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Reeling it in: Legos, monuments and great expectations

Posted: February 12, 2014 - 5:13pm  |  Updated: February 13, 2014 - 9:34am
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This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows characters, from left, Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, Wyldstyle, voiced by Elizabeth Banks and Batman, voiced by Will Arnett, in a scene from "The Lego Movie." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)  AP
AP
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows characters, from left, Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, Wyldstyle, voiced by Elizabeth Banks and Batman, voiced by Will Arnett, in a scene from "The Lego Movie." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Lego Movie”

Warner Bros.

1 hour, 40 minutes

 

“Monuments Men”

Columbia Pictures

1 hour, 58 minutes

 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the expectations game is a dangerous one to play when you’re going to the movies.

Case in point: this weekend I saw two movies, one which I assumed would be, at best, a cute diversion, and another which promised to be an instant classic. Of course, in this day and age of constant film blogger nattering, I’d heard the early word. “The Lego Movie” was better than it looked, and George Clooney’s “Monuments Men” didn’t measure up.

Even having heard the buzz on these two films, however, I couldn’t reconcile it with my own preconceptions. I like Legos, but there are few things I have less interest in watching than an animated Lego adventure. It’s too many levels down the corporate marketing rabbit hole, and there’re plenty of other kids shows to watch.

Similarly, “Monuments Men” had all the elements in place. George Clooney, whose films I love, starring in and directing a World War II thriller about a bunch of art historians who get dropped into the middle of Europe in an effort to rescue the greatest works of art in the western world from the clutches of Hitler. Starring Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, that silent movie guy from “The Artist,” and Lord Grantham from “Downton Abbey” (Hugh Bonneville, actually, but I can’t think of him as anyone but Robert, the Earl), how could that not be good? I’ve been looking forward to that movie since I first heard about it in production, over a year ago.

So here’s the question: Is “The Lego Movie” really one of the best family films I’ve seen in years, or is just that I was expecting much less? Is “The Monuments Men” really the worst movie I seen this year so far, or is it that I wanted it to be so much more? Time, and repeated viewing will tell, I suppose. Three guesses as to which one of these I’ll be revisiting, and which I won’t.

“The Lego Movie” works so well for precisely the same reason “Monuments” doesn’t: the writing. The story of a simple every-Lego named Emmett, the film manages to span a wide array of genres, and include a huge number of disparate characters — satirizing and parodying all the way, but never at the expense of the central story, which turns out to be both clever, hilarious, and incredibly sweet.

When Emmett, who loves the regularity and predictability of his Lego society — one that prides itself on always following instructions — comes into contact with Wildchild, a beautiful rebel in search of the mysterious “piece of resistance,” his life is turned upside down. Without warning he’s tossed into a madcap adventure where a shadowy group called The Master Builders are engaged in a secret war with Lord Business who threatens to unleash a doomsday weapon called the Kragle. Along the way he rubs shoulders with Lego Batman, Lego Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Abe Lincoln, Shaquille O’Neil, and a 1980s-era spaceman.

It sounds bizarre and it is, but writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller manage to never lose control of the story. Add to that brilliant and hilarious voice-work from Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, and Will Ferrell, and “The Lego Movie” shapes up as an extremely entertaining construction.

Grade: A

“The Monuments Men,” on the other hand, suffers from an abundance of earnestness. I don’t need every war movie to be “Saving Private Ryan,” but I also believe it’s too late to go back to the days of “Hogan’s Heroes.” Clooney and creative partner Grant Heselov, who were so brilliant in the Edward R. Murrow biopic “Good Night and Good Luck,” manage to turn what should have been a witty, yet gripping drama into, at times, a bouncy romp, where all the men refer to each other as “fellas” while an upbeat score reminiscent of the “The Great Escape” plays in the background, and then, without warning, a dull slog, where every dramatic moment is overlaid with a Clooney voice-over expounding on the eternal importance of art.

After the death of one of the Monuments Men, FDR is heard hissing in a dramatic stage whisper, “Was it worth it? Was a piece of art worth a man’s life?” And Clooney’s confident, yet reverent reply. “Yes. I believe it was.”

The movie is so heavy-handed and obvious that it takes all the fun out of the chase. And in the end, the film is confused even about it’s central conceit. Several of the big art reveals are punctuated by discoveries of the horrors of the holocaust, completely undercutting the impact of the art. I’m not saying the protection of classic art from the Nazis measures up to the eradication of the Jews, but this is the art movie I’m watching — it’s OK if the story of the art is central. I felt as though the screenwriters were apologizing for not mentioning the holocaust every few minutes.

There are moments, especially later in the film, where this or that scene comes together to form something coherent, but they are few and far between. Too light, too cheesy, and tonally inconsistent, “The Monuments Men” is a massive disappointment. It’s too bad because it’s a great story, and an important one. Luckily, the tale is not completely unsung. The documentary “The Rape of Europa” does a much better job with none of the goofiness.

Grade: D

“The Lego Movie” is rated PG for Lego action, I guess. “The Monuments Men” is rated PG-13 for a smattering of violence.

 

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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