Adapting the Unadaptable: Lego, Angry Birds, and The Emoji Movie
It’s a strange world we live in now. A movie was just released that’s based purely on pictures that we use instead of words. The Emoji Movie is technically an adaptation, but the thing that it’s based on doesn’t have characters or a plot, just faces and emotions we’ve given to them. I’m not sure what exactly lead the creators behind it to think this was a good idea, but there are a few of examples of adaptations of things that seem unadaptable. The Lego Movie, especially, is based on a very loose concept: plastic toys that stick together. What’s miraculous about it is how well it works.
Leading up to its release, The Lego Movie seemed like an ill-advised idea. Surprisingly, it ended up being hands down the best animated movie of the year. Funny, beautiful, exciting, and emotional, I saw it twice within twenty-four hours of its debut at the local theater. Expecting a bland story tying together familiar Lego sets, I instead got a lesson on the power of creativity that still managed to fit in familiar characters and settings. It was full of cameos and winks at the crowd, but everything felt like it fit within the world. Like a kid playing with Lego, the filmmakers used the pieces they were given to make something truly unique and wonderful.
So wonderful, in fact, that it gave me hope for other adaptations that seemed to be announced soon after its success. When I heard about The Angry Birds Movie, I decided to hold off on judging the film based on a mobile game, that I, along with most of America, played for a few weeks before losing interest. I knew that there was at least a little potential in something that sounded like a blatant money grab.
Sadly, The Angry Birds Movie was exactly what everyone expected. It had none of the imagination of The Lego Movie. It limits itself to what is seen in the game, following an angry bird named Red who tries to stop pigs from stealing his towns eggs, then slingshots him and his fellow birds at their city when the eggs are inevitably stolen. The cast does its best to make the characters enjoyable, but with the humor not going much beyond slapstick and animal-based puns, it was hard to get into this.
The Angry Birds Movie did lead me to an interesting “chicken or egg” situation: was the bad script to blame for this adaptation or the source material? Yes, the script was uninteresting and the jokes fell flat, but there wasn’t a lot of places this movie could go while still considering itself an Angry Birds adaptation. It had to include pigs stealing eggs. It had to include a slingshot pointed towards the pig city. It had to include a red bird with an anger issue. Is there a possible plot that includes those things but still manages to be interesting?
The Lego Movie was free to do what it wanted, as long as everything was made of Lego. It could use the Lego version of any character or set that WB had the rights to. That’s a recipe for artistic freedom, which usually leads to good things.
The Emoji Movie, on the other hand, provides a counter-argument to the idea that adapting something loose allows enough creative freedom for the film to be interesting. Instead, it uses its freedom to do what all toy-adaptations are truly meant to do: sell products. A movie pitched as Inside Out in a phone, The Emoji Movie had the potential to comment on how technology has affected our means of communicating with each other or make us laugh by showing the absurdity of our phone-obsessed society. Instead, it is a cluster of product placement for a number of iPhone apps with no real jokes in between.
Perhaps what makes The Lego Movie great isn’t the freedom that adapting Lego provides. Its true success is probably due to its directing duo, Chris Lord and Phil Miller. Before this they had a history of doing fantastic adaptations of things that required following source material a little closer, proving that a large world to play in isn’t necessary to make something great. It just takes creators that know how to work well in the world that they’re given.