Imagination is a lost art — at least for adults. That’s not to say that we are not imaginative, but rather, that we lose our ability to imagine — and to really believe in our imaginations — as we get older, more jaded, more cynical, more “realistic” about life. Even as someone who loves the theatre, I still struggle to immerse myself in a play, to forget that what I am watching is the product of a number of artists and thinkers formed from many hours of rehearsal, staging, and planning. Every once in a while, I am lost in a play, and those are the moments I cherish in the theatre — precisely because they are few and far between. Recently, however, two specific pieces of comedy have come out that celebrate our inherent imaginative potential; though they are archetypically dissimilar, it should come as no surprise that they are both focused on childhood imaginations: The LEGO Movie, and South Park: The Stick of Truth.
Let’s start with The LEGO Movie. If you haven’t seen the movie — or even the preview — check it out:
This movie has a gooey center made of pure, undiluted imagination, and it’s coated in technicolor sprinkles, topped with whipped awesomesauce. It gives you diabetes of the eye. Eyeabetes? Seriously though, there’s so much going on in every frame, there’s no way to take it all in. And the amazing thing? It all works. The same thing can be said of the jokes — they come fast and frenetic, and the creators, animators, and actors throw so many jokes at the wall, it’s kind of amazing that so many of them stick. This is not only an impressively imaginative animated film, but it’s one of the best comedies I’ve seen in a long time.
So how does the imagination fit in with the film’s comic agenda? Well, of course LEGOs are all about creating and imagining. That’s a given. So let’s look at the movie itself. The first thing I noticed was the animation, which is does not betray the titular product. The characters and environment move and are moved in ways that they would only be able to move as LEGO pieces. These are not the elastic, bendy LEGOs of the LEGO video games, existing in a realistic environment. Instead, this is more like a stop-motion film, where everything — from the buildings and roads, to the sky and the rolling waves of the ocean (in one particularly frenetic and impressive setpiece) — is animated with LEGO bricks. And they get a lot of jokes out of that, much in the way South Park gets some good jokes out of it’s crappy animation. Liam Neeson’s “Good Cop/Bad Cop” character is predicated entirely on the fact that LEGO men have two faces. When he’s Good Cop, his happy face spins to the front. When he’s Bad Cop, it’s his mean face. It sounds simple — and it is — but it’s clever, and Neeson gives him amazing life.
When one character is beheaded (yes, beheaded), they show up later as a ghost, dangling on a string, with all the jerky, uncontrollable physics of a LEGO figure hanging from a screen. Of course, they’re also offering sage wisdom from beyond the grave, and the coupling of both is one of the more subtly funny moments in the film. Why? Because it acknowledges what it’s trying to be (the rallying call moment in an epic blockbuster à la The Matrix or The Avengers), while celebrating the fact that these characters are plastic toys. The LEGO Movie makes clever use of its product, celebrating creativity and awkwardness in equal measures. The result is that the film is both aesthetically impressive and wonderfully hilarious.
For such an imaginative movie, it makes no qualms about borrowing directly from other sources. The elite “Master Builders” see the world in LEGO product numbers (much like Neo’s binary vision in The Matrix). Emmett, the protagonist, is referred to as “The Special,” in an unsubtle parody of all the “special” chosen protagonists of recent narratives (Neo, Harry Potter, etc.). Furthermore, each of the characters seem to be voiced as parodies of their voice actor’s other characters. Morgan Freeman is essentially playing Morgan Freeman from Shawshank Redemption, Bruce Almighty, the recent Batman films, and basically anything he’s narrated; Chris Pratt is playing Emmett as Andy from Parks and Recreation; Will Arnett steals the movie as Batman — precisely because he plays it like GOB from Arrested Development suddenly put on the Dark Knight’s cowl and decided to fight crime. The rest of the supporting cast is equally fantastic: Charlie Day as the beleaguered “80’s Spaceman” (which I remember having in the 80s), Alison Brie as the repressed half-unicorn, half-cat “Unikitty,” Will Ferrell as “President Business,” and Jonah Hill as a scene-stealing Green Lantern, an obsessed Superman fanboy.
