Why I’m Okay with The Lego Movie’s Oscar Snub

The Lego Movie poster

The most talked-about Oscar snub was for Selma’s exclusion from the Best Director and Best Actor nominations. Surprisingly, talk over The Lego Movie’s Best Animated Picture snub seemed equally controversial, perhaps even more so, particularly over at The Dissolve. And while outrage continues to follow it around, with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller tossing back-handed insults towards the Academy for their perceived neglect, I can’t help but think that, perhaps, the Oscar voters may have gotten this one right.

To be clear, award season has always been, and continues to be, an elaborate stroke-fest: self-servicing, brown-nosing, self-celebratory crap. Most people know that most of these awards are nonsense, and the outrage only really feeds into the season’s insatiable love for itself. That being said, some films are noted to be shoo-ins, particularly with the Academy increasing the number of films that could be nominated. The Lego Movie was a critical and commercial success, so it just seemed like a no-brainer that it would win Best Animated Picture, let alone be nominated for it. Yet the Academy chose: Big Hero Six, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, leaving off The Lego Movie, much to the chagrin of many people.

Not so myself. While a majority of the world saw the film and loved its clever take on the Chosen One concept, along with its comical/thoughtful take on the Lego world, I saw just a perfectly fun, cute film that nevertheless fell for the same kind of tropes that Chosen One films tend to fall into, via animation that did exactly what it was supposed to do. The Lego Movie had fun with its premise but it’s difficult for me to agree that it did anything novel with it – save for an inspired climax. Beyond that, though, it possessed the kind of simplistic gags that often fill animated kids films, troubled with actors unsuited for voice over work, and the kind of average, Joe Campell-esque pacing that most critics would pan in other films, animated or otherwise.

Not to say it wasn’t a bad film at all! It reminded me, in fact, of Cats Don’t Dance and Over the Hedge: two animated films with comically clever group dynamics and fast-paced sequences. Yet while The Lego Movie wore its satire on its sleeve, Cats and Over were a lot more subtle about its commentary (the former’s endearing homage to 40s and 50s musical animated shorts; the latter to the encroaching suburban blight on the natural environment). I love those films but I would never say they deserved Oscars, and The Lego Movie was basically a trumped up version of those films. The Lego Movie is also built on a slightly recent batch of animated films which seek to “subvert” certain tropes of animation plots – only to lean into those tropes anyway. Shrek sought to break down the happily-ever-after ending of generic fairy tale stories, only to end with exactly that, albeit on the ugly-orge side of things. Frozen tried to break free of love-at-first-sight storytelling when it comes to princesses, only to suggest the second handsome guy you meet is totally fine. And The Lego Movie, while exposing everyone to be potential master-builders, still ended up with Chosen One Emmet to be the master-builder that saved the day.

I’ve said this before, but most modern critics tend to be terrible at analyzing animation as a whole. They’ll know the big names of animation -  your Brad Birds, Hayao Miyazakis, Chuck Jones, Tom Rueggers – and if you’re lucky, they might be aware of Genndy Tartakovsky, Lauren Faust, Henry Selick, or Pendleton Ward. Critics are not voracious viewers of cartoons – the insane work of Tex Avery, the character-focused oeuvre of Paul & Joe, the wacky excellence of Mark Dindal, or the brilliantly satircal cartoons of Jay Ward. The latter, in particular, was built upon satire and subversion, with the various bits introduced in Rocky & Bullwinkle utterly annihilating generic animation tropes, and this was back in the 60s. Watching a lot of cartoons is tricky – it’s time-consuming and requires a certain degree of patience – but I think to truly understand cartoons, the various approaches to visual representations, requires a certain commitment that many critics fail to take part in.

