Movie Review: ‘The LEGO Movie’

The first teaser. Image from Warner Bros Pictures.
The first teaser. Image from Warner Bros Pictures.

Everything is awesome–this movie, especially.

I was feeling purely cynical toward it, at first. It seemed like The LEGO Movie was going to be a promotional movie for an amazing toy I grew up with that didn’t need a movie to boost its sales at all. I was thinking that the plot was bound to be mildly entertaining, at most.

Except, not only was The LEGO Movie intelligent, awesome, interesting, and special; it managed to be funny without relying on innuendo, poop jokes, and slapstick.

We begin with Lord Business (Will Ferrell) , extremely tall and evil overlord, who steals a superweapon called the Kragle from the volcanic lair of the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). Vitruvius makes a prophecy: one day, a being called “The Special” will find the Piece of Resistance, which will disarm the Kragle forever, and s/he will become the most awesome, special, most interesting person in the universe. The Lord Business takes out Vitruvius’s eyes, but whatever.

8 1/2 years later, construction worker Emmett (Chris Pratt)–who has never had an original thought in his life–is going about his awesome, ordinary day to a T when he meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) at the site. Through sheer stupidity, he stumbles (okay, falls) upon the Piece of Resistance in a hole way below ground and gets it stuck to his back. What follows is a wild ride through several LEGO worlds with Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, Batman, Uni-kitty, Benny the Space Guy, and Metalbeard the Robot Pirate. They are hounded all the way by Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), who will have his own important part to play at the final showdown with Lord Business and his Micromanagers.

My only concern with The LEGO Movie is that its funniest scenes may have already been played out in the trailers. I was expecting to laugh really loud along with a theater full of children–and I did, just not as much as I thought I would.

That said, I cannot think of anything remotely terrible to say about this genre-savvy film. Stunning graphics resembling stop-motion animation appear to do anything from pyrotechnics to tossing waves of the sea, the music is awesome and as stuck in my head as the Piece of Resistance is to Emmett’s back (“Everything is Awesome” by Teagan and Sara, featuring The Lonely Island), the humor is clean and silly, the characters are endearing–there is just no one you can really hate in this movie (but my ultimate favorite has to be Vitruvius)–and the simple quest story that so riddles the great epics of the world really carries the day, thanks to some pointed satire. I love the way this movie turns the entire quest narrative on its head toward the end.

The movie even goes off on a metafictional tangent, too–I am usually jarred by animated features that suddenly cut to real-time, real-life footage of people, as if the entire animated world we just saw wasn’t real or is less important (Happy Feet somehow suffers from this). But The LEGO Movie pulls this off rather well; the story in the real-world runs parallel to that of the LEGO world–they feed off each other, even.

There’s also an endearing “message” about creativity and practicality, of going with your gut and following instructions. It turns out, you need a combination of both to save the day and to make anything wonderful.

All in all, The LEGO Movie reminds me of my childhood and its best days. Anything that is capable of that is worth a second, third, and umpteenth viewing.

And if you are still unconvinced about parting with your hard-earned money to see this wonderful little flick, I give you the blooper reel.

Movie Review: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’

Spoilers and Tolkien geekery abound. 

I didn’t exactly fall in love with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As the first of a trilogy-that-should-not-have-been, it was so obviously padded by both material from the appendices and scenes completely made up by Jackson and the screenwriters. The music was great, the acting was more than many Hollywood movies could ever ask for (I mean, that rendition of “Riddles in the Dark” felt like a coming home to me)–but so much of it was, for want of a better term, fanfiction. And they were so obviously feeling their way around–I’d never complained about the length of a movie before Journey.

So I wasn’t going into The Desolation of Smaug with very high hopes. And then I read my cousin Nico Parungo’s review, then edited Misha Lecaros’s review of it. The former had never read the books and the latter had. Two good reviews from entirely different viewpoints had to mean something, right?

(Answer: Yes, yes, they most certainly do.)

