows them to succeed because that same veneer gives critics and audiences such low expectations that they really don’t have to do a whole lot in order to impress people. The truth of the matter is, 21 Jump Street and its sequel aren’t exactly brilliant satire, they just seem that way when compared to the bland alternative and there’s something kind of ballsy about the way they sort of call themselves out. Additionally, the films have a certain unpretentiousness about the way they make their various points. In general Miller and Lord don’t consider themselves to be above the tropes they’re critiquing, but it also seems like they can’t bring themselves to fall into the usual filmmaking traps without calling it out.
So, how did these maestros of R-rated comedy break into Hollywood? Animated family movies actually. Yeah. In general animation directors and live action directors tend to stay segregated. A live action director like a Wes Anderson or a Gore Verbinski might dabble in animation from time to time and an animation director like a Brad Bird or an Andrew Stanton might try to break into live action occasionally but you rarely see filmmakers who are willing to keep feet in both worlds like Lord and Miller do. Of course I was familiar with their live action comedies, but I haven’t checked out their family friendly animated movies until now even though one has sort of become a phenomenon while the other has a number of fans and defenders. As such the time seems to be right to give these movies a chance.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
During my Pixar series I talked a lot about how Dreamworks Animation was sort of like Pixar’s evil twin. While Pixar seemed be run by people with a genuine passion for making movies, Dreamworks seemed to be run by greedy hacks who made dumb pandering movies directed straight at the lowest common denominator. It should be noted that as much as I hate what Dreamworks represents, they are clearly not the lowest of the low in terms of animation studios because they can at least claim to be innovators. As much as I dislike Dreamworks Animation’s house style, it was at least a style that they developed and improved upon to some degree over the years. The same cannot be said for the other two Hollywood animation studios that aren’t under the Disney umbrella: 20th Century Fox Animation and Sony Pictures Animation. These are the sudios that gave us movies like Surfs Up, Rio, The Smufs, Robots, Hotel Transylvania, and of course the four Ice Age movies. In other words, these two studios are in the rather dubious position of being blatant Dreamworks wannabes. They take everything that’s lame and disreputable about Jeffrey Katzenberg’s vision and turns it up to eleven.
And yet, it’s from one of these studios (Sony Pictures Animation) that Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who shall henceforth be lazily be referred to as PLCM) somehow managed to breakout as a major filmmaking force. Before that though, the two (who met at Dartmouth before heading out to L.A.) actually honed their skills at Disney… well, the Disney television division anyway. Their work their eventually resulted in the creation of an MTV animated series called “Clone High,” which was successful but was still cancelled after an episode featuring an irreverent depiction of Gandhi caused mass protests and hunger strikes in India. After that they were hired by Sony to write an adaptation of a picture book by Judi and Ron Barrett called “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” which told a fanciful story of a town that naturally had food raining on it for some reason. The two completely reworked that story, and after years of development they finally got their chance to make it into a feature length film.
This version of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” follows a young aspiring inventor who fits pretty well into the usual family film protagonist mold of the “well-intentioned misfit with daddy issues.” He apparently makes wacky inventions which keep blowing up in his face, but no matter how much he’s discouraged by the town, the police, and his father he just keeps on following his dreams. This of course culminates in his inventing a food replicator, but because this scientist is so damn clumsy it ends up launched into the sky where it starts raining down whatever food order gets sent to it by a computer on the ground. Formulaic shenanigans ensues as he needs to decide whether to keep on helping his town by keeping the food falling even though the food is beginning to mutate, or stop the gravy train and discard his newfound respect.
It’s pretty clear to me that this film is mostly in keeping with Sony Pictures Animation’s usual M.O. of ripping off the Dreamworks style at every turn. The animation style is mostly derivative, its humor is largely juvenile, and it also throws in trite “lessons” at the end to justify itself as a “positive” movie for kids. But is there something buried beneath the bland façade, something that PLCM smuggled in under the guise of banality. Well, maybe a little. They definitely show their penchant for calling out genre tropes here and there, particularly in relation to the film’s status as a disaster film of sorts. For example, there’s a scene where the food weather starts to invade the rest of the world leading to scenes where a sandwich uses the Eifel Tower as a toothpick and Mount Rushmore gets pies in the face. Immediately afterward we see a faux-news report where the anchor says something along the lines of “as usual, this weather is affecting landmarks first and then spreading out from there.” Also, in the grand disaster film tradition they make the town’s mayor a complete moron who does nothing but ruin things for everyone. PLCM’s movies often come really close to breaking the fourth wall like that and there are a handful of little moments like that here if you look for them.
That’s all well and good, and I suppose one could also view the film as an allegory for Rust Belt economic hardships and for global warming. However, most of this smart stuff is pretty deeply hidden beneath the film’s surface. In many ways most of it can be chalked up to routine Dreamworks style adult in-jokes that are thrown into an otherwise juvenile film. Instead I think what saves this film from being completely forgettable are some of its visual ideas. For example, there’s a scene where the protagonist constructs builds a gigantic hotel made entirely of orange Jell-o, which is the clear highlight of the movie to me. Elsewhere we see some other interesting things like a rolling fish bowl and a spaghetti tornado. Still, the overwhelming Dreamworksiness of it all still seemed to over-power the film and kind of kill it for me.