So of course The Lego Movie seems like some sort of top-notch brilliance to them. And, to be fair, there is a lot to like about it. But in the whole scheme of things, The Lego Movie, with its reliance on generic rhythms and faux-subversion, all within (and let’s be blunt here) an obvious toy-based corporate tie-in, is pretty ordinary. Some people point to the film’s animation as a celebratory selling point. I agree that the film’s visuals were perfectly tailored to The Lego Movie’s sensibility, but to be honest, the film did exactly what it was supposed to do. It committed to the “Lego” look, with the movements and pacing akin to the limited movements and pacings of the actual toys, but it actually didn’t do anything interesting with it. No sharp montages. No unique comic/dramatic visuals. Nothing about the animation pushed the film aesthetically.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (the only nominated film I managed to see this year, an unfortunate blight due to financial issues) had its flaws, too. And while I don’t think it should win, I do think it’s a stronger film than its reputation, with its commitment to its central family unit (before its torn asunder), its unique dragon personalities (Toothless has never seemed less adorably playful), and its mastery over its visuals and art designs. Just the scene where Hiccups reunited father and mother singer their courting song to each other is powerful stuff, with its swooping camera angles and play on the area surrounding them. It’s an insular, personal film that struggled against its bombast, action-fest second half, but it understood the importance of look, feel, and meaning, in terms of the situation and the characters. In comparison, The Lego Movie was about the flair, the self-awareness, the subversion (that never was). It’s a movie that leaned hard on the idea of being a self-aware toy-product, and while it did do a fine job with that limitation, it still was a self-aware toy product. Of course, this allowed for a wonderfully strong, climactic third act, but that’s just the third act. Two-thirds of the film are still flat, generic, run-of-the-mill animation and pacing, with mediocre gags, less-than-average voice work, and exciting-if-passable action.

The next few weeks I’ll be working my way through the rest of the nominated film as they drop on DVD. With The Lego’s Movie snub, and the various flaws that How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls, and Big Hero Six reportedly possess, perhaps this will allow the outliers Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya a larger chance to win (or maybe that this was just a weak year for animated films). But while The Lego Movie has strong moments, I can’t agree that it’s worth a nomination nor even the Oscar itself. It’s fun but slight, ambitious but generic, fun but fluff. Admittedly I do have issues concerning the “Lego-fication” of a lot of entertainment nowadays, but even still, I wonder why it takes a product-film to bluntly emphasize the power and wonder of unbridled creativity, even though, particularly with animated films, that should be the default mindset. (Perhaps it is the lack of openness when it comes to critics and their approaches to animation – film, TV or otherwise – but that’s an argument for another day.)

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Social Media Doesn’t Ruin You. Snark Media Does.

This New York Times article confirms essentially what many are fearing about social media of today: the wrong tweet, post, or comment, removed from context, can explode in a wave of social mob outrage, destroying lives and careers in the process. Shaming, a form of bullying that ridicules people just for the existence of one personal aspect of their lives (whether physical, verbal, emotional, or spiritual), has become democratized; in the process, it has become a weapon of the masses, regardless of class, race, sex, or gender. But it’s basically a nuclear warhead, and unlike Kennedy, there’s little to no leader at the head on that program.

I think the question though is why certain comments on the internet become pitchfork-worthy and other, equally hateful and terrible comments are either ignored or, in fact, celebrated. The opening couple of paragraphs of that Times article show that Sacco isn’t particularly a PC-minded person on her Twitter account, despite being a PR rep. (Buzzfeed went further and collected her 16 worst tweets.) But the one that caught fire was different. The one about the German? Rude, but personal. The bad teeth? Lazy stereotype, but direct. The joke about AIDS in Africa? Well, that’s snark. Sacco lays it bare:

    “To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make,” she said. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.” (She would later write me an email to elaborate on this point. “Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.”)

Ladies and gentlemen: it is 2015, and snark is done.


 

SNARK was fine as a quick, biting, responsive form of comedy. Snark always existed, the literary bridge between irony (a legitimate literary device) and sarcasm (a punchline, a tightly-squeezed form of irony reduced to end a joke.) Whole worlds are build on irony – Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, for the easy examples – and sarcasm was one-and-done, easy-peasy toppers to gags – heroes yelling, “This is going well!” as they sink into the quicksand. Snark was culled from those two concepts and built an attitude around it, often used to mask certain feelings or behaviors.