Image taken from IMDB.com
Image taken from IMDB.com

This second installation of The Hobbit trilogy picks up (almost) right where the previous movie left off. The Company is already halfway or more to the Lonely Mountain, though they have to get through a shapeshifter, a relentless troop of Orcs, a kingdom of haughty Elves, and men both sleazy and honorable first–and between all that, crazy barrel rides, spider attacks, Gandalf disappearing on a secret mission, a looming threat in Dol Guldur, poisoned arrows, and Elves both smitten and jealous. And when they do finally get to the mountain, they find that the dragon Smaug is more than what they bargained for.

Okay. I still don’t agree with resurrecting an Orc who should have died during the great war of Dwarves and Orcs (die, Pale Orc, die), but I’ve long accepted that a movie adaptation of a book is a completely different animal from the book itself. Rare are the movies that follow their source books faithfully, and even with those, a few visual liberties needed to be taken in order to fit the medium (I’m looking at you, Catching Fire and the first two Harry Potter movies). And considering that one, The Hobbit is a slimmer book than any of the Lord of the Rings books and two, this is the closest all us Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales fans are gonna get to a screen version of the aforementioned books, it’s totally understandable that material from the LOTR appendices were added for the fleshing out of the storyline. The difference between Journey and Desolation is that the former is like Bilbo using Sting for the first time in the Misty Mountains and the latter is more like Aragorn wielding Anduril on any occasion.

Indeed, it seems that Jackson, the cast, and the crew are all treading with surer footing. The pacing is just right, the dialogue not as useless (Fili: “If there is a key, there must be a door!”–straight out of Legolas a.k.a. Captain Obvious’s book), the action scenes are more fun than tedious–only Peter Jackson will think of slaying Orcs while jumping barrels–and plotlines both canon and Jackson-made are more deftly woven together (I mean, I don’t feel so bad about watching Azog strut his stuff onscreen even though he should, by all rights, be dead).

The humor has also gotten a whole lot less slapstick (though there’s still plenty of that to go around) and a whole lot wittier. From a double entendre between Kili and Captain of the Mirkwood Guard Tauriel to Legolas insulting the Dwarf Gloin’s family (which, incidentally, includes his future best friend Gimli), we’re definitely looking at a more put-together script, whether the jokes are to your taste or not. There is, thankfully, less of Radaghast’s antics (and by association, way less bird poop).

There is a romance now, too. I wasn’t going to like Kili and Tauriel at first, though interviews between Journey and Desolation alerted me to their existence. I thought Tauriel would have been better suited to Legolas, and besides, every flirtatious scene between the hot Dwarf and the beautiful badass Elf made my sister and I stick out our clawed hands in silent OH GOD WHY WHY WHY. But then, the chemistry between Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly was so palpable and I am, for some reason, a goner when it comes to sappy lines uttered in some elevated form of English, so there it is. I am trying very hard not to like them as both a couple and as individuals, considering how I feel that this will only end in tears, but I am failing miserably. And I guess it adds more tonal variety in an already action-packed film.

Things start to get a little more serious as well, beginning from when Kili takes a poisoned arrow to the leg. I didn’t realize it until I watched him stagger from the pain, but it was rather unsettling that all 13 dwarves of the Company (plus Bilbo and Gandalf) escaped any serious injuries this far into the trilogy when Frodo almost dies of jab from a Morgul blade in the first third of The Fellowship of the Ring. I also liked Gandalf’s scenes in both the tomb of the Ringwraiths and in Dol Guldur–here we have a 7,000-year-old Wizard, more powerful than most creatures on the face of Middle Earth, and yet, he can still be thrown back by a bunch of Orcs. Somehow, showing that they’re not all invincible takes away a little more of the cartoon-y, picaresque caricature quality of 14 tiny beings and a wizard on a quest to reclaim gold from a dragon. They are made more human this way, even though none of them really are.

Kudos to the acting chops of Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Richard Armitage (Thorin). With simple gestures and deceptively simply facial expressions, both of them convey the sense of falling into corruption: the former due to the Ring and the latter due to Dwarf greed. Thing is, considering how this is going to tie into LOTR, we all know who’s going to fall faster.

