I watched The Lego Movie last week.
This puts me considerably behind the curve, given my circle of friends. The vast majority of the people I know seem to have watched this film ages ago, pitched themselves head-first into its charms, and come out the other end with Everything is Awesome stuck in their head as a kind of perpetual ear-worm.
This is what happens when your friends are geeky types.
Still, I’m caught up now. And, curiously, I liked the film a lot less than I expected.
I got about five minutes in before I realised I wasn’t the target audience. I found myself mildly irritated, rather than enraptured, because I couldn’t let go of the idea that these were toys.
Except…no. It wasn’t that. I liked Toy Story. I liked other Lego-themed animation. It wasn’t a toy thing.
No, I kept getting distracted by my inability to figure out if was in a secondary world where Lego was, for lack of a better word, the dominant life-form, or I’d wandered into a film where toys had come to life.
And that was weird. Weird enough that I’ve been picking at the film for a week now, trying to articulate why it bugged me so much.
Usually the beginning of a story is all about context. All the stage-setting and character set-up is largely about situation the reader/viewer so that they can understand why the action is important. It tells you the rules of the world This is a world in which magic is real. This is a world in which anthropomorphized cars are the dominant life-form. This is a world in which people will be doing grim, serious things with swords in the name of family honour. You pick up on the clues and adjust your thinking to the conceit, then settle in to watch the story unfold.
In The Lego Movie, you cannot escape the fact that everything is Lego. The characters move like Lego minifigs, bending in improbable ways. The water that comes out of the tap is some form of Lego block. There are wardrobe scenes where it’s literally Lego-part after Lego-part being cycled through in order to get a series of minigis on screen.
The movie hits you over the head with the fact that you’re watching something made out of toys, but doesn’t acknowledge that they are toys.
Which left me unsettled.
It’s not something that happens quite the same way in other Lego movies. Lego Batman characters move like people, for the most part. The world is…Batman-esque…but the conceit of them being Lego characters is part of the set-up.
Remove the faux-human movement and the clues that tell you how to read the world are gone.It wasn’t a huge thing – I still kept watching – but it did mean I started splitting my attention. A film I ordinarily would have watched became a film that was just on in the background.
It left me feeling disconnected from the story.
Disconnection is the enemy, from a story-telling point of view. It means I’m not on the stories side. It means they have to work that little bit harder to make me care about what happens. It means..well, usually that I don’t have sufficient context to give a shit about the characters.
CONTEXT IS A PRECURSOR TO NARRATIVE STAKES
Knowing what’s real within the context of a story is important, because it’s tied to our ability to figure out the stakes of the story.
This goes double when the world you’re presenting is unfamiliar, because if you don’t give the audience enough tools to understand that world, how do they know the stakes? This seems like I’m being a fusty old man – and, lets be honest, I probably am – but in the back of my mind I’m working through a series of world-building questions. If Emmett is a toy, does he feel physical pain? If he’s not toy, but the world is built of lego blocks and he cycles through a series of mini-fix set-ups as part of “getting dressed,” does that mean body parts are disposable/replaceable?
If he is a toy, standing in for someone playing with him, what does that mean for the emotional pain set up for him at the beginning of the film?
I couldn’t really get a fix on what those stakes until we hit the end of the first act and Lord Business starts introducing us to the strange objects from outside Lego land. All it took was a single used band-aid in a scene, and I was good. That band-aid told me what I needed to know – a real world existed outside the land of Lego, which means we were in a toys-come-alive story.
I had context. I had the details I need to figure out what everything meant. These were toys, or we were in some kind of secondary world portal fantasy, but either way…stakes. Rules for how the world could work, and how people could be hurt in a way that felt familiar.
FANTASY WORLDS NEED A TOUCHSTONE
We understand how the real world works. We know the rules and the social situation and we understand things like gravity and the limits of the human body and what, physically, will hurt a person if you do it to them. The real world provides ready-made context for all sorts of things, which is why authors of realist literature generally aren’t quite so obsessed with world-building as fantasy writers.
But if you’re in any kind of fantastic mode…yeah, it’s easy to disorient people. The further you move from realism, the more you need to hook things into something real and comprehensible: a familiar emotion; a familiar situation; a familiar feeling. I first picked this advice up from pro-wrestling, which suffers from a similar problem of being unrealistic, and therefore uses familiar emotions to engross people in the emotion of a match in order to give the action context.
Most good fantasy starts with a touchstone of realism – a thing that is easy to understand and imagine that can be used to hold up all manner of strange things in the world building. Talking cars get introduced on a race-track, where you’d expect cars to be, which makes it easier to process the cars also being in the stands, doing the commentary on the microphone, and, presumably, living lives in places you’d never expect.
Your wizardy-student types get introduced in otherwise-ordinary worlds in which the relatives are unpleasant (how many of us don’t feel a pang of empathy about relatives we cannot stand?)
Emmet…bends funny. Moves weird. Showers in a stream of Lego-bits. Seems to be under the order of a dire president named President Business who behaves so cartoonishly evil that it’s no secret he’s the villain of the piece. It resonates with anyone who feels faintly beseiged by capitalism, but it’s impersonal.
Emmet himself doesn’t bridge that gap. He’s a man without friends, but seems oblivious to that fact. That’s hard to empathise with, because when you’re at your loneliest, you realise that your lonely. The absurdity of Emmet’s situation doesn’t give us something familiar to hook into either.
I understand why his life sucks. I sympathise,but I don’t empathise with him. The situation is too extreme, too unfamiliar.
And so, for the first twenty minutes of the film, there is nothing real to hold onto. It probably doesn’t bug everyone as much as it bugged me, but it’s often a thing. When you find yourself engaging with a SF or fantasy story that doesn’t quite sit right, this is often one of the triggers.
If you’re building a world for your story, figure out the true thing that is going to be your foundation. The touchstone from which all the whacky shit about your world is left to hang. It gives the audience something to cling to when you start throwing the other elements of world-building their way.
Seriously, not kidding.
The problems of the beginning of The Lego Movie? Totally a case of trying to hide your stories twist, cause when we hit the third act of the film and the big surprise of the movie is revealed, the decision to try and obscure the nature if the world makes sense.
Were not in a world where toys come to life.
Well, we are. But they’re also a bizarre metaphorical battleground playing out between a father and son.
Which, again, was weird, ’cause the stakes for the character I’d finally got around to investing in started changing so fast I got whiplash.
One moment, Emmet is the product of a child’s imagination going wild. The next scene, he’s a magical toy again, trying to escape the evil father on his own. Then the climax hits, and the Lego characters are pure metaphor again – the film jumps out to the “real world” the human characters inhabit to show us the people giving voice to the minifigs.
And its not that any of these scenes are ruined by this, its just that scenes which should have been awesome get de-fanged.
I care a little less, let my attention drift.
Which is not the state I want to be in at the climax of a movie.
None of this makes the movie bad – I can understand why people like it – but it definitely makes it not my thing. It’s setting up for a surprise I can’t really buy into, which makes it incredibly hard for me to find delight in that moment.