FAN EDIT REVIEW: The Star Wars Trilogy – Harmy’s Despecialized Editons

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Original Films Directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand, Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, and Lawrence Kasdan
Fan Edit by Harmy
Category: Reconstruction

While most fan edits can usually be distilled down to the editor’s subjective goal for a film, there is a rapidly-growing facet of the community that involves the creation of reconstructions. These are edits which do not seek to create a wholly new version of the film, but rather to restore a previously unavailable version, using a number of different home video sources. One can say this method of fan editing truly came into being with Czech editor Harmy, and his excellent Star Wars Despecialized Editions.

First, a brief history lesson, courtesy of the first half of this very informative short documentary:

In case you can’t watch the video, in effect, everything that the original Star Wars film won Oscars for–the visual effects, the set and costume design, sound design–was significantly altered by George Lucas twenty years later to produce the Special Edition, a series of cuts that he felt lived up to his original vision for the trilogy. While the merits of these versions have been and continue to be endlessly debated by fans, the original versions are, at the time of this writing, MIA, in either original print form or on high definition (or acceptable standard definition, for that matter) video.

Enter Harmy, a Czech English teacher and video enthusiast, who sought to restore the original versions of the trilogy in the vein of an early effort by Revisited editor Adywan, by combining different video sources to bring the film back to its original state. Thus, the Despecialized Editions were born.

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The first versions of the edits, available in MKV form, concentrated on two major fronts: correcting the massive alterations to the color timings of the films, and of course, reversing the editorial and visual effects changes that Lucas has made over three successive variations of the Special Editions. Even in these lower-bitrate versions, made with upscales of the Laserdisc-derived 2007 DVD releases of the original trilogy, were quite a step above the official Blu-ray release of 2011 in fidelity to the first-released cuts.

In the years since, Harmy has kept up with changes in both video editing technology and newly-available preservations of the original films, updating each edit accordingly. For this review, I used v2.7 of Star Wars, v2.0 of Empire, and v2.5 of Jedi, in two forms: the full MKV files and a custom blu-ray set made by editor NJVC. While both versions contain the same multitude of audio and subtitle tracks and have similar bitrates, the blu-rays lower the resolution to 720p in order to fit every feature onto a disc. This doesn’t bother me much, considering I don’t sit close enough to my 40-inch TV to notice a difference, but pick accordingly to your tastes.

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Star Wars v2.7 is undoubtedly the centerpiece of Harmy’s set, considering how extensively the original film has been altered in 4 decades. In addition to the highest number of new visual effects, Star Wars suffered a heavily-skewed color palette, to the point that flesh tones begin to take on incredibly rosy complexions. The Despecialized Edition mercifully corrects this, using a well-preserved 35mm print as reference for correct theatrical color timing. The film is no longer forced to conform to the look of the prequels, appearing as it once did in 1977.

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Top: 2011 Bu-ray, Bottom: Despecialized v2.7

And of course, every successive VFX change is reversed–from things as huge as the original ILM Death Star battle to tweaks as small as restoring the orange blob of Vaseline under Luke’s desert speeder, nothing goes unnoticed by Harmy. Each original shot is returned through numerous different sources, depending on which is the highest quality version available; while most of the video is a color-corrected blu-ray rip, changes made to that master are reversed by taking from HD broadcasts of the 2004 DVDs or the 1997 Special Edition, and so on.

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When it becomes necessary to restore a shot that was only in the original version, fan-produced upscales of the 2007 DVDs are utilized, with elements taken from two noteworthy film preservations, Team Negative 1’s Silver Screen Edition and the 16mm Puggo Grande Edition. The video above explains the process in much better detail than I can in these paragraphs, but to over-summarize, Harmy went the extra 100 miles on this one.