Before I move on, I want to say a few words about The LEGO Movie‘s Batman. What I love about the depiction of Batman here is that it’s not heroic, it’s not sympathetically brooding, but it’s ugly. It’s about as ugly as an actual Batman would be — an orphaned billionaire who dressed up like a bat and went around beating up bad guys? He’d probably also be kind of a self-absorbed douche, which is exactly how Arnett plays him (yes, he composes his own death metal about being an orphan, which he listens to when he’s feeling sad, which sounds just like GOB). He’s an unsufferable jackass, an emotionally unavailable boyfriend, and completely narcissistic. And not only does it work as a funny character by itself, but it’s even funnier if you’re even remotely familiar with the core fundamentals of who Batman is (which, thanks to his ubiquity, most everyone is). Suddenly, there’s no other way I can picture Batman. I just wish they had thrown in a “SWEAR TO ME” joke somewhere. Alas.
The film also does a great job of world-building. It throws us into the action right off the bat, and we don’t need much to keep up. We know there’s an important object that everyone’s trying to get, and that’s all we need to know. But it slowly reveals that this LEGO universe — comprised of a number of separate “worlds” (The Old West, Medieval, etc.) — is more than meets the eye. And it does so with subtle nods to the human world: we see a number of strange “relics” — Band-Aids, nail polish remover, golf tees, etc. — which hint at a larger world than the one our characters exist within. Each of these objects is given a mystical, fantastic names that create the world’s mythology. The used Band-Aid (complete with hair) is referred to as “The Cloak of Baan’Daieed” (sic?), for example. It’s clever, and it actually gives the movie a sense of mystery and fullness.
All this to say that the film’s employment of imagination and attention to detail are unparalleled. It’s the best Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry film not made by Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry. It’s creators, however, are the same folks responsible for the surprisingly good 21 Jump Street and the shockingly funny Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs — both of which you should see if you haven’t already. They also made Clone High, a short-lived but incredibly fun animated TV show. And here, they’re killing it. It is a true example of when imagination is tapped for its ability to convey humor. Even though I felt like I needed Ritalin when the film ended, I was grinning ear to ear.
That’s not to say that The LEGO Movie isn’t edgy — it has a pretty stable satire under all the chaos, utilizing commercialism and mega-corporations to comment on the perils of conformity and growing old (ironic because LEGOs are prohibitively expensive, but I’m willing to forgive that little aspect because the film is just so good). On the other side of the spectrum, however, we have South Park.
South Park has consistently been one of the most potent sources of social satire over the last decade or so. It manages to brilliantly lampoon all sorts of ideas using creative metaphorical or allegorical stories — and often you don’t realize what they’re satirizing until the episode ends. It’s so effortlessly woven into the show’s narrative that you may not even be aware that you’re watching a satire — which is perhaps the most effective form of satire anyway.
The show is at it’s finest, however, when it celebrates the fact that these are kids we’re dealing with. Sure, there may be aliens, crab-people, underpants gnomes, and all sorts of unexplainable phenomena in the quiet little mountain town of South Park, but at its center is a group of elementary school children. The episodes where the satire and parody is tied directly to the fact that they are kids, playing games that kids play, are somehow are the most potent in my book. Take the episode where Cartman freezes himself to make the wait for the Nintendo Wii go by faster, only to be thawed out in the distant future, where technology has far surpassed the by-then simplistic Wii. Despite the amazing technology, Cartman still cannot get over his overwhelming desire to play the Wii. It’s a brilliant little satire on our obsession with fleeting technology, which you may miss because you’re laughing at Cartman’s singleminded desire for “stuff.” You’re laughing at Cartman because you recognize his child-like obsession with the Wii as ridiculous; what you don’t realize until later, is that we all have that potential in us.