It makes sense though. Irony masked truth (or more accurately, satirical truth) nearly one hundred percent, and sarcasm barely masked the obvious (clearly, things are not going well). Snark was the middle ground, the way for so-called geniuses or experts to expel their version of the truth to the world while sort of, kind of, justifying their obnoxious behavior. Snark got big in the early 90s, the Dr. Houses and Dr. Kelsos of the world seemingly inspiring a burgeoning class of people with now-regrettable desires to be like them: smart, with the hot-shot ability to put down everyone with elaborate ridicule, under the premise that, deep down, they were broken or flawed – you know, human. This began the horrid wave of “I’m an asshole, but that just me, so get used to it” mentalities that thrived in the late 90s to the mid 00s. Some people were proud of their worldview. Others didn’t flaunt it, but nonetheless were expressing themselves as such, usually in passive-aggressive ways. Everyone thought they were a comedian, or a satirist masking “brilliant” insight behind abject meanness. Hell, Family Guy built a show around it (although I would argue it didn’t start out that way).

The rise of nerd culture embraced snark like no other. It’s a perfect attitude for lovers of geek culture, now embracing the cultural cachet that once pushed them to the margins. They have the knowledge – of classic comics, old-school games, and ye films of olde – and now they could impart that knowledge on others, particularly on those that once shunned them. It was as if The Simpson’s infamous Comic Book Guy was now in charge. What better way to both express that knowledge as well as exact revenge by using snark? What better way to thrive into the 21st century as cultural leaders than to be a smartass blogger?


 

THE thing about snark is at a certain point, no one will tolerate it anymore. Everyone has a breaking point, and we as a society reached it. Social media let that happened. Snark was everywhere: comments implying inferiority behind knowledgeable superiority. People were being snarky without them knowing they were being snarky. Chris Christie is a good example. His “bullying” was once celebrated, telling people to shut up as he expunged his own brand of nonsense, but now, people are sick of it. More and more people are calling out snarky behavior and commentary, and that’s what Sacco learned the hard way.

Everyone “ruined” in that Times article was ruined by the internet’s response to, specifically, a snarky comment or photo: Stone and her goofy gestures at the Tomb of the Unknown; Lynch and her Boston Marathon Victim costume; hell, even jokes about dongles. Regardless of seriousness or intent, all were examples of people joking “all in good fun,” attempts to be comical under the idea that their comments couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. And while most people think that the lack of context and wave of social media is what ruined them, I’d argue that indeed social media knew exactly that they were being “funny”. They didn’t object to the joke regardless of context; they responded to the snark, the “what’s the big deal?” attitude around it.

Such reactions were exacerbated by the rise of minority voices. Nerd voices and their “snark” rose, but so did feminists and transgendered and black voices, and they all kind of, sort of embraced snark (with its passive-aggressiveness, flippant jokiness, and direct meanness masking an indirect point) and it’s lead to a line in the sand. Snark versus snark – smug ironic comedy veiling satire (regardless of quality) pitted against itself – was a lose-lose. The dongle gag lead to both sides being attacked and being fired. Biddle, he who called out Sacco’s snarky AIDS gag got his own karmic retribution when the internet turned on him with his “Bring Back Bullying” comments. All of which ties to Gamergate, perhaps THE biggest depiction of the fallout against snark. Gamergate surges onward because of aggressive responses to snark; any sarcastic jokes that put men in any kind of harsh light will get their full wrath, regardless of how “obvious” the joke is. As Sacco learned.

Snark has become so toxic that sincerity – directly stating how you feel – has become preferable, regardless of belief or stance. Had Stone, Lynch, or the dongle-jokers been candid about their jokes – expressed themselves directly, they might have have been rewarded. There’s precedence for this belief. It’s reached the point that sincerity has been earning more respect. It’s better to outright air your opinions, law-breaking be-damned (Cliven Bundy, Darren Wilson) then to cutely “beat around the bush”. Today’s role models, for good or ill, are those who are candid with their words and deeds.