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Empire and Jedi, while containing their fair share of VFX alterations, were less butchered by Lucasfilm, with the changes limited more to the inclusion of previously deleted footage and alternate audio takes. The latter example further displays the collaborative nature of the Despecialized Editions, with Harmy enlisting the approved usage of another fan project: a recreation of the original theatrical mixes. Produced by Hairy_hen mainly using the 1993 Laserdisc mixes, the main audio options replicate the standard 35mm stereo and the 70mm six-track mixes that were originally heard in theaters, with the first film also including the mono mix. All are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, and while most certainly aren’t reference-material, hold up to the official releases quite well.

Each MKV file is quite massive, weighing in at an average of over 30 GBs, with bitrates approaching an average of 20 MBPS. The latest versions are in 1080p, and look stunningly beautiful in their original forms compared to the official releases, which are varyingly faded or glossed over with digital enhancements. The blu-ray set by NJVC, with its lower resolution, doesn’t really handle the grain field as well, but as I mentioned before, unless you’re sitting right in front of the TV, this isn’t really something you will notice.

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But that’s not all! Both options include a selection of interesting and excellent features, many of which aren’t easily available anywhere else. On the MKV files, no less than twenty different audio options are available: in addition to the theatrical mixes, the original Laserdisc tracks are included in Dolby Digital form, along with a wide array of foreign dubs (my favorites are the German and Japanese tracks. So awesome and funny at the same time). There are also audio commentaries available from the Laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays, with Star Wars also presenting a rare official website podcast commentary by Pablo Hidalgo. Finally, each one provides an English Descriptive Audio track (so caring and thoughtful of the fans. If only Lucas could be the same).

In addition to the audio tracks, an equally-impressive selection of subtitles is collected from the Project Threepio effort, ranging from English to such overlooked languages as Thai and Navajo.

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The NJVC blu-ray set, available in several options, ups the ante in the extras field with several more commentaries such as Internet podcasts by Rebel Force Radio and Collider, and even Rifftrax by the MST3K crew themselves, along with a few more subtitle options. The bonus features discs include a collection of goodies from around the inter-webs, such as featurettes detailing the changes made to the films over the years, parody productions, documentaries, deleted scenes, trailers and TV spots, and even the excellent filmumentaries by Jamie Benning. All of the discs are finished with full motion menus which further push the official feel of this set.

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All in all, this is a great time to be a Star Wars fan. The dark years of the late 1980s have passed, as have the Lucas years, where Star Wars was kept under the stranglehold of a veritable Darth Vader, a man who has become everything about the Hollywood system he used to hate. Look at it now, with new, acclaimed films in theaters, TV series killing it on the small screen, and fan productions restoring to us our most treasured memories of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, things are finally looking up. So this Christmas, or Star Wars Day, or anytime you want, fire up the Despecialized Editions and enjoy yourself. You finally can again.

HOW TO GET IT:
Despite the crackdown on p2p file sharing going on these days, the Despecialized Editions are still easily and readily available in just about every corner of the web today, thanks in no small part to their popularity. If you are going through the official channels, visit this Harmy-approved guide, which will walk you through the different methods of obtaining the digital files, whether in the full MKV versions or lower-resolution AVCHD files.

NJVC’s blu-ray set was briefly unavailable due to the creator pulling it from circulation–it appears that several unscrupulous individuals were selling the sets on Ebay. However, another fan has graciously and with NJVC’s support made them available again. All you need is a blu-ray burner and the discs, and you are good to go!

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November at The Movie Maestro

Now that Halloween is long behind us, it’s time for me to refresh myself with some of my favorite films and film franchises! Until the end of November, I’ll be reviewing a wide array of entries from the Star Trek series to Indiana Jones to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all just in time to read while you stuff your face with Thanksgiving turkey! Also on the plate will be a complete review of the Star Wars saga to prepare for the December 15 release of The Last Jedi.

Stay true, believers!

