The general consensus on The Lego Movie seems to be that it shouldn’t be as good as it is. A better way to put this might be that it shouldn’t be good in the way that it is.
There is nothing hidden about its pleasures. It doesn’t somehow succeed in spite of being a product-placement film (in some accidental or self-parodic way). Its success depends fully on the product being placed. In fact, the product is the place, literally and thematically. It does exactly what a feature-length commercial should do: it sells its brand as a way of life.
On the one hand, this is a wet dream of franchising and ancillaries. It naturally extends the Lego brand’s licensing of properties (like the Marvel universe) and its video game series. There is an awkwardly-titled The Lego Movie Videogame, and a sequel to the film is already in the works. One can imagine The Lego Videogame Movie; The Lego Movie Videogame Movie; and on and on. All this would be fully in the spirit of Legos themselves, placing units together into ever-more complex and unpredictable relations.
On the other hand, the movie’s very ability to sell a way of life sets it along a sensory and conceptual life of its own. Because the film uses Legos to be about something more than just Legos, that “something more” has its own contours. To describe what the film does requires more than just admiring its cleverness or expressing surprise or claiming that it’s subversive.
To address some of the problems and possibilities facing animation scholarship, the Animated Media Special Interest Group sponsored a night of short experimental animated films at SCMS this year. Defining Experimental Animation was put together to address the following questions:
How does one “conduct” an animation experiment?
Can experimental animation play with character and figuration?
Is animation itself an experiment with cinema?
The last question suggests something of the relationship between animation and live-action film, a matter with which a number of scholars have struggled for the past decade. The second question speaks to the problem of animation’s relation to experimental film, whose critics and champions have mostly favored abstraction; thanks to the dominance of cartoon studio styles, it is difficult to think of animators’ uses of characters and figuration as “experimental.”
But both of these latter questions depend fundamentally on how the first question is answered, which effectively asks us to consider what counts as an experiment in animation. Rather than thinking of “experimental animation” as something like a genre, akin to cartoons or avant-garde film (with its own canons, communities, theories, etc.), it may be more productive to interrogate the notion of experiment as such. This is a tricky matter. I detect some ambivalence even in the phrasing of the question, as if the word “conduct” can’t be meant literally here. But it offers a starting place for thinking about the films. And it’s worth considering the event itself as an experiment with its participants, who were asked to put these questions (printed in the program) to the films.
Chico and Rita wants a subtle tone of human warmth. Nothing big happens: the idea is to get a sense that the titular couple needs to be together, just from their chemistry, and from the slow burn of longing in the years they spend apart. The film focuses on quiet moments more at home in a Wong Kar-Wai film than in a piece of animation: sunlight hitting morning-after lovers through a cloud-thin curtain, the effortlessness of virtuoso fingers at a piano. Such a tone requires highly skilled drawing that expresses a lot by doing very little. Unfortunately, the drawings in Chico and Rita simply do very little. The film is afraid of caricaturing any gesture for looking too “cartoony,” and the result is a curiously flat expressionlessness across all the characters. When Rita dances, her form has fluid contours, but the angles and curves need more elasticity; there’s no snap to the motions. When characters slump or sulk, their body parts don’t quite fit into a unified pose. Faces are almost unreadable: at one point Rita tells Chico to wipe a smirk off his face, but his mouth is totally blank. When Rita breaks down in tears later on, the impression is similarly cold: there’s no change in her face to suggest the weight of time that she’s supposed to be feeling. The experiment in animated subtlety is bold, but the animation needed to be bolder.
There is a stunning short animated film making the rounds in movie theaters, about a farmer who goes from agrarian to industrialized production and back again. In a single two-minute shot, a green pastoral landscape gradually transforms into a series of drab warehouses. Cute oblong pigs with tiny scuttling legs get pumped with pharmaceuticals that inflate them into immobile spheroids, which then get crushed into pink cubes of meat that match the impersonal complexion of the new urban environment. The camera neatly mirrors that subtly violent process of abstraction by slowly changing its perspective over the land: an angled bird’s-eye-view of an open horizon becomes a schematic, straight-down aerial shot of the production line. While not exactly understated, the short is ambitious, elegant, and strangely moving.