Recently, South Park aired a three-part storyline about Black Friday, which revolved around the “Console Wars” between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and was set to the tune of “A Game of Thrones.” It’s a brilliant storyline — up there with their Imaginationland trilogy in terms of inventiveness and creativity. The parodies are on point here. “The Wall” of Westeros is now “The Mall,” manned by security guards who are helpless against the growing horde of Black Friday shoppers. They even insert video of actual Black Friday anarchy, just to drive their point home.
There’s even a joke about the Elmo puppeteer’s recent sexual abuse scandal, with the hot holiday toy being “Stop Touching Me Elmo.”
But the story is really rooted in the kids’ LARPing antics: they’re all playing their version of Game of Thrones, and the world echoes their game. George R. R. Martin gets in on the action too (portrayed as a wiener-obsessed perpetual procrastinator). It’s in these moments — where Stone and Parker take a childhood game or fascination and expand it to fill the world of South Park — that the satire really comes alive. What’s brilliant about the whole story arc is its ending. By the end of the “Console Wars” (which end in mass destruction and tremendous loss of life), the kids decide that video games aren’t even worth it after all. They’re having more fun playing with each other than they are playing video games: “The last few weeks, we’ve been too busy to play video games, and look at what we did,” Cartman announces. “There’s been drama, action, romance. I mean, honestly you guys, do we need video games to play? Maybe we started to rely on Microsoft and Sony so much that we forgot that all we need to play are the simplest things. Like, like this [stick]. We can just play with this! Screw video games, dude. Who fuckin’ needs ’em? Fuck ’em!” He holds the stick aloft, as the announcer proclaims, “The South Park video game! Coming to stores soon!” (Check it out here).
The entire trilogy, which is supposedly about the joy of imagination, creativity, and playing in real life with your real friends, turns out to be one big prequel to the video game, South Park: The Stick of Truth. This is the sort of self-aware “F.U.”-style comedy that Stone and Parker excel at. And again, it’s all rooted in imagination.
I’ve been playing the game a bit, and it’s incredibly clever. There are tons of references to the show–it’s like a love letter to South Park and its fans. The kids’ LARPing perfectly translates to the RPG genre. The kids have created a fully-realized RPG world where the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred. Magic spells are farts. Your projectiles are dodge balls and darts. Stop signs and Cartman’s mom’s dildos have been fashioned into battleaxes and swords. Like The LEGO Movie, The Stick of Truth uses the Game of Thrones/fantasy/RPG motif in the context of children playing in their backyards to create a unique, hilarious, perverse world. The game also plays with the idea of video games as a medium: you enter your name, but Cartman insists on calling you “Douchebag.” Your character is entirely silent (like Link, Cloud, and other RPG heroes), which everyone seems to find creepy and unsettling — just like it would be if someone really just never talked. Right off the bat, your character’s parents are talking to you. When you don’t respond, the dad rolls his eyes and sarcastically announces, “Yeah, we love you too.” Even when you pick your class, Cartman gives you the option of Warrior, Mage, Thief, and, of course, Jew. This is not a game for the easily offended. But the imagination and creativity that the game (and series) both celebrates and exemplifies is a rare treat.
So there you have it. Imagination. It’s the hallmark of a good joke: an ability to create connections in a way that renders them new and surprising. The LEGO Movie and South Park both celebrate the creativity and imagination of childhood, and it’s no surprise that not only are they two of the most clever and inventive bits of popular media to emerge in recent months, but they’re also two of the funniest. And though they both have a fair amount of pop culture references, they’re rooted so firmly in the realm of imagination and play that I don’t foresee the humor becoming dated, like the pop culture references in Shrek and other Dreamworks animated films, for example. And it goes to show you that every once in a while, it’s good to shrug off the mantle of adulthood and celebrate the chaos and creativity of being a kid.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go outside and build a castle out of LEGOs.