Snark can work, but it has to be approached positively, not a reflective response to justify assholery or masking poor, ill-thought out behavior under some guise of comedy or satire. Social media has exposed everyone to snark’s insidious side. Those who have been at the receiving end of snark all their lives are calling it out now, and those who have embraced it as a so-called defense mechanism, are entering a tougher world to manage, and may want to tread carefully before releasing another smartass comment out into the world. Because they get the joke. They just don’t like the attitude behind it.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003)

Through 155 episodes, 4Kids’ 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a relatively consistent high quality, but not by committing to the tone of the comics – by committing to itself.

The one thing that every good cartoon needs isn’t great animation, tight storytelling, excellent art direction, or appealing characters. Sure, all of those are desirable, and every creative team should aspire to achieve those goals, but the number one thing necessary to a sustainable, enjoyable cartoon is commitment. Cartoons are, almost by definition, so loose and free and unrestrained, that any ridiculous, unrealistic premise can take surprising form and shape if everyone on board commits to the idea(s) and the ideal(s) of the cartoon. Commitment isn’t something you can put on paper or thrust into a few characters. Everyone has to agree to the set-ups AND the various plot catalysts that are inherent in the show’s premise. Everything that does happen, no matter how crazy, has to somehow come back the the core nature of the show and its characters.

TMNT logo

This is a roundabout way of explaining why basically the 2003 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a high (well, appealing) quality through its seven season, 155-episode run. Whether shooting the four brothers across space, cyberspace, dimensions, time, pseudo-time, dream-scapes, or whatever crock-pot crazy story the writers cooked up, the show never shied from some core, committed basics: the natural characterizations of the four brothers and their pseudo-father (and their rich, always-potent familial connection); the intense, well-done action scenes; the unique seasonal choices that threw the cast into unique and varies circumstances; the myriad of diverse, outlandish characters that popped in and out of the turtles’ lives. SO much happened in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during its entire existence, but whatever DID happen, the writers and animators were committed to it. Even its weakest, wackiest premises were given solid, well-told stories: with seven season and one final TV-movie to muck things up, I’d be hard-pressed to declare any season or arc as an abject failure (and I’ll get more into that during this review).

I’m going to put a lot of the show’s success on Chuck Patton and Roy Burdine’s shoulders, the directors of the majority of the episodes (with credit also to the sheer influx of various writers that flowed in and out over the years). Every iteration completely up-ended the show – whether by changing the tone, the designs, the flow of action, the locations, the story-arcs, etc., all at the expense of a (increasingly obvious) shrinking budget and network interference – and Patton and Burdine managed to crank out fantastically energetic, entertaining episodes day in and day out. Even if the Lost Episodes, Fast Forward, and Back to the Sewer episodes disappointed fans (something I’ll get into a bit later), they still managed to produce delightfully watchable television.

All that’s primarily due to the show’s commitment. No matter what crazy event came into the turtles lives, the writers and animators approached it one hundred percent. No matter what insane limitations and forced changes were passed down on the creative team, they bit the bullet and cranked out good work. With cartoon writers these days seemingly struggling with storytelling with a 23-minute timeframe (The current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Adventures of Puss and Boots are two glaring examples), it’s refreshing to watch a show that can handle a solid, straight-forward story with genuinely tight action, real dramatic stakes, impressive characterizations, and actual humorous moments – all done within structurally competent stories and direction.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s major strength probably came from two key aspects: 1) treating the show like a comic, and 2) spending the time to establish every and all major plot changes. The first allows for slick visuals and dynamic animation (including constantly changing aspect ratios, the TV way of mimicking comic panels), particularly around large-scale fight sequences, while the second allows for characters and plot points to breath, particularly important when time/space/dimensional travel becomes a lot more significant. Animators get creative freedom; writers get creative freedom. Combined, the two aspects allow audience members to get drawn into borderline-incredulous storylines. Sure, the basic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story – where Leo is stalked, thrown into April’s apartment; where they all escape to the farmhouse and recover; where they return to New York and finally beat back the Shredder – is there, and smartly drawn out to emphasize the sheer seriousness and intensity of the arc.

