The Lego Movie (2014)
by Steve Habrat
Almost any movie buff can tell you that January and February are far from the most exciting movie months of the year. Outside of a few Oscar nominees finally receiving the wide release treatment, audiences are stuck with—and astonishingly flock to—clichéd comedies, cable-channel action movies, vapid romantic comedies, and stiff horror movies that should have remained in their coffins. It’s extremely difficult to find a diamond in the rough, but every so often, one shimmering winner shines brightly through the piles of garbage. This year’s diamond in the rough is The Lego Movie, a rainbow explosion of sugary visuals and Adult Swim humor tailored for those far too young to know what Adult Swim is. Refreshingly weird, fast paced, and quick witted, The Lego Movie is an animated jewel that almost demands to be seen twice just so audience members young and old can appreciate the clever script from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It’s also a hallucinogenic tribute to soaring superheroes, pop culture icons, and cinematic classics that audiences have all come to know and adore over the years. Did I mention that it boasts an A-list cast enthusiastically lending their voices to these little plastic wonders, and that it also sends a wonderful message to children about the power of imagination?
The Lego Movie introduces us to everyman Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a happy-go-lucky construction worker who always follows his instruction manual for conforming to the world around him. Despite Emmet’s best attempts to fit in with the rest of the citizens of his Lego world, the bouncy little guy always seems like the odd man out. One evening, while leaving work, Emmet spots a mysterious girl called Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) snooping around the construction site. As Emmet goes to approach Wyldstyle, he slips down a hole in the ground, and comes face to face with a glowing red brick called the Piece of Resistance. Entranced by it’s beauty, Emmet attempts to touch the Piece of Resistance, but when he does, he passes out and wakes up in the clutches of Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is the muscle for Lord Business (voiced by Will Farrell), the sinister president of the Lego world. While being interrogated by Bad Cop, Emmet learns that the Piece of Resistance has attached itself to his back, and that Lord Business possesses a weapon called the Kragle, which is capable of freezing the entire Lego universe. Emmet is soon rescued by Wyldstyle, who takes him to meet the Master Builders—a group of heroes capable of building anything they can dream of. Among the Master Builders are a wizard called Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), the pirate Iron Beard (voiced by Nick Offerman), the overly positive Princess Uni-Kitty (voiced by Alison Brie), and ‘80s spaceman Benny (voiced by Charlie Day). It is with the Master Builders that Emmett learns that he is the “Special,” the one who can save every man, woman, and creature from Lord Business’ evil plot.
The Lego Movie’s hyperactive style and rapid-fire jokes will mostly certainly turn off viewers who aren’t open to this sort of thing. But for those willing to open their imagination to what Lord and Miller have thrown up on the screen, the rewards will stretch far beyond the film’s runtime. It’s almost a given that children will be powerless against its 200-mile-per-hour pacing and the barrage of characters both old and new zipping across the screen, but the filmmakers don’t forget about the parents or those (possibly inebriated) audience members looking for a hearty dose of artistic vision. Adult DC Comics fans are sure to have just as much fun as the kids as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern flash across the screen and cleverly poke fun at themselves, while Star Wars fans will certainly have a chuckle at one joke that flickers with Family Guy’s sense of humor. For those who spend their evenings in a marijuana cloud watching Adult Swim, the film’s bloodshot psychedelics and self-aware jabs will have them doubled over in their seats as trippy graphics and sly pop culture references leap out in 3D and call upon the spirit of Seth Green’s dementedly anarchic Robot Chicken. This strange brew may sound like an acquired taste, but rest assured when I tell you that there is a brilliant last act twist that helps this dizzying concoction of caffeinated inspiration go down smoothly.
When it comes to discussing the The Lego Movie’s wide array of characters, there is a long line of A-list actors lending their vocal chords to these little marvels. Chris Pratt brings his man-child charms to Emmet, our everyman hero who proudly stands behind his idea for a double decker couch. Will Arnett lends his gruff voice to Batman, growling the expected “I’m Batman” line with an extra sprinkling of cheese. He’s easily the most fun character of the bunch, mostly because he’s so overly confident even when he’s botching his batarang throws. Elizabeth Banks makes Wyldstyle an instant plastic sweetheart with a rough and tough side. Little girls in the audience are sure to adore her as she flips, spins, punches, and kicks her way through an army of robotic bad guys. Charlie Day screeches his way through the role of Benny, the ‘80s space man who desperately wants to build the crew a retro rocket ship. Alison Brie’s coo and unpredictable mood swings make Princess Uni-Kitty downright hilarious, as she is in constant turmoil with her excessive positivity. Morgan Freeman offers his trademark vocal talents to Vitruvius, a wise but slightly spaced-out wizard with eyesight complications. Will Farrell brings his maniacal cackle to Lord Business, snarling playful threats to our heroes and his endless supply of henchmen. Liam Neeson rounds out the main cast as Bad Cop, the hushed muscle of Lord Business who will suddenly unleash his peppy side.
While The Lego Movie’s razor-sharp sense of humor makes it an instant winner, the real refresher here is the amazing animation that offers a nice change of pace from the computerized creations from Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks. Though the characters and the world around them are brought to life with CGI magic, the film never truly looks like it was brought to life with a computer program. It looks like we are watching a stop motion miracle—a toy store Lego display that has suddenly leapt to crude life and started interacting with us. The filmmakers don’t forget to smartly call attention to the Lego figurine’s flexibility limits, most memorably with Emmet’s hysterical jumping jacks that he starts his day out with. The constant swirl of colors, characters, and action is all brought home with a thumping title track called “Everything is AWESOME!!” from Tegan and Sara, an indie rock duo who provide a electronic dance track that is sure to be an instant favorite in your family. Overall, with so many animated features struggling to win the hearts of both adults and children, The Lego Movie stands tall as a shining example of how to appeal to all ages. It dares to get a little weird, a little wild, and a little satirical, but it does it with plenty of heart and intelligence, sending an enduring message about the power and importance of imagination.