REVIEW: The Dark Tower (2017)

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Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
Written by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Nikolaj Arcel, Based on the Novels by Stephen King
Starring Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haybert, Claudia Kim, Jackie Earl Haley, Fran Kranz

Here we go, The Dark Tower. Stephen King’s magnum opus, the binding agent of his disparate and intricate literary multiverse, and umpteenth iteration of his own view of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. It has taken a decade to get it to the big screen, which is for sure a contributing factor to the confusion and dissatisfaction surrounding audience opinion to this film, but far from the only one.

Young Jake (Tom Taylor) is troubled by visions of another world. Deciding to investigate these strange dreams, he stumbles upon a portal into another dimension, where the last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), also known as the Man in Black, determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.

Quick, how many movies can you get out of an epic, 8-book literary series? Most viewers would guess 8, maybe 7. An ambitious screenwriter could probably narrow it down to 3. For whatever reason, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and director Nikolaj Arcel decided that not only could they do it in one, but they could make that film just over 90 minutes. This seems to be heart of the backlash against The Dark Tower; why, oh why, would anybody think to take a chainsaw to one of the most beloved book series of recent memory?

The Dark Tower starts simply enough, albeit with a massive shift from King’s original work: focusing on Jake Chambers, the ordinary kid with extraordinary visions of the worlds beyond ours. By treating Jake as the main character of the story, The Dark Tower begins to take shape as an homage to some of the darker fantasy films of the 1980s, like Krull, The Gate, and The Dark Crystal–films that took young characters into threatening and often-times frightening situations during epic quests. Jake indeed follows this tradition, walking through a portal into the multiversal wasteland of Roland’s world.

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Idris Elba is a believable Roland Deschain, rugged and battle-ready. While he shows that many iconic roles are not and should not be bound to a certain race of actor, Elba never really makes the role his own, acting contently within the typical framework of the silent western hero. Like much of the droll supporting cast, Elba misses a great opportunity to combine Clint Eastwood cool with the knight-like mysticism of King’s original conception.

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Speaking of missed opportunities, back to that one-film thing. I’m beginning to think that, due to the many aborted attempts to make the series in the past, the studio sought to save as much money as possible by shaving it all down to a standard-length film, leaving an open end for possible sequels but tying up the main storyline in case of box office failure. This theory explains the other really big change to the storyline, the extended setting of Keystone Earth, or our world for King virgins. With the altered focus on Jake, he, Roland, and the Man in Black all make extended stops on our world, with the main plotline slowing to a crawl halfway through for Jake to return home to check on his parents. By bypassing the epic cycle of the journey through King’s other books that the Gunslinger takes originally, the film tragically castrates itself.

But there is good news. Despite all the bitching I just did, I actually enjoyed watching it. As mentioned before, the film evokes a dark fantasy quest from the decade of my birth, and the introduction of more technological elements into the richly magical world provided an interesting visual and thematic dichotomy. Arcel is adept at blocking action scenes, with Roland’s final showdown in the Dixie being a highlight. And finally, Matthew McConaughey. Playing the role of Walter, the Man in Black, a role he seems tailor-made to take on, McConaughey gives us a charming and vicious sorceror, a dark figure who has artificially made himself into a god for the ultimate purpose of destroying reality. Hopefully whoever ends up making the remake of The Stand or Eyes of the Dragon decides to bring him back.

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Is The Dark Tower worth watching? If one can put aside its massive departures from the books and abstain from comparing it to obviously superior adaptations like It, then I feel at least a weekday matinee or a DVD rental is warranted. King fans can still delight in the near-endless references to his other works, and may even come to eventually embrace it as an alternate version of the epic series set on yet another world in the multiverse. Time will tell, but for now, I’m content to say, “it’s okay entertainment.”