Luke Evans (Bard), Evangeline Lilly, and of course, Orlando Bloom, are welcome additions to the cast. Thing is, Lilly seems to have a default face, whether she’s being interrogated by Thranduil (Lee Pace) or saving Kili from a poisoned arrow. Orlando Bloom has gotten visibly older, and not to mention, is playing a very different sort of Legolas this time around. His nose actually bleeds and his hair becomes a mess! I both dread and can’t wait to see the incident that will turn him into the smooth-haired, marble-faced Legolas we all know and love from the LOTR trilogy.

And lastly, a word about the music. Howard Shore never fails to deliver with his wonderful orchestral compositions–I just can’t remember that particular scene when the violins really stood out, it might have been when Bard was sneaking the Dwarves into Lake Town. But it was Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” that really stole my heart this time.

The amazing thing about this movie was that I never once thought to myself, “Where is this going to end?” It was only when Smaug momentarily transformed into a golden dragon that I thought, “Oh shit! It’s going to end there?!”

I already wish it were December 2014, even though I know I’m prolly gonna have to dole out the tissue alongside the popcorn.

Movie Review: ‘Frozen’

Spoilers abound.

I remember back in 2011, my college friends and I (all of us Fine Arts students) were already expressing not-so-high hopes for Disney’s Frozen. Many of our complaints centered on it possibly being a bastardization of yet another fairy tale (Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” about a little girl named Gerda rescuing her friend Hans from the Snow Queen), and possibly a rip-off of Broadway’s Wicked, considering that it was about two girls at odds and it had Idina Menzel playing the misunderstood antagonist. I was also a bit iffy with it, for I was expecting a traditionally animated Disney Renaissance part 2, not a seeming copy of 2010’s Tangled.

I am so glad to have been proven wrong. Frozen exceeded all expectations.

Frozen's UK poster. Image taken from SKWigly.co.uk
Frozen’s UK poster. Image taken from SKWigly.co.uk

Frozen follows the story of two estranged princesses, Anna and Elsa, who have been shut away from the rest of the world by their parents due to the magnitude of Elsa’s ice powers, of which Anna has no recollection. On the day Elsa is crowned queen of Arendelle, the powers she has been trying to control and conceal all her life explode into public knowledge and Elsa runs off to the North Mountain, unwittingly creating an eternal winter. With the help of ice-cutter Kristoff, his dog-like reindeer Sven, and childhood snowman Olaf, Anna chases after Elsa in the hopes of reversing both the winter of Arendelle and in Elsa’s heart.

Music

As with all Disney movies, one cannot help making comparisons to previous works.

The first thing to take me pleasantly by surprise was the amazing opening song “Eatnemen Vuelie” or simply known as “Vuelie,” a South Saami folk song rendered to soaring heights by Norwegian female choir Cantus. The last time Disney a movie opened this way was 1994’s The Lion King. Also, the film’s sensibilities were very Broadway too, from the music to some of the scene transitions–not really surprised considering the presences of Broadway actors Idina Menzel and Jonathan Groff. Even Kristen Bell, who displayed impressive musical chops, apparently got her start in Broadway.

If I keep going off about the music, it’s really because I haven’t encountered a catchy Disney song since the opening of 2001’s Lilo & Stitch. My sister and I were dueting on “Let It Go” and “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” for the rest of the night.

And those lyrics! “My soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around”…clearly, “Let It Go” is my favorite song.

The second thing that took me by surprise was the film’s first five minutes, which detailed the shared childhood of the princesses, sisters Anna and Elsa. Oh my god. By the time we got around to explaining how their parents died, big fat tears were rolling down my cheeks and off my chin–and it turned out that my sister and I were both trying to hide the fact that we were crying from each other. I’m pretty sure we could see ourselves in sunny Anna and frigid Elsa. My heart just broke when Anna sits before the door to Elsa’s room, singing a sadder version of “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” and just sighs out that last line. Ugh.

