Most Hollywood movies can be neatly summed up and packaged in one 140-character sentence. The official term for it is “High Concept.” To try to sum up The Lego Movie in a single sentence or label it high concept is nearly impossible, and frankly, wrong. There are those who have tried (“It’s like Toy Story in The Matrix.”), but any summation falls short of the experience of what The Lego Movie has to offer, and The Lego Movie has a lot to offer.
Any fears that The Lego Movie is nothing more than an elongated commercial for a Danish building block are quickly swayed when the movie opens with a giant depiction of capitalism as mindless conformity. Follow the instructions, fit in, go with the flow, and do what is popular. The civilians of the town are defined not simply by what they do but by what they consume. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, “All art is political,” and The Lego Movie has no qualms with wearing that adage on its sleeve. For the first 20 minutes, we follow Emmet Brickowoski (Chris Pratt) trying desperately to fit into this perfect clockwork society, ruled by President/Lord/God Business (Will Ferrell) while a hyper-bubblegum pop song, “Everything is Awesome,” blares over the soundtrack. Even though Emmet agrees that everything is awesome, his over-the-top excitement at paying for over-priced coffee, watching the same silly show, and talking to his plant like it’s his best friend lets the viewer know that everything is far from awesome.
All this seems out-of-place (but manages to work) in a children’s movie, but this is no mere children’s movie, and a reveal during the third act places the dream logic of the story in fantastic context. But it all starts with the character of Emmet Brickowoski, a classic everyman, virtually nondescript (a normal Lego Construction Worker) without friends, without family, and without purpose. Emmet is a tabula rasa waiting to be imprinted with something of import. What