FAN EDIT REVIEW: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – Revisited

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Original Film Directed by Irvin Kershner, Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
Fan Edit by Adywan
Category: FanFix

The home video history of Star Wars and of the art of fan editing itself are heavily intertwined. Beginning in 2000 with Mike J. Nichols’ The Phantom Edit, the resultant “remix culture” that has surrounded George Lucas’ more controversial 21st Century fingerprints on his magnum opus has now ballooned into a complete community as extensive as cosplay culture. Needless to say, there are now tons of Star Wars fan edits out there, and are as varied as the selection at a Baskin-Robbins; you have Harmy’s Despecialized Edition restorations of the original unaltered trilogy, grindhouse mixes like The Man Behind the Mask”s War of the Stars, Christopher Nolan-style time-benders like Star Wars: Renascent, and you have your basic fanfixes, like The Phantom Edit.

Emerging in the late 2000s with several restorations, editor Adrian Sayce–better known as Adywan–soon established his own indelible mark upon the Star Wars fan editing nation with Star Wars Revisited, a massive reimagining of the modern state of the original trilogy. While seeing the merit in the concept of a Special Edition, Adywan set out to heavily alter Lucas’ re-edited versions, in an attempt to produce “what the Special Editions should have been.”

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Adywan’s Revisited version of Episode IV – A New Hope was released in 2009, and quickly became a popular edit with its intricately-crafted new visual effects, massive color regrading, and subtle fixes to stupid mistakes that Lucasfilm should have repaired long ago (Obi-Wan’s lightsaber changing to a dimly-lit pole comes to mind). After 7 years of hard work, his long-awaited followup, The Empire Strikes Back Revisited, is finally here, and it was so worth the wait.

As of this writing, it is only available as a 720p x264 file at a size of around seven gigabites, but even on this relatively shrimpy format the edit is simply stunning. Even a cursory scroll-through of the screenshots from the x264 version reveals a picture far superior to even the official Blu-rays. While liberties are taken with many elements in order to bring the film in line with Adywan’s vision of a functional director’s cut, ESB-R is second only to Harmy’s Despecialized Edition in fidelity to the original theatrical image.

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Even the majority of his changes seem to minimize the shock inherent to seeing an altered version of a movie so many remember so well. For example, Obi-Wan’s Force ghost on Hoth is no longer lacking the characteristic edge sparkle it and all the others possess, but Adywan keeps the brightness on it down low enough to not break the mirage-like effect that particular ghost was always meant to have. Many other changes, while substantially more noticeable, always make sense: the Battle of Hoth now contains more AT-STs to offset the out-of-place original occurrence of the vehicle; the swamps of Dagobah are a little more crawling with exotic creatures; the asteroid field is even more intense with an expansion of the field on the z axis. Every change is not forced or full of nonsense.

Like with A New Hope Revisited, the film has been through a complete color re-grading, although this time it seems less noticeable, no doubt due to how screwed up the previous film’s color palette was by Lucasfilm. In addition, various technical gaffes and limitations have been fixed, including all new starfields and smoothed out jump cuts. Lightsaber and blaster effects have all been completely rotoscoped by Adywan.

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Not every change is perfection, however; in what I believe will be his most controversial, Adywan has used CG to further animate the Yoda puppet’s mouth. In some scenes it works, in others it’s just distracting. Hey, at least it’s not a full CG Yoda, right?

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With ESB-R, Adywan has reclaimed his place at the top of the fan edit mountain. With picture and sound even better than the official blu-rays, and additions and fixes that, for the most part, greatly improve upon Lucas’ own hair-brained ideas, The Empire Strikes Back Revisited should be in everyone’s fan edit collection.

HOW TO GET IT:
Visit Adywan’s how-to-download page for details on getting the 8gb .mkv. DVD-5, DVD-9 and Blu-ray versions will be available sometime in the future.

 

REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, Based on Characters Created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary

The Apes Origins Trilogy (feel free to steal that name) has to be one of the best examples of a hard reboot yet. Respecting the core tenents of the original film series while branching out to tell its own story with complex themes of inter-species relations and survival in a post-apocalyptic environment, this series of films presents a top-notch blockbuster experience. While Rise may have stumbled just a bit in its execution, I felt Dawn was near-perfect, so with War, hopes are riding quite high.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

It’s funny that the above synopsis refers to an epic battle, because while there is a traditional military battle at the end of the film, the conflict it actually refers to is the ideological and philosophical battle between both The Colonel and Caesar, and between Caesar’s better and darker natures. Like Rise and Dawn before it, War is a very nuanced and brooding type of film, more content to let its characters suffer in a world dying with a whimper.