So, just as I was calming down and watching the rest of the movie like a sane person, Frozen lets loose one of its other surprises, apart from the tiny Rapunzel and Flynn cameo that let’s you know that this happens in the same world: at the coronation ball, when desperate-for-love Anna presents Hans to Elsa and announces that they’re getting married, Elsa says, “You can’t marry someone you just met!”

You hear that, Disney? You just can't. Image taken from UKMix.org.
You hear that, Disney? You just can’t. My face when I heard that line. Image taken from UKMix.org.

Characterization

The directors and scriptwriters, who apparently resurrected a project stuck in development hell for over 40 years, can pat themselves on the back for a job well done on Elsa’s characterization (seeing as their main problem was making the Snow Queen more relatable and relevant). Elsa is not only relevant–she’s such a broken, well-meaning, and very independent character, at least when she comes into her own. I loved her. I’d watch a movie about her. Idina Menzel did a good job sounding much younger, though I guess she couldn’t help it when singing–but what the hey, her voice sounds awesome either way, and it repairs the injustice of not utilizing her talents in Enchanted (2007).

If Elsa wasn’t who she was in the movie, Anna would be my favorite character: clumsy, funny, spunky, very forward, and unafraid to stuff her face with chocolate (the only other Disney princesses I’ve seen actually eating something are Tiana, who loves to cook; Belle, who samples some confectionery cream during “Be Our Guest”; and Merida of 2012’s Brave). I guess what I’m trying to say is, she feels like a real person: for most of the movie, she’s hankering for somebody to love, almost at the price of ignoring the people who already love her. I’ll get back to Anna later.

Kristoff, too, was a pleasant departure from your average Disney prince. For starters, he’s pretty grumpy–something Disney hasn’t done since the Beast in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. I didn’t really have high hopes for him since in early pictures, he looked either gruff or somewhat dim-witted (and a far cry from dashing, funny Flynn Rider). But he’s got his heart in the right place and he really does care about Anna. His reindeer Sven is the sillier, doggier version of Tangled’s Max the horse…but with all these animal sidekicks with dog-like qualities, one wonders why Disney doesn’t just flat-out give them a dog. Olaf is more like Rey from The Princess and the Frog (2009) and oodles more charming, probably on par with…wow, I don’t think he’s on par with any past sidekicks with speaking roles. He’s much more.

Plot

Sometimes I wonder if Frozen seems fresh to me because of the wonderfully upturned Disney tropes or because I’m seeing all these wonderfully upturned Disney tropes in a Disney movie. But at the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t really matter, because my initial reaction to it was a soaring kind of joy, helped along by a stressful week at work.

Frozen had me worried throughout, though. There are two guys, Hans and Kristoff, and at least one of them is bound to end up with either princess, with the remaining one going to the remaining girl (well, according to movie logic anyway). But Elsa is way too messed-up an individual to be in a romance with anybody–and thankfully, this is addressed in the most modern way possible. (“Yes, I’m alone, but alone and free.”)

Kudos also to that twist involving Prince Hans, I really didn’t see it coming. But I guess one of my favorite-ever surprises was how the true love’s kiss trope got turned on its head. One of the things that really bothered me about Disney movies, although they comprise most of my happy childhood, was that the princesses rarely save themselves or the day (and that’s why I adore Mulan and Tiana). Anna not only saves the day–she saves Elsa, thus saving herself. That’s got to be one of the most powerful messages of love and family and self-worth Disney has ever broadcasted. She’s got the most growth of anyone in the movie; Elsa realizing the key to controlling her powers was just a little too quick for me.

I do have some minor quibbles with the movie. It doesn’t explain why Elsa has ice powers, much like the way Tangled explained Rapunzel’s healing hair (although there’s a deleted song somewhere on Youtube that mentions something about a prophecy, I just can’t find it at the moment).

I also thought that Anna’s forgetting Elsa’s powers were going to play more of a role in the movie, or at least have a more dramatic return to consciousness–that would have made for some great drama, right alongside Elsa revealing to Anna the catalyst reason for why they lived like shut-ins for over ten years in the first place.

