Everything is Awesome in Uncanny Valley

Let me make one thing clear: I love The Lego Movie. It is truly awesome. I only just saw it, and yet despite all the glowing reviews and comments, I was not disappointed (though I would have enjoyed it even more had a certain radio film review show not told me about the shift in genre in the third act, but I’ll let that go.)

The look of the film is amazing – I had assumed it would be clean Toy Story or Lego Star Wars-type computer animated rendering of bricks. But they made it look like it was stop-motion animation with real bricks. The lighting – for example when Emmet drives the motorbike through the house – is just astonishing. The bricks all have small flaws in their surfaces to make them look real, the printing on the bricks is blobby and looks like a real screen print.

But I have one tiny niggle. I felt that the flaws in the bricks were, perhaps, too exaggerated. The thing that always marked Lego out as superior to other brick-based construction toys was the quality of the plastic and the mouldings – yes they aren’t perfect, but they’re damn close. And at times some of the Lego pieces in The Lego Movie looked close to the real thing, but possibly not quite close enough.

And that got me wondering whether The Lego Movie had wandered into aanother world, aside from The Wild West, Middle Zealand and Cloud Cuckoo Land. Had The Lego Movie shifted into Uncanny Valley?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, Uncanny Valley is why The Polar Express is a hideous, terrifying movie that shouldn’t even be shown to sensitive adults, let alone children. It’s why Pixar’s Tin Toy is an uneasy watch. It’s that thing that happens when computer-generated images are close, but not close enough, to real humans (and animals too, I’d argue). Good designers and animators stylise their characters to make them more cartoon-like, to avoid this deep sense of uneasiness. Can Uncanny Valley, I wonder, also apply to (ahem) inanimate objects?

So the third act… well, here’s a spoiler alert. If you’ve not seen The Lego Movie yet – look away now. I wonder if the very real, flawed, chewed look and feel of the action taking place in the Lego universe part of the film is correct when considered against the real live action world of the third act. The Lego characters themselves are, until Emmet falls, unaware of any external reality (hello, The Matrix). So would it have made more sense, in terms of visual grammar, to have these scenes shot in pure, cleanly rendered CGI blocks? And then, when he falls, Emmet could become imperfect. All the characters could become imperfect – the final scene could be shot in the faux-stop motion style. It would mirror the way Hobbes changes from a real tiger to a toy tiger in the Calvin Hobbes frames where adults (or Suzie) are present.

Or perhaps I think about things too much, and I just need to kick back and relax with an overpriced coffee. Everything is Awesome. Everything is Awesome.

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