More than the others, War contains numerous references to the original films, including but certainly not limited to: a new strain of the Simian Flu that robs humans of their speech and motor-functions, turning them into the primitive slaves of the original series; the X-crosses that used to mark the Forbidden Zones now used to string up captured Apes by the Alpha and Omega army, itself a references to the underground mutants of the second film; Maurice’s supposed rise as the Lawgiver character; I could go on and on. Obviously, Reeves and Bomback have great love and respect for the franchise.

But more importantly, they also know how to write their own story, and War is just as much proof of their prowess as Dawn was. All of these references are skillfully folded into a narrative quest undertaken by Caesar, in which he opens up the depths of his sin and confronts every choice he has ever made in a veritable Heart of Darkness-esque film is arresting, to say the least. As he agonizes over the losses suffered to humans over the years, and his crime against his own kind with the haunting spectre of Koba, Caesar trudges on through cold Northern wastes, racing toward a final confrontation with the Kurtz of this story, played menacingly by Woody Harrelson. Along the way, Andy Serkis, Terry Notary, Steve Zahn, and Karin Konoval make tremendous use of the near-perfect motion-capture method employed by Reeves’ technical wizards, and achieve scary-good performances that are, more often than not, way too realistic to disbelieve.

As strong as the visual effects and Michael Giacchino’s classical score are, the screenplay and the acting continuously roar back into the spotlight, especially with the film’s second half, set at the Alpha and Omega base within an abandoned weapons depot on the Canadian border. Here, Caesar and the Colonel match wits and emotions as each is forced to confront their very beings in a series of scenes that rank as some of the best acted moments I’ve seen all year. And one of them isn’t even truly onscreen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that a fourth film is being prepped by 20th Century Fox. However, I feel Planet of the Apes would be better served if the franchise stopped here for now. Pretty much every loose end has been tied, and the story has already come full circle, leaving a straight remake of the original film as the only way forward. And when it comes down to it, there isn’t much point in doing so. The Apes Origin Trilogy, having begun as a nature-fights-back franchise before evolving into an uncompromising and devastating meditation on the self-destructive nature of human civilization, is over in my eyes, with its final note as beautiful as it can possibly be.

REVIEW: Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

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Directed by Kazuki Omori
Written by Kazuki Omori
Starring Kosuke Toyohara, Anne Nakagawa, Megumi Odaka, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya

I always wonder what the Heisei series of Godzilla films would have been like had Godzilla vs. Biollante not been a box office disappointment. The seeds were all there for an interesting science fiction franchise: a return to big-budget productions, new monster characters, a strong emphasis on high sci-fi concepts with consistent narratives. Such a shame that Toho decided to play it safe and redo the Showa series for the 90s. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy these films, but I ponder what could have been.

When a mysterious UFO is seen flying over Tokyo, tensions mount as the craft lands–and the occupants reveal themselves to be time travelers from the 23rd Century. Their mission: to warn mankind that Godzilla will soon awaken and wreak havoc upon the Earth unless he is destroyed. Meanwhile, a double-threat emerges in the form of King Ghidorah, a massive, flying three-headed dragon. The suspense builds to terrifying levels as the time travelers’ sinister true objective in the present is gradually revealed, and Godzilla must wage a solo battle against those who would destroy our future.

For Godzilla’s third outing in the Heisei continuity, Toho brought back his old nemesis, King Ghidorah, but more importantly, decided to create a trilogy cycle by delving into the origin of the second Godzilla. While I could argue all day about the dramatic deficiency of this move, namely, the destruction of the mystery surrounding this Godzilla’s existence, the end result is a bit more complicated than that.