I thought Kristoff was going to reveal how he saw his troll family reverse Anna’s Elsa-induced ice injury when they were all children–I was going to let that one go until I realized he probably heard the trolls whispering how the king and the queen were present with their daughters. Anna did tell him she was raised in a castle.

But like I said, those are minor quibbles. I had more things to love about Frozen than to complain about. Like how it didn’t end in a wedding, for instance. And the way Elsa’s hairstyle phases in “Let It Go” and how she looks so confident at the end of that song (and maybe that entire sequence in general). And that little line in the end credits: “Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen.'”

Overall, Frozen has a lot of the heart, magic, music, and a good deal of the modern interpretations of love and female roles down pat. It’s not in traditional animation, which I adore, but at the very least, the computer graphics are very smooth (minus the part where Elsa’s braid phases through her arm, but I didn’t notice that the first time around). I hope Disney keeps it up for future movies.

Fact vs. Fiction: On reading social issues in Disney’s ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (a response)

Poster of "The Princess and the Frog," taken from  the movie's Wikipedia entry.
Poster of “The Princess and the Frog,” taken from the movie’s Wikipedia entry.

Yesterday, I came across this blog post called The Pricess and the Frog: A Feminist Fairytale from Feministing.com. It was a trend for me because I was researching on what others had to say about Hercules (1997) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) (and their respective TV spin-offs), and yes, I adore The Princess and the Frog (2009). It was the first movie my boyfriend and I saw together (on his laptop in our university’s study hall).

I’ve known a long while now that Disney, even though I grew up with and loved its 90s Renaissance era films, wasn’t exactly known for its feminism, historical accuracy, and cultural representation, to name a few things. But I decided to open that can of worms, in the name of picking up a few useful somethings.

Note that I only carry these opinions because I was raised in a traditionally patriarchal Filipino setting, on a steady diet of Western cartoons and books—but somehow, I don’t buy the traditional gender roles foisted upon women by my own culture. It was not just the Disney Princess line at work on my psyche here.

Anyway, the post itself is all right, but it’s the comments that are a riot. I’m always surprised (occasionally taken aback) by the sheer number of people who misread a work of art, whether this is overreading or not reading enough. Someone in the thread said something along the lines of “It’s okay, it’s just fiction,” and it got me wondering: when is it appropriate to say that and when is it just an excuse?

I’m not saying my own interpretation of the film is 100% correct, but that is the beauty of art: there is no “correct” interpretation.

However, the work itself has a scope and limitations, just like any decent research paper, and some people like to criticize art for things that are way beyond its implied scope and limitations. I’m not saying you can’t stretch its limits, but oftentimes, people forget its scope in a critique.

Case in point. Some of the comments (before they devolved into a critique of one person’s comment about personally not finding anything wrong with wanting a family even after getting an Ivy league education and the first, vicious reaction to this comment) discuss how the film completely disregards the social and classist issues prevailing in 1930s New Orleans that really hindered the so-called “glorified individualism” part of American culture, as exhibited by Tiana’s character.

Also discussed is the “problem” of Tiana and Lottie’s friendship, which boiled down to “why is there a problem with portraying wealthy black families onscreen?”

The issue of marriage naturally came up as well, about whether it was a side plot or something necessary for the hard-working career woman to have. And the speciesism? I couldn’t even wrap my head around that one; more research on my part is needed.

Now, if I said “it’s only fiction” to these people, that would be an excuse to get away from all these arguments.

In art and in life, a delicate balance of both must be struck; you’re never going to get it completely (exhibit A: Disney’s misrepresentation of the Voodoo religion), but you’re never gonna please everybody, either. I laud Disney for really attempting the balance, though.

I don’t know squat about the race issues between blacks and whites in America beyond what I’ve seen on TV and read in books, being a Southeast Asian living in the Philippines whose people have their own race issues. But I do know that The Princess and the Frog is a G-rated Disney musical for children. I highly doubt it could have been classified as such if the problems of the Deep South in the 20s and 30s were accurately represented; liberties will and must be taken. Moreover, it was wonderful to see a Disney heroine with so single-minded a purpose as a achieving a dream that has nothing to do with Prince Charming or happily ever after—something I didn’t quite feel in its successor, Tangled (2010).

