The Lego Movie: A Commercialized Dream
The Lego Movie is advertising so cunningly plotted, so precisely executed, that it is only after its childlike wonder and bright glow have faded from the screen and you have stepped out of the theatre that you remember just how thoroughly commercial it is. The very fabric of its computer-rendered world is patented, packaged, and sold by a certain Danish corporation. Yet the broader cultural reaction to it, including my own, has been not to scorn but a warm embrace. No one, or no one who is taken too seriously, has spurned it as a piece of crass “synergistic” marketing (not just for Lego, but also for studio Warner Bros.’ DC Comics properties, Hobbit franchise, etc.). What strange mystification is at work here so that, while we might snarl and claw at blatant product placement in Man of Steel or Adam Sandler’s cinematic abominations, we readily accept this nostalgia-driven ideological delivery mechanism?
Here we come to the power of a great story, which needs little summary. Emmett (Chris Pratt), our hero, is a run-of-the-mill construction worker in Brickopolis, a city comprised entirely of Lego blocks. It is ruled by President Business (Will Ferrell), owner of the only corporation in the world who also happens to be head of state. One evening, Emmett, becoming disillusioned with how invisible he seems to everyone around him, discovers the Piece of Resistance, a special block that, he discovers, holds the key to saving the world from President Business’ plan to freeze it all in glue. Because he was the one who found it, he becomes the Special, destined to overcome all obstacles and save the world. He is inducted into the order of the Master Builders–people who, like the One in the Matrix films, can take the world apart and refashion it into any shape–after escaping the police with Wildstyle, a woman who was looking for the piece herself. She happens to be in a relationship with Batman (Will Arnett), who, along with hordes of other licensed characters and a wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) are going to aid Emmett in his quest.
Narratively, the film achieves pop perfection. It embraces the aspects of commodity fetishism we like–cuteness, malleability, novelty, sensory stimulation–while explicitly condemning the oppressive aspects of the Cult of Lego. All those instructions, all those licensed and pre-planned sets, the film proclaims, stifle creativity and produce conformity. At the same time, it does not celebrate pure creative anarchy, but tempers its valorization of the individual with a strong appeal to teamwork and a communal ethos. Its aptitude at appealing to the better parts of our jaded postmodern sensibilities runs further than that, however. A few examples will suffice. Its treatment of Batman lampoons the character’s self-absorption and the Nolan trilogy’s “gritty” realism but keeps the benefits of having Batman in the film. Rapid-fire jokes rain down on the audience, but the core story has high stakes and a conventional dramatic arc that is executed to perfection. It uses the Chosen One trope to drive the narrative forward precisely until it can no longer believe in it. Revealing the prophecy of the Special to be fabricated, it democratizes the notion of “special” to include all those generic plastic figures walking around, who, when enlightened, are suddenly capable of amazing things.
Even Lord Business, the president of the world’s only corporation (and the world itself), is brought low by the realization that he is capable of so much more than enforcing a beautiful but stifling order. It’s a dig at the way adults appropriate children’s toys and ruin them by taking them too seriously, but also allows the story to end on a total redemption. He rejects his ultimate weapon of control–Krazy Glue, not generic adhesive, of course–to turn over his kingdom to his children, whom the film imagines to be the rightful rulers of the realm of play and imagination. Someone could write a decent paper on how the film deals with the issue of human freedom and the death of God as an omnipotent guarantor of the universe, but I’ll cede that to someone who can stomach Nietzsche better than I can.
In The Lego Movie we see a vision of the world’s contradictions and conflicts resolved. It’s a spectacular dream that directors Lord and Miller have created. It’s all the virtues of capitalism–free exchange, the ability to remake oneself at will, unbridled industriousness, and the protection of the individual–without the alienation, deprivation, and rampant violence that form its foundations. Lord Business’ plutocratic empire, which itself is only a concealment for a much grander and more sinister scheme, feels true to us because it is imperialist capitalism in miniature. Though that world has to be overcome by struggle, the world is saved when the evil overlord is convinced of his wrongdoing and abdicates his power to the [plastic] people.
Near the end, the world of The Lego Movie is revealed to be our own, the adventures and characters of which we have grown fond are the property of a real-life father. His son is the creator of our narrative. This is a vital realization both for Emmett and the audience, who should grasp that the harmony and freewheeling creativity of the brick world are only projections and dreams. Within the world of Lego, we can, like the Master Builders, rearrange global affairs at our whim, fill our imaginary reality with dozens of characters from popular culture, turn any random set of bricks into a spaceship, etc. The Lego Movie recognizes and proclaims the value of play but, as we leave the theatre, we are left with the sense that, someday, Will Ferrell’s son is going to grow up.
Despite the film’s buoyant tone and hilariously fantastical adventures, it acknowledges that there is a reality outside of the dream space, one that nurtures and produces it. It’s not radical by any means, but it is a sign that the film is not all surface. It has real substance to it despite being corporate propaganda, and while its subversions are relatively tame, they are most welcome. It’s another example of the film having its cake and eating it too, but there’s nothing wrong with dreaming castles in the air if the dream can be translated into reality. That will be a struggle, and I doubt the real revolution will be as simple as taking a few things apart and making wonderful new things with the pieces, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the dream while it lasts. Just take heed of who owns the copyright on that dream.