21 Jump Street (2012)
by Steve Habrat
How good it is to have the buddy cop movie back in action, brushing off the cobwebs that have formed over the tired genre all these years. Maybe it’s the odd couple pairing of funny guy Jonah Hill and chiseled Channing Tatum that gives the buddy cop genre fresh life and sends 21 Jump Street to soaring heights that I would have never thought possible! This revamped take on the 80’s television series gorges on pop culture references and classic action flicks all while leaving its own mark with its raunchy, rambunctious personality. At this party, anything goes, ranging from perfectly placed cameos, high speed action, and more toilet humor than you can shake a shot off penis at! 21 Jump Street’s keep-the-party-going mentality does get a bit exhausting at a few points, but the fatigue is quickly shaken by the uncertainty over what the film will throw at us next.
21 Jump Street picks up in 2005 where we meet nerdy Schmidt (Played by Jonah Hill), who looks like a slouchy Eminem without the rage and the jock bully Jenko (Played by Channing Tatum) as they near the end of their high school careers. Jenko can’t keep his grades up and therefore can’t attend the school prom. Schmidt, meanwhile, is trying to work up the nerve to ask the girl of his dreams to the prom, only to be coldly shot down and laughed at. The film speeds ahead to present day, where Schmidt and Jenko are currently attending a police academy and earning their badges. The two bump into each other and strike up a friendship despite the fact that Jenko bullied Schmidt in high school. They aid each other through the police academy and finally earn their badges, but after botching a drug bust, they are sent to 21 Jump Street. It is here that they meet their new scowling boss Captain Dickson (Played by Ice Cube) and learn they are going undercover at a local high school to bust up a drug ring. The two begin trying to infiltrate the group of kids they believe to be dealing the drugs, but they soon find themselves losing sight of their mission and get caught up reliving their glory days.
There is plenty of Hill’s trademark off-the-cuff adlibs to keep the audience in stitches through much of 21 Jump Street and the surprisingly funny Tatum matches Hill every step of the way. They are absolutely hysterical together watching their opposite personalities clash was a riot. Their chemistry keeps the audience giddy through much of the film and they are always making sure that you have a smile slapped across your face. It is clearly their show and everyone else makes sure that they don’t step on their toes, especially an insanely likable Ice Cube, who finally gets to release a few bellowing F-bombs that he has been bottling up inside while he has been starring in kiddie flicks. Then there is the supporting cast that is made up of Ellie Kemper as the tongue tied science teacher Ms. Giggs, who has the hots for Jenko, Nick Offerman as straight shooting Deputy Chief Hardy, Chris Parnell as ostentatious theater teacher Mr. Gordon, and Rob Riggle as the wacky motor-mouth coach Mr. Walters. The beauty is that every guest comedian gets a moment to shine, a chance to be center stage and leave his or her own mark in 21 Jump Street.
Much of 21 Jump Street plays around with the idea of reliving your glory days, when you didn’t have a care in the world. Schmidt suffers from never having taken a risk and never having much confidence in himself. When he goes undercover at the high school, he quickly works his way in with the cool kids and begins living the popular kid dream. Jenko, on the other hand, had way too much fun on his first run and now finds himself spending his evenings with the nerdy crowd, people he would have laughed at and tormented when he was in school. It is a knee slapping role reversal and it consistently works. Seeing Tatum play nerd is comedic gold but it is Hill who really turns up the funny, slowly finding himself infatuated with instant messenger and texting. He even gets a run at popular girl Molly (Played by Brie Larson), which adds a bubbly if a bit creepy romance aspect to the film.
Director’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller both keep 21 Jump Street zipping along making the finished product feel like a crazy party rather than a movie. It is ripe with nostalgia for rollicking action films and outrageously coarse teen comedies. They keep the film moving at a brisk pace, but at times, 21 Jump Street would hit a bump in the road that stalls the momentum the film naturally builds up. There are a few spots where the comedy isn’t as sharp as it was a few minutes earlier or even worse, a joke falls flat. Part of the problem is that both the directors and our leads fire off jokes so rapidly, it is hard to keep up and they begin getting lost in each other. This isn’t constant in 21 Jump Street and what a relief that is, but part of the problem may also lie in the fact that the film is a bit too long. An extended party sequence could have used a little trimming, as could a scene where Schmidt hangs out with teenage drug dealer Eric (Played by Dave Franco) at his home. But the film balances out with scenes like the uproariously funny car chase where our heroes, both wearing outrageous getups and zooming along in a driving school car, battle to be in control of the chase. It’s absolutely awesome, right down to the string of failed explosions that leave our heroes disappointed with each dud.
21 Jump Street may have a few dry spots but the film never looses our interest. You will be consistently entertained by it and you are left eager to see where they will take Schmidt and Jenko next, as I’m sure there will be another 21 Jump Street. The film also has an awesome cameo from original 21 Jump Street cast members Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, a sequence that almost steals all the thunder from Hill and Tatum. Be warned that 21 Jump Street is a ball of energy that will leave you choking on its dust if you are unable to keep up with it. I can’t say that you will walk away a better person when the credits roll on 21 Jump Street, but like the morning after a good party, you will stumble away breathless and energized, a little drained and dazed, raring to do it all again. That, my friends, is never a bad thing.