Children’s movies need a healthy mix of fantasy and reality to get the message across. Maybe for Disney, some social issues need to take a backseat in order to tackle the main one? I don’t know. They’re not known for being good at that, so I suppose this effort in that context is a big one.

As a children’s movie, I think it depicted just enough of reality (like when Tiana and her mother were taking the bus home and it was shown that their neighborhood consisted solely of financially-struggling blacks). I had no problem with Lottie and her family being rich and white because that was the way things were, back in the day. What was truly remarkable about Lottie and Tiana’s friendship was that it existed at all—and sure, it’s only fiction. Maybe that kind of family with that kind of attitude toward people was not the norm in the American South of the 20s. Lottie and her dad are the exception, and an exceptional fictional example of human decency. Her friendship with Tiana is so strong that she, in full princess-bride get up and inches away from her dream of becoming a princess and getting her prince and happily ever after, offers to kiss Naveen in order to break the spell–no marriage required. How’s that for debunking the infamous Disney Princess image?

Kids are intelligent, no denying that. But the age group to which Disney caters should be shown movies accurately depicting life’s harsh realities when their ages hit the double-digits. Let them have their happy childhoods first, or they will grow up cynical. Besides, many of the more complicated symbolisms go over their heads anyway (example: I did not realize the sexual politics behind Hercules until I was much older); for as long as they’re at the age they are, we should keep molding their foundations with positive messages. And when that’s been built, then do you let them see the darker side and the gray patches of reality.

In the end, I have yet to make up my mind as to whether or not the human race places too much emphasis in the role of media as the hands that form the clay of the human mind. I think of the Catholic Church and well-meaning parents who go to crazy lengths to censor a work for its “depravity” or “obscenity” or whatever, even if all the work does is work along the lines of “what if.” I think that’s when it’s okay to say “it’s only fiction”—when the work is challenging one’s pre-conceived notions and the “taboo” status of a subect. One must delineate between fact and fiction…but at the same time, one must be open to what it might be trying to say, as all good fiction contains a grain of truth.

The only time it’s not okay is when it outright fictionalizes and romanticizes—not merely borrows elements from—an existing culture. That’s a recipe for promoting stereotypes. Perhaps that is why Disney will always have the problem of culture, gender, and sex on its hands, as it often fails to strike a balance when depicting cultures completely foreign (look at the way Genie in Aladdin (1990) and Mushu in Mulan (1998) are so staunchly American—perhaps that is their way of keeping up audience interest).

The Princess and the Frog, however flawed it may be, is a big step in that long way to go. Let’s see how Disney does with Frozen.

Learning to take care of your sanity, or enjoying rest in all its forms

I had one of those rare days off in which I simply stayed at home in my house clothes and did nothing but eat/lounge around/mentally work out a few stories/play computer games/surf the internet all day.

I watched two episodes of Disney’s TV spin-off of the Hercules movie and discovered that I really like it, whatever reviewers may say.

I even went on to see what a bunch of blogs had to say about Disney movies (particularly The Princess and the Frog) and their feminisim or lack thereof (needless to say, I opened a can of worms).

Reading all those reviews got me thinking about a certain point regarding how it’s okay to say of a work that it’s only fiction sometimes and at others, dispute how it is untrue to life and unfair to certain minority groups even if “it’s only fiction”—but that merits a whole other post altogether.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that today was rather productive, if only because it engaged my thinking faculties. I am trying to tell myself that it is all right to spend a day mostly resting—even from writing stories or catching up on submission deadlines—because sometimes what you really need to do is let your brain veg.

I don’t know if I’ll ever again have a day spent mindlessly playing computer games or doing something certain high-powered individuals I know wouls call “useless” or “lazy.” But if I ever do, I am training myself to think that that’s all right, too.

After all, it would be best for my sanity to move on my own time, at my own pace, and do whatever I want to do with what I’ve been given.