Author’s Note: This review gets into the contrasting themes of these two films. Despite all attempts to the contrary, discussion of some of these themes may be looked at as spoilers, somewhat. For those that may be squeamish about such things, I would recommend seeing the films in question before reading the meat of this review. In service of this, I’ll go ahead and place my ratings at the beginning.
The Monuments Men- Three damns given out of five
The Lego Movie- Four and a half damns given out of five
Preservation vs. Creation
It’s an interesting dichotomy that arose from seeing The Monuments Men and The Lego Movie back to back.
With Monuments Men, you’ve got a (based on a true) story about a group tasked with saving art from the Third Reich in the waning days of the second world war. It is a film that asks, “What is art worth?” and answers with, “One whole heck of a lot.” Indeed, they are risking their very lives in an attempt to save landmarks and secure thousands upon thousands of pieces lifted by the Germans in their march across Europe.
Then along comes The Lego Movie which sticks its finger (or should I say clawed yellow hand?) in the very eye of the idea of preservation, even going so far as to call it a selfish and destructive concept because it can stifle the creative spirit. Granted, there is more to it than that, but the very idea that this comparison can be drawn is the Lego Movie’s own fault for actually exceeding expectations and being ABOUT something.
I suppose part of the split comes down to the medium. Paint, clay, bronze… these are traditional ways of creating works of art. Plastic bricks that are responsible for a lot of late night parental foot injuries are not. Between this and their origins, they are seen as toys. (I can hear a multitude of readers saying, “No crap.”) Of course, like clay vs. Play-Doh, crayons vs. pastels or a coloring book with a tray of hard watercolor paints, often what distinguishes an art supply from a toy boils down to what’s done with it.
In the case of the Lego movie, a lot is done with it and the movie itself is what I would consider to be art.
The Lego Movie involves a group of “master builders.” Figures in the literal sense (many of them small, yellow versions of characters from history or popular culture) that use their surroundings to create whatever comes to mind. Aside from well known characters like Batman (Will Arnett), it includes such originals as Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Unikitty (Community’s Allison Brie) and Metal Beard the Pirate (Nick effing Offerman). Most importantly, it includes Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who is helping lead the resistance against Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his plan for perfection.
In many ways the builders look down on the “regular” members of their society that stick to the instructions. People like Emmet Brickowoski (voiced by Parks and Rec’s Chris Pratt), the everyman hero of the film. Like everyone around him, he likes to watch awful TV shows and listen to the same pop song over and over. And admittedly, I could see some of myself in the master builders. Those who know me are aware of my disdain for many of the things that are as close as we seem to get to mainstream culture these days of niche entertainment, usually skewing towards what I see as more creative, funnier and better made.
Perhaps ironically, this is exactly what drew me to The Lego Movie. When it was announced, I figured it to be a hollow merchandising tie-in; slapping the name of a children’s toy with no built-in narrative and counting on name recognition to sell it to children and the parents seeking to keep them quiet after their offspring are bombarded by ads during Spongebob. Battleship alone proves my point about how utterly insane the Hollywood machine has gotten in terms of what it will greenlight. But Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the same team that dragged me kicking and screaming into admitting that 21 Jump Street was hilarious, instead used that expectation as a springboard to create one of the most bizarre, smart, subversive and original film experiences I’ve ever seen. Not to mention funny. These guys are now the top name in turning horrible concepts on paper into well-thought out entertainment. I’d almost describe The Lego Movie as one of the most experimental mainstream films I’ve ever seen. However, a lot of it is built on not just nostalgia for Lego’s marketing or a working knowledge of the brand and its use of licensing. It is also built on a heavy base of pop-cultural riffing (the Batman jokes alone are worth seeing the film for) and functions as both a parody of these types of merchandising events and of the Joseph Campbell hero model that gets grafted onto so many stories, even ones that it is out of place for (like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.)
In short, the film is built on what came before. The movie more or less acknowledges this in that it becomes a huge part of its themes. As such, it comes back around to the types of speeches given in Monuments Men when that film espouses how without protecting our history and culture, there is nothing to build on and people are lost. If not for the preserved works of the old masters, what will the new masters learn from?
If only that film let the action do the talking instead of the multiple soliloquies that George Clooney unlooses upon the fellows in his task force (and the audience in general.) The Monuments Men has too good a subject and too great a cast to be a total wash and I actually found myself interested throughout. After all, having Bill Murray, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin (from that movie that won best picture at the Oscars and never seemingly was spoken of again) is enough to prop up a goodly amount of its running time. In fact, it starts out pleasantly enough, seeming like it may end up being a low-key type of Kelly’s Heroes or a twist on a military heist film. Instead, it finds itself being sucked down into a dour foxhole of World War II film clichÈs with moments of fun punctuating it.
Because of their personalities and their mission, it’s easy to root for the Men anyway. But after watching both of the films back-to-back, it did bring up the unasked question of who they were to decide what was worth saving. Many of them were well-known artists in their own right, but when it comes down to the critically acclaimed against the popular, what is worth saving more? The Lego Movie seems to feel nothing is worth saving per se, but (and this probably relates to the fact that the medium itself, like an Etch-a-Sketch, is viewed as a temporary one) that things exist only to be broken down and used to make new things. Perhaps it is a natural extension of the Remix Generation which often seeks to recycle others’ work into their own. (Of course as a cartoonist, I know this can be a crucial learning tool, but let’s not digress too far.) More importantly, Lego would argue that the great and the functionally mundane are of equal importance and you can’t necessarily even have one without the other. Of course in most cases the creative-types of the real world do not have to worry about preservation when they create new things. Art supplies are prevalent and the digital world offers an unlimited canvas. Not only do we not have to destroy the work of another to create, but we are lucky to be in a society where both are able to exist side-by-side at the moment. In Lego there is a bit of an artificial battle for resources, one that ultimately may not make total sense, but the metaphor is so clever and heartwarmingly delivered that I can’t possibly argue too much about it. The fact is, no matter how imaginative or dull a child may be, they need play.
In the end, The Monuments Men, despite the things that are right about it, almost feels like a dirge, carefully praising art while mourning what is lost. The Lego Movie is a joyous celebration of creation and destruction, seeing them as necessary yin and yang to each other. While my head veers towards the message of the former, my heart can’t help but applaud the latter.