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Beginning with a UFO streaking across the skies of Tokyo, GvKG quickly sets up the Godzilla origin arc with the main players of Terasawa (Kasuke Toyohara), a non-fiction writer investigating the kaiju’s past, dinosaur expert Professor Mazaki (Katsuhiko Sasaki), and the psychic from GvB, Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka). Their investigation reveals the existence of a massive dinosaur, a survivor of the KT Extinction, on Lagos Island in 1944, saving a garrison of Japanese soldiers from an American landing party. This revelation collides with the UFO story when the craft’s occupants reveal themselves as humans from the 23rd Century, come to save Japan from the devastation Godzilla will soon bring.

While the story itself seems sound, what really fails in GvKG for me is, well, everything else. Omori’s screenwriting takes a turn for the worse in this film, with his first deficiency being in his time-travel logic. Early on, one of the ‘Futurians’ insists that an individual from one time cannot coexist with his past-self at the same time, but this assertion is clearly proven wrong at several points later on, and the consistency of time theory is way off (at one point, their actions cause already established events to happen, and at others they change events). While this isn’t too grievous of a gaffe, as time travel is a messy storytelling subject, Omori’s seeming glorification of Japanese nationalism and the Imperial Army certainly is.

Image result for godzilla vs king ghidorah stillsYes, I’m going to toss my hat into this little controversy. I do indeed recognize the argument of the old guard and Ishiro Honda that perhaps depicting the killing of American soldiers by the Godzillasaurus went a little too far, considering the context in which these men fighting for an imperialist power would go on to become the founders of the modern Japan, in the case of Shindo (Yoshio Tsuchiya). However, this is rooted in historical fact, and the theme of the country’s roots in the war have been done with relative respect even in American films such as The Wolverine and Letters from Iwo Jima. Additionally, Shindo’s arc isn’t even indicative of the typical conservative Japanese attitudes, as he ends up at the mercy of his ‘savior’ at the end, perishing in the nuclear fire of a destructive god that does not, in fact, take sides, effectively nullifying any nationalistic fervor Omori may have fostered. In short, Shindo may have thought the divine wind was at his back, but he found in his tragic fall that it never cared about him at all.

As for the visual side of things, it doesn’t fare much better. Much of the futuristic elements are hokey at best and laughable at worst, with the biggest offender being the M-11 android. With his soft, almost unintelligable voice and dopey still-face, he already obliterates the Terminator-like image I’m sure Omori wanted to convey, and that’s long before we get “the run.”

I’m sure the suitmation technique did not change at all since GvB, but the emphasis on daytime battles in this film limits the believability of the kaiju action, and doesn’t do the action scenes any favors while the special effects artists grapple with new problems introduced by the heavy new Ghidorah suits. What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, Ghidorah can’t even walk anymore. This unfortunate side effect of the new suit leads to the proliferation of the Heisei series’ beam battles, which are spectacular to a child on his first viewing but to my eyes, very boring. And while the great Akira Ifukube returns to score the film, his themes are simple rehashes of old pieces, most notably the use of the King Kong vs. Godzilla theme as Ghidorah’s. Great piece, just not every original to reuse it.

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I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh on GvKG, as it did introduce Mecha-King Ghidorah and played with the idea of Godzilla being a more elemental being, a god of destruction to his Japanese homeland. I just wish there were a better way to do it than what Omori and Tanaka came up with. For the rest of the Heisei series, the emphasis would be on monster mashes with returning Showa characters and threats, and while even those tired concepts would prove to be interesting later on in the Millennium series, they just don’t have the same power here. Sorry fellow G-fans, but Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah started the 90s downfall that led straight to Emmerich’s odd one out, and that can’t be changed with a time-travelling mothership.

REVIEW: The Lego Movie (2014)

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Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
Starring the Voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Hey guys, did you know that everything is awesome? That everything is cool when you’re part of a team? Everything is awesome, when you’re living the dream! Indeed it is, especially when that dream is turning the bastard child video series of a multi-million selling construction toy into one of the greatest movies to be released in recent memory.