When the brothers are warped into some bizarre space war between humanoids and alien-dinosaur people, discover an underground civilization of transformed monsters, battle along side parodies of Marvel/DC superheros, or when sucked into an alternate universe that involves a large-scaled, competitive battle nexus, a la Mortal Kombat – these kinds of stories threaten to completely throw the core nature of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for a loop. But the show maintains its composure, focusing on those two aspects from above, delineating multi-part arcs to ease in the strangeness – mini TV movies, basically. This opens up the door to some pretty crazy, but wildly entertaining stories down the line, both dark and light, and for the most part all intriguing.

A lot of fans disliked the fourth season take on Leonardo, who became a darker, more emotionally-distant brother after the crazy events of the third. I thought it was a bold choice; the show clearly didn’t take Leo’s view as gospel, and the remaining brothers/Splinter tried desperately to help him. It was a real challenge, and it worked well, making Leo’s breakthrough all the most satisfying. It unfortunately led to The Lost Episodes, which didn’t originally air at first. They were released after the Fast Forward season, and it’s clear why. It feels like the creative team wanted to try a “Turtles, but in school” set-up, but also attempted to go for the strangely popular Dragon Ball Z fanbase. Clearly cobbled together in a rush, The Lost Episodes are, while not awful, definitely way out the creative team’s range. But they try, and the very attempt makes it a lot more watchable than it has any right to be. Still, The Lost Episodes are by far the weakest season.

Fast Forward, meanwhile, definitely feels like network interference. Throwing a cast of familiar characters into the future was always a go-to move to try and revitalize a series. It’s also a bit more sillier, with Serling’s robotic annoyance, Constable Biggles uselessness, and Mikey’s more mischievous, goofier behavior taking up more screen time. But the writers, being professional, still make the most of it, with some solid, tense episodes and pretty intimidating villains. That season’s potential was also cut short, with a bunch of episodes left on the storyboard wall as Back to the Sewer debuted. It has the same tone as Fast Forward, more or less set up to finish up the series on a high note. Even though that season also was clearly cut short, time-and-budget-wise (nothing comes of the first episode’s “three Shredders” set up), the season is still relatively strong, its characters still on point, and its stories still well told, with a rushed but wonderfully resonant finale that sums up the entire season as a whole. “Wedding Bells and Bytes” exemplifies the show’s core strength – it’s constant commitment to whatever change comes its way.

The glowing praise here can’t mask the show’s few flaws, which are, while tiny, rather significant. The main one is that every single villain is a mustache-twirling figure of evil of some type, heavy on exposition and rants with little in terms of development. They do try to explore Stockman a bit, but his life story comes a bit too late, his massive ego way too ridiculous to pull back from. (Bishop’s arc overall is much better, although he’s was so much more entertaining as a villain). Stockman’s literal, constant dismemberment is also disconcerting, as being the only major minority character on the show; watching his hubris, submission, and destruction to others is a bit uncomfortable to watch, time and time again. Poor treatment of female characters is also the show’s flaw. April is established as a scientist but only occasionally exercises that level of intelligence; her training by Splinter never results in anything, either (Karai, on the other hand, fares better). Generally speaking, the characters are second-fiddle to the scope of the show, which is fine, but major players like April and Stockman deserve better.

Yet despite the flawed characters, changing premises, shifting tones, and various character designs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles never really lets up, constantly chugging out engaging episodes and real character moments that remained at a high caliber. The series ended its run (and celebrated its 25th Anniversary) with “Turtles Forever,” a fantastic, high-energy trip down memory lane, with the 2003 team meeting up with the 1987 team and battling 2003 Shredder, Karai, 1987′s Shredder, and 1987′s Krang. It’s filled with cameos and references to the various versions of the franchise, culminating in a self-referential (and self-deprecating) battle with the 1984 Mirage Comics version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s hilarious and amazing, with top-notch animation and clever touches, making it one of the best parodies/homages in ages. It also makes a fantastic capper to a fantastic show, a distillation of a series that ran its paces and constantly delivered.

Turtles forever, indeed.

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