Monthly Archives: February 2014

The (Lego) Hero’s Journey, Part Two

It’s been a few weeks since The LEGO Movie came out and proved that everything was indeed awesome. As I said I would before it came out, I’m going to break down The LEGO Movie with The Hero’s Journey.

But wait.

Two things you gotta do before you read on. First; read that blog post. I’m not gonna bother explaining The Hero’s Journey again. Second: watch the movie. Seriously. It’s a great movie in the first place and, equally importantly, I’m going to ruin the film’s big, magical twist. And I don’t use that word lightly.

And in case you missed it:

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. GO WATCH THE MOVIE THEN COME BACK AND READ THIS.

 

That clear? Alright. Here we go.

(I’ll be more or less using TV Tropes’ outline here; with splashes of others. Do note, some of the pieces can be juggled around, as they are in this film.)

The LEGO Movie opens with Lord Business defeating Vitruvius and getting the Kragle, at which point Vitruvius makes a prophecy about The Special stating that the Special will, be, well special. That’s step one.

Then we see Emmet, our protagonist, living out his normal, dull, life. His life is boring and routine. This is Thomas Anderson going to work in The Matrix, this is Luke on the farm.

Emmet’s normal world comes crumbling down when, after work, he falls down a hole and finds the Piece of Resistance. Like Thomas Anderson/Neo before him, Emmet then finds himself a captive of the bad guys only to be shortly freed by someone else. This is his Call to Adventure, something he resists at first.

Then Emmet must cross the first threshold, in this case being when he and Wyldstyle break out of Bricksburg into the Wild West pursued by Bad Cop. In Star Wars this is when the Falcon leaves Tatooine pursued by storm troopers. Alternately, look at when Neo leaves the Matrix for the first time. Emmet’s life has changed for good. The following chunk (and next few beats) are part of the Road of Trials, where Emmet is tested and really yanked out of the world. Think Neo’s training with Morpheus, where he finds that he knows Kung Fu.

Emmet meets the mentor, Vitruvius, here; a vital part in any hero’s journey. Like Obi Wan to Luke and Morpheus to Neo, and Dumbledore to Harry; this character aids the hero on his journey and urges him on. As Vitruvius does.

Next up is the Land of Adventure, which TV Tropes describes as “a strange, dreamlike realm, where logic is topsy-turvy and the “rules” are markedly different from the ordinary world.” In other words: Cloud Cuckoo Land. Here Emmet is developed and the set up laid for his Night Sea Voyage.

Which, courtesy of the attack on Cloud Cuckoo Land and a hastily built sub, actually takes place at sea. Now, this Night Sea Voyage marks the end of the Road of Trials and when the Hero mounts an attack on the enemy stronghold. In The Matrix this is Neo and Trinity rescuing Morpheus; in Star Wars this is saving Leia. For The LEGO Movie this means stealing a hyperdrive and getting to the Kragle.

Alright folks. I’m getting into the real spoiler bit. If you haven’t seen the film yet, bail now!

 

An optional part of the monomyth (Joseph Campbell would argue it was essential) is the hero’s Death and Resurrection. This messianic tropes is on full display in The Matrix with Neo, and in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. To my surprise and immense pleasure, The LEGO Movie throws it in. Emmet sacrifices himself to save the Master Builders. Basically, he dies. The proceedings in the ‘real’ world with Finn and his Dad (about which I could write a whole ‘nother rant essay on the way it doesn’t feel jarring because of how it masterfully works in the themes, but I digress) leads to Emmet’s resurrection. Like Neo, Emmet can overcome death and return to his world.

And returns he does in what’s dubbed the Apotheosis. Ever trusty TV Tropes defines this thusly: “The Hero comes to view the world in a new and radically different way, either because of a critical breakthrough he’s made or some crucial information he’s uncovered.” Where Neo can fly and defeat Agent Smith, Emmet can harness the full powers of a Master Builder (his Ultimate Boon), creating a construction mech and charging through Micro Managers and back to Lord Business’ command brick, in order to have his Fight Against the Big Bad.

With Lord Business redeemed, Emmet makes his Return to Bricksburg, changed and, well, special.

 

So there you have it, a fairly in-depth (but not as much as it could be) look at The LEGO Movie through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as defined by TV Tropes (and myself). It’s a beautiful structure which, honestly, I haven’t seen pulled off this magnificently since The Matrix.

Seriously folks, this movie is awesome.

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Verified Fiction

I’m an African prince. Well, sort of. More my Dad is a Chief in Ghana. Long story short, when we were there (while living on the ship) a local chief decided to make my Dad a Chief too. Far as thirteen-year-old Josh saw, he was given an ornate bracelet and, by the nature of him being my father, I became an African prince.

