LEGO MOVIE vs. WRECK-IT RALPH: “You Gotta Have Heart!”

Okay, mea culpa for the errors in the last two columns. (Mea culpa, you-a culpa, we all-a culpa!) I wrote a couple of things where I could have either researched, or not depended on an increasingly fallible brain… and I was called on them. (Example: It was Honor Blackman, not Anne Francis, who played Cathy Gale in The Avengers prior to Diana Rigg.) Thanks to all who commented and/or corrected me!

Figure 1 - Tinkertoy set circa 1950s
Figure 1 – Tinkertoy set circa 1950s

When I was growing up, the main “building” or “construction” toys were Meccano (I lived in England for a few years)—which was comparable to the US Erector Set, both made of metal using bolts and nuts for construction; Lincoln Logs, which were mostly useful for building toy log houses, being made of wood; Tinkertoys (Figure 1), also made of wood—but you could make a lot of things including vehicles; and one of my favourites, a Girder and Panel set (from Kenner) that let you make real-looking scale skyscrapers, all made out of plastic. There were also cheap knockoffs of all the main ones—and probably more than a few types I never saw. By the time I was in high school, Lego had made its appearance (1961) in North America, so I mostly missed my chance to play with it. It’s probably safe to say that anyone born since 1961 has used Lego in their childhoods.

Which is not to say that as an adult I’ve completely missed out; I’ve played with Lego a bit now and then. My wife, the lovely and talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, however, has never put two Legos together (bear with me; this is germane to the column). Also germane: I’ve played a lot of video games (and continue to do so even now), not only in arcade form (I used to repair pinball machines and arcade games of various kinds), but also on PC, Mac—and other computer platforms—and on dedicated platforms like PlayStation, Xbox (and Xbox 360); also handhelds like GameBoy, PlayStation Plus and so on. I have a smallish collection of old computer games and platforms, so I’m fairly knowledgeable about gaming; I also play some games—like Star Wars Angry Birds —on my Android tablet. (And I’ve played a couple of Lego computer games.) Lynne, however, has never played anything more complicated than Pong, I believe. Again, this is germane to this column.

Upon my return from Missouri a few days ago, I immediately went off and rented a couple of movies; I’ve watched quite a few since then. Last night it was The Lego Movie, which I was assured by a number of people was very funny and well worth watching. Lynne watched it with me. About three-quarters of the way through, Lynne turned to me and said “I have a couple of comments about this movie, but I’ll wait until it’s finished to see what you have to say about it.” We finished watching, and I turned to her and asked her for her comments, which I’ll tell you in a moment. Before I do so, I have to tell you that I agree completely with what she said. Lynne is my touchstone for movies: if a movie has pointless violence, she’ll notice it first; likewise if it has pointless CGI, she’ll see it before I do, and so on. Whereas I just absorb the movie at first viewing, she reacts to things that aren’t really serving any useful purpose in the movie.

So what did she say? She said first of all that she’d never played with any Lego, and only played some very simplistic computer game like Pong; and secondly, in her opinion, that Wreck-It Ralph was a much better movie that connected with her on a human level—with characters one could believe in and care for, despite their being video game characters—as opposed to this movie, which is—and remains all the way through—a “gimmick” movie; that is, the gimmick is making it seem as if this movie was a stop-motion movie made with Legos. There’s nothing really deep or human in it; it has some jokes—like all the “bit” players played—some—by the real-life actors who made those roles famous, like Anthony Daniels playing Lego C3PO or Billy Dee Williams playing Lego Lando (Calrissian); but the story and all the characters are flat (despite Lego’s 3D-ness) and have no resonance. Even the key plot point about the “Piece of Resistance” is flat (and no, I’m not going to tell you what that point is). It remains a gimmick movie and never goes deeper than that.

Figure 2 - Wreck-it Ralph and Vannelope
Figure 2 – Wreck-it Ralph and Vannellope

Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) is a construction worker like many other construction workers; he’s happy working for President Business (Will Ferrell), living alone with only a plant for company, and watching “Where Are My Pants” at night while having the occasional beer out, while singing Everything is Awesome. Before we meet Emmet, we find that President Business is really the evil Lord Business (for some reason, wearing a headdress that is extremely reminiscent of Marvel’s Galactus’s, even though all the “comic” characters in this are DC Comics characters, like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern) and is being fought by the wizard Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman) because Lord Business wants to use the artifact The Kragle to end all life (or something like that). Vitruvius tells Lord Business of a prophecy that The Piece of Resistance (obviously a pun on the term pièce de resistance) will be found by a Special Piece (character) who will be a Master Builder and nullify The Kragle.