The Lego Movie
I’ve established already that PLCM have largely achieved prominence by picking projects that people have very low expectations for, and they might have outdone themselves in the regard with their early 2014 project The Lego Movie. Pretty much the only thing more disreputable than a movie based on a lame 90s cop show is a movie that is explicitly based on a toy line, especially a toy line which is as abstract and devoid of story as plastic building blocks. Personally, my disinterest had less to do with the fact that it’s based on a toy and more to do with the relentlessly upbeat tone that the film seemed to be selling. Every trailer and advertisement seemed to be selling this insane hyperactive perkiness that almost reminded me more of a Saturday morning cartoon than a film. Hell, it didn’t even seem like a cartoon, it felt like a cereal commercial that would air during a Saturday morning commercial: “everything is AWESOME when you watch the wacky fun adventures in the wonderful Lego™ world!” But, as often seems to happen in the kind of movies that show up in this article series, the critics suddenly started to rally around it and it became a cultural touchstone to my general annoyance. Unlike most of the movies that get covered in this series, I’m actually catching up with it relatively soon after its initial release.
Sometimes when I’m watching a movie like this I begin to wonder just how someone goes about making a movie like this. Someone must have to sit down at a computer somewhere and write a screenplay filled with stage directions like “Wyldstyle picks up objects around her and builds a motorcycle on the spot.” There is something genuinely impressive about being able to even dream up worlds like this and create a visual style that makes a “Lego world” come to life. Indeed the faux stop motion look that PLCM have created is interesting and computer graphics have really advanced to the point where the Lego people and Lego settings really do look like physical objects rather than polygons on a hard drive. What’s more they do some relatively creative things here and there like creating different “realms” based on the various kinds of Lego sets that have come out over the years or using little circular blocks in order to represent water.
Of course making a movie about Legos look good was probably the easiest part. The real challenge was making a movie about Legos and not making it look like the most crassly commercial nonsense imaginable. To counteract this impression I feel like PLCM were given a great degree of latitude that they may otherwise not have had to give a middle finger to a lot of commercialized aspects of society in ways that are gleefully unsubtle. The bad guy in this movie is named President Business for Christ’s sake, and the film also goes out of its way to mock people who strive for mediocrity and lap up the various opiates that the powers that be throw out to distract people from the smiling dystopia they live in. Case in point: “Everything is Awesome.” “Everything is Awesome” is not a good song and for that matter it isn’t supposed to be. It’s actually meant to be a stand in for mindless pop music and it also serves as propaganda telling the masses that their lives are perfect when they decidedly aren’t. That so many people in the real world seem to enthusiastically love this song even though it’s supposed to be the embodiment of evil is the height of irony, it’s practically the equivalent of right-wing war hawks mistaking Team America: World Police’s “America Fuck Yeah!” as a genuine bit of flag waving patriotism.
The film applies the same willful lack of subtlety in the way that it satirizes cinematic tropes, particularly the hero’s journey. After the protagonist discovers something called the Pièce de résistance (an item that PLCM must have wanted to call the Mac Guffin or something subtle like that at one point), thus fulfilling a prophesy that he would be the world’s most important person despite the fact that’s he’s kind of a dumbass screw-up. Damn near every scene of this movie is some kind of referential piss-take about common script structure and frankly I found it kind of tiring. I’ve long found genre-deconstruction to be kind of a cheap tactic, and this disinterest only grows in me the longer Joss Whedon’s influence looms over Hollywood. Movies like this and Cabin in the Woods kind of drive me nuts because they feel like they mainly just exist to point out tropes that everyone already knows about and do so with the smugly, like they think they’re the first ones to notice these things. This one was a little less irksome than some genre deconstructions, partly because it’s looking at general film tropes instead of the over-exposed patterns associated with super-rigid genre, but this still isn’t exactly my cup of tea.
I suppose this brings me to the film’s unexpected third act, the film daringly transitions to a live action piece where it’s revealed that the story we’ve been watching has in fact been a child’s fantasy as he plays with his father’s elaborate Lego models. Daring as this is, I don’t think it quite makes sense. Nothing about the story we’ve just seen and the comedy therein makes it seem like something an eight year old kid would come up with the film never really explains why these characters still seem to have some degree of agency even when they aren’t being directly controlled by the boy. That the Chris Pratt character is able to move in the real world makes zero sense and is inconsistent with every other aspect of the film’s framing story.
In general, I feel like The Lego Movie is just really over-stuffed. It’s a film that can’t just be a celebration of a beloved toy, or a satire about corporate control, or a parody of Hollywood conventions, or a meta-exploration of childhood imagination, or a rumination about the defense between order and creativity, or and pandering romp filled with pop culture cameos… it feels the need to be all of that and maybe doesn’t have the time to focus on any one of those things. In other words it’s a jack of all trades and master of none, and I found its anarchistic spirit a bit exhausting. It’s a movie that’s insanely desperate to please and it undermines its story at pretty much every opportunity. This is not to say I dislike the film, after all much of what’s thrown to the ceiling does in fact stick, but I tend to like my comedy a bit more disciplined and backed up by a stronger story.
So, I’ve now seen all four of PLCM’s movies and I’m left feeling that they are a pair of filmmakers who haven’t quite found the right balance. Let’s go back to the hypothesis that these guys are a modern embodiment of the director as smuggler. With Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs they concealed their sensibilities a little too well and weren’t really able to transform an otherwise fairly standard children’s movies, while I kind of wish that they’d done a little more to conceal their sensibilities with The Lego Movie. At this point I think the closest they’ve come to finding the right mix of comedy, storytelling, and meta commentary was with the first 21 Jump Street movie, and even that it pretty far from being what I’d call high art. Still, I would say I like these guys. They have a unique comedic sensibility and while it doesn’t always gel with my tastes I do think it’s good that they’re doing what they’re doing.