Don’t believe me? It’s fine, but hey, makes for a fun story huh?

I mentioned last week that my Dad told me a lot of stories growing up. Like I said before, some were Star Wars in nature, others dealt with superheroes, but among my brother and my favorites were stories of Zhuge Liang, a Chinese strategist who always had the smartest solutions. Sort of like King Solomon of the Bible, only, well, Chinese.

Anyway, my Dad would tell these great stories. I don’t remember any details, just that Zhuge Liang was really smart and sometimes his adventures had him winding up in present day or going on adventures with Star Wars characters. Some other stories he’d tell my brother and I were from when he was younger; adventures with his brothers or stories of when he’d lived on a ship in his twenties. Point is, they were great stories. Like that whole African prince thing; they’re cool and fun, something to tell others down the line.

Which, like many things in my life, makes me think of a movie. In this case it’s Secondhand Lions. Heads up, I’ll be discussing the ending of said movie, so: ten-year-old spoilers.

In Secondhand Lions, Walter is sent to spend the summer with his elderly grand-uncles Hub and Garth. Little is known by Walter, his mother, or the community about the brothers; just that they spent a long time overseas and are probably sitting on pile of wealth. There are theories as to what they did, one of the most popular being that they were bank robbers. According to Garth’s stories to Walter, they spent the years in Africa, fighting for the French Foreign Legion during World War I and later their own adventures including a notable escapade with a sheik before finally returning to the States.

Now, the central tension in the movie is the issue of whether the stories are true. When asked point blank, Hub tells Walter that it’s not so much the veracity that matters but that the meaning is true. That is, though a story mayn’t be true, ideals like honor and love are.

We don’t quite get an answer through the film’s climax — in fact we get a story in favor of the bank robber theory. It’s only at the very end, set years later, that Walter meets a man whose grandfather — an old wealthy sheik — told him stories about two wild Americans who opposed him. For both men it’s a moment of realization that there were actually some truth to those stories.

I’m taking a class this semester called Historic Epics of China and Japan, for which I’m currently reading Romance of The Three Kingdoms. I’ve heard of this book before, mostly that it’s a cultural touchstone. Part way through the book, though, a major character was introduced: Zhuge Liang.

Yeah, the same guy my Dad told me stories about when I was a kid is a key player in a book I’m reading at university. There’s something exciting about this, in a way not unlike Walter meeting the sheik’s grandson: it’s a sudden realization that hey, those stories my Dad told me were actually rooted in Chinese culture. There’s a sudden added truth to those half-remembered stories I grew up with. That and Three Kingdoms is a great piece of literature.

We live in a world of stories. Not just those we watch/read/play, but ones we hear from and tell each other. With that, it’s always to find out that some of those more outlandish ones are actually quite true.

A couple years ago I was reading TIME when an article caught my eye: it was about foreign chiefs in Ghana. I read it, amused at the fact that hey, my Dad might not be the only one. Then I looked closely at the picture in the article, real close. On the chief’s wrist is a bracelet, one not unlike the one my Dad has.

Well whadaya know.

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Heart of a Child

I grew up in the 90’s with a steady diet of Lego, Jedi, superhero cartoons, mecha anime, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles. All this was peppered in with bedtime stories from my Dad, some of which were about the Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang, others were about Han Solo and Luke Skywalker going on adventures, and still others about Superman and Batman teaming up to fight bad guys.

There are side effects that come with this; the firm belief that giant robots are awesome, for example. Others are the ingrained image of a mulleted Tony Stark at an anvil, or memories of Captain America and Iron Man showing up on Spider Man’s cartoon. But then, those are all cartoons and stuff, puerile parts of childhood.

Only not.

A lot of the stuff I grew up with is being tapped and turned into cinematic fare these days. Sure, there’ve been Batman and Superman movies since well before I was born, but a movie about Iron Man? And Captain America? And one where they team up with the Hulk and Thor? In a movie? Eight year old Josh would be giddy at the idea (as twenty-two year old Josh still is).

Here’s the thing, I’m not eight anymore. How does a movie work to appeal to me now? Characters like Batman and Spider Man have had several incarnations in various media for various audiences. Adam West’s Batman differs sharply from the one in Justice League who in turn differs from Arkham Asylum’s. Sure, there’s the same character but differences in tone and style. There are many different ways to interpret characters and genres these days.

Especially Batman. Christopher Nolan approached the Caped Crusader from a much more mature point of view than we’d really seen on screen at the point. He deconstructs the idea of a superhero throughout the Dark Knight Trilogy. This is how Batman would work in a ‘real’ world: masks bought in bulk to avoid suspicion, for example. Gone is the romanticism of being a superhero.