Nobody is happier in the job than Emmet, who loves his “awesome” life, until he meets Wyldesyde/Lucy, who is on the job site after hours searching for the Piece of Resistance; Emmet accidentally becomes physically attached to The Piece and is taken to meet Vitruvius, who tells him Emmet is a Special; they are both Master Builders and Emmet must attach The Piece to the Kragle (small spoiler: it’s actually a tube of Krazy Glue with a few letters scratched out… mispronunciations of various real-world things is a running joke in this movie) and thus defeat the evil Lord Business—or maybe he’s The Man Upstairs. Emmet, assisted by Wyldesyde, start their search for The Kragle, hounded by Business’s sidekick, Good Cop/Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson) on all sides.

.Figure 3 - Bad Cop (Liam Neeson)
.Figure 3 – Bad Cop (Liam Neeson)

Now all that is well and good, it’s a fun movie so far, but it never gets any deeper. They pile on more jokes here and there, but jokes are all the movie can support, unlike Wreck-it Ralph, where Ralph, Vanellope and Fix-it Frank all have a character arc; they all have heart; they all change. There’s very little change (in my opinion) for Emmet, except that he does—and this isn’t much of a spoiler—become a Master Builder. Now, this movie made a ton of money at the box office, and currently has an 8.0 out of 10 viewer rating on IMDB, so obviously it’s doing something the viewers like. I don’t deny that it’s reasonably funny, but I don’t think it has “legs”—as Variety used to say. I think a few years from now it won’t be remembered, while Wreck-it Ralph will be.

Some people have pointed out some parallels between this movie and The Matrix; citing the facts that both Neo and Emmet have been torn from their comfortable lives and accused of being “special,” as well as gaining special abilities—Neo can see The Matrix and Emmet can see part numbers (those are actual Lego part numbers, by the way); both gain the ability to manipulate their environments in different ways. There is a slight correspondence there; however, the people who see this seemed to forget that both Keanu Reeves’s acting and Emmet’s are both about as lifelike as plastic. (Snark, snark.)

The CGI, however, is impressive. This movie, although computer generated—except for the beginning logos and the end titles—has the “look and feel” of an actual stop-motion Lego movie. Almost every single Lego part shown is an actual Lego piece; I’m guessing that about a billion virtual pieces were used in the making of this movie. The voice acting is good, though not great—except it sounds like Liam Neeson was having fun making fun of his own “action” figure status in the role of Bad Cop/Good Cop. Everything, from “laser beams” to smoke, to drops of water, was made from virtual Lego pieces identical to real Lego pieces. That takes a heap o’ programming, folks.

Figure 4 - Vetruvius, Wyldsyde, Batman, Spaceman, Unikitty
Figure 4 – Vetruvius, Wyldsyde, Batman, ’80s Spaceman, Unikitty

The side jokes were funny, but on the whole, not terribly accessible to younger people—would a ten-year-old know what an “Exact Zero” (X-Acto) knife was, for just one example? There was a live-action sequence—again, this isn’t much of a spoiler—that somewhat confused the issue, though I can’t get into it here, of what’s going on: reality vs. movie. And, of course, Lego is now selling sets so kids can replicate what they saw on-screen here. Which kinda begs the question: is this somehow just a “big sell” movie? Side marketing is such a big part of most movies nowadays it might be fruitless to take the cynical view that—like Transformers—it’s just a way to sell more plastic stuff to kids. Or maybe, just maybe, kids will take the hint from Emmet’s new Master Builder status and start creating their own stuff with Legos (rather than just following directions.) One can only hope.

Final evaluation for me is that it’s a “funny once” movie (to semi-quote Robert A. Heinlein in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), and I probably won’t ever watch it again, unlike Wreck-It Ralph, which I will definitely watch again once I have my own 3D TV and can see it in full 3D. (I didn’t see it in the theatre, but I have my own 3D copy. I’ve been waiting since the 1950s for 3D to make a comeback, and as soon as I can afford a 3D TV…) If I were into numerical evaluations, I’d give it about 5 out of 10 possible points. Anything less than 5 and I would be sorry I’d even seen the movie; if I were to give a movie 8 to 10 you can be sure I’d have a copy of my own to watch again and again! (In case you’re wondering, I have copies of more than a few movies that I liked enough to watch several times, like Pitch Black, 2001, The Matrix, Forbidden Planet and so on.)

I look forward to your comments on my column/blog entry, so if you have something to say, please do. If you haven’t already registered—it’s free, and just takes a moment—go ahead and register here; or comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome, and don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment—heck, I might even argue with you. But my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!

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1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed the post , Steve.
    I liked The Lego Movie better than you did — mainly because I found it very funny and thought the satire of conformity (with everybody liking the same inane pop record and watching the same sitcom) was very well done. But I agree with you that Wreck-It Ralph has a heart to it — and is very funny to boot.

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