Emmett (Chris Pratt), a completely ordinary LEGO mini-figure who lives his life like everyone else–according to the instructions–is identified as the most “extraordinary person” and the key to saving the Lego universe. Emmett and his friends go on an epic journey to stop the evil tyrant, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), whose evil plans to ensure order in his world with a powerful weapon threatens to freeze the entire LEGO realm in place–forever! As a prophecy about ‘Special’ comes true with the discovery of ‘Piece of Resistance,’ Emmett must tangle with the likes of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Micro managers and ‘Man from upstairs’ during his journey to save the world.

I both love and hate the reactions I get when I list The Lego Movie as one of my favorites. I love feeling like Emmett by the end of the film, with my mind opened to a knowledge and understanding that some people haven’t reached by embracing it as more than a fun time for kids, and I hate it as well, because people just need to recognize. The Lego Movie has everything any moviegoer would ever want: hella good performances by established and seasoned actors, beautiful animation, tons of laughs, and well-plotted story that sinks its teeth into the biggest philosophical questions there are.

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The secret to the film’s incredible fortitude is the creative talent behind the “camera,” namely producer Dan Lin, who originally conceived the project, directors Christopher Miller and Phil Loyd, and animation supervisor Chris McKay. Together, these four men were able to push a corporate-driven production into realms of storytelling bliss that is becoming harder and harder to find among tentpole cinema.

Taking place in a Lego world that is as complete as it is imaginative, the animation appears incredibly lifelike–to the point where most viewers don’t realize they are watching something that is totally computer animated. Everything on screen is composed of virtual Lego blocks, from the buildings and vehicles to even the water, fire, and clouds. Every character is an authentic Lego figure, only able to move in ways the actual toys can, a stark contrast to the cheaply-produced straight-to-video entries from the decade prior, where everything moves in bizarre, rubberized ways. This is all thanks to the creative team, who sought to harken back to most well-known Lego fan films of the 20th Century, like Journey to the Moon or The Magic Portal.

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It is in this homage to the most small-scale, independent filmmaking possible that The Lego Movie shows its true heart, by turning what has always been a business model, or in the sad case of The Magic Portal a corporate shutdown of the little guy, into a deep tale of the relationship between freedom and order. As McKay explains,

“We wanted to make the film feel like the way you play, the way I remember playing. We wanted to make it feel as epic and ambitious and self-serious as a kid feels when they play with LEGO. We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up. And we had fun doing it.'”

Emmett’s journey through the narrative only heightens this, weaving threads of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of heroic myths into a film that projects the age-old conflict of the freedom of chaos versus the social contract, represented in bombastic, childlike form by the likes of Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius (literally the Renaissance Vitruvius), and Will Ferrell’s Lord Business (subtle). In addition, Emmett’s vision of the outside world and the “Man Upstairs” is highly evocative of Plato’s cave allegory, and when Emmett finally reaches the outside, the meta-textual nature of the film really takes off.

Of course, the philosophizing is sandwiched into a film who’s first priority is entertainment, and watching the filmmakers play in several sandboxes worth of sets, haphazardly yet intelligently weaving together everything that makes the Lego toyline so unique and fun is quite the treat. The actors take their cues from the filmmakers, injecting whimsical spontaneity into their performances that always has me grinning from ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t be giddy at the prospect of Will Ferrell playing the ultimate universal evil, or Morgan Freeman as blind wizard who’s sensitive about being called old?

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When it comes down to it, The Lego Movie is one of the best films of the 2010s already, by far. It’s sheer entertainment value props it up above the usual summer drivel, and its themes of cosmic purpose and the value of personal liberty manage to stick it to the man while he simultaneously makes money off of the message. If you still can’t make it through a whole viewing, maybe it’s time to leave adulthood in the trash can and give it another go, because if Lord Business can be stopped by the wonder of a child(man), than you can too!