Nolan’s Gotham is awash in a gray world of corrupt cops, sold-out lawyers, and mob rule. Batman himself is not entirely in the clear and, as he Commissioner Gordon puts it at the end of The Dark Knight, isn’t the hero Gotham needs. This is Batman for a more grown up, more adult world, a blurry world where right and wrong aren’t quite distinct.

Then on the other end of the spectrum we have Pacific Rim. The movie has, as director Guillermo del Toro put it, the heart of a 12-year-old and the craft of a 48-year-old. The movie is brimming with the hope and excitement you had when you were 12. There’s little attempt to ‘grow up’ the mecha genre, at least as far as growing up means how everything must be brooding, dark, and deathly serious. Sure, characters die and sacrifices are made, but it’s a clear view of Good and Evil; it’s that idealistic dichotomy.

Pacific Rim, like The Avengers, is a reconstruction of its genres. The Avengers acknowledges the problems of having a team of six superhero egos, but factors overcoming it into a plot. Pacific Rim makes Kaiju terrifying and Jaegers awesome, crafting a movie’s world where it not only works but is acceptable. These are movies that have grown up but remember the romanticism of being younger.

There is, however, yet another point on the spectrum: The Lego Movie. This movie doesn’t give a crap about growing up. There’s no playing at re/deconstruction; instead it takes it’s idea — a movie about Legos — and runs with it. It’s a movie about being a kid, about those times when you built a spaceship and ran around your room making laser noises and chanting “spaceship!” over and over again. If anything, The Lego Movie is an ode to childhood in the purest sense. It doesn’t just have the heart of a child, it’s about being a child.

Is one way of doing it better than the other? Nah. I love the grittiness of The Dark Knight as much as I love the colorful cacophony of The Lego Movie. I was ten once and these movies, with all their different interpretations, remind me of what it was like.

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The (Lego) Hero’s Journey, Part One

I had the pleasure of attending an advance screening of The LEGO Movie on Thursday at my university. Now, you have to realize, I’ve been into Legos as long as I can remember, have a couple models on my desk, and have been making Lego movies in one form or another since I was ten.

In a nutshell: The LEGO Movie is fantastic. It’s beautifully animated, superbly cast, downright hilarious, and has a great plot. Now, the plot’s not anything groundbreaking, in fact it follows John Campbell’s monomyth to a tee.

Wait. The LEGO Movie makes use of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?

Yes.

First, it serves to outline what exactly The Hero’s Journey is. Joseph Campbell postulated that myths and legends from around the world followed a similar structure. One where “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Campbell). Translated, it’s a mythic arc that stems from a lot of ancient myths. It’s also been used in more modern media; George Lucas consciously set out to create a myth when he created Star Wars. The Wachowskis used it in The Matrix and thatgamecompany followed in closely enough in Journey that much of the soundtrack’s titles match individual steps of the monomyth.

With that, it bears mentioning that Campbell’s monomyth is hardly the only structure out there and a quick google search brings up several different takes on it. My favorite is the one on, go figure, TV Tropes, mostly because theirs allows for some leeway in the steps and rearrangements.

Now, this is hardly new. I’ve mentioned before how Aristotle talked about this in his Poetics and also how formulas exist for a reason. It’s also not bad. To do something like this doesn’t so necessarily mean a laziness of storytelling so much as, when executed well, displaying a mastery of it.

So how does this work with The LEGO Movie? The film adopts the monomyth and puts it to use for its story. All the key players are there: we have the very normal Emmet who wants very little to do with adventure until along comes Wyldstyle, who drags him out of normalcy and gives him the Call to Adventure. There’s the evil President Business with his right hand minifig Bad Cop. Vitruvius is the Obi Wan to Emmet’s Luke, with Batman (yes, the Batman), Uni-Kitty, and Benny the 1980-something Space Guy filling out the rest of the team.

But then, those are the characters, what about the plot?

Emmet is an ordinary minifig, one who receives his Call To Action to leave his town and help save the world. After his initial Refusal of the Call he must Cross the First Threshold, meet The Mentor, enter the Land of Adventure, and, well I’d love to say more but the movie’s not out ‘till this coming Friday and I really don’t want to spoil the movie. There’s a second rant essay coming a couple weeks after it’s released where I’ll break down the plot proper.

Is this post then just a big introduction? Sort of. But I will tell you this: The LEGO Movie is a magnificent piece of storytelling that you should really go see. There’s an earnestness to it seldom seen these days that makes it pure joy to watch. Plus, it really puts The Hero’s Journey to work, lending it an instantly classical feel that adds to it’s very, well, Lego-y feeling.

Go watch it when it comes out, then come back here in a few weeks for my monomythical breakdown.

Get it, because it’s Lego? And I’m breaking it down?

…I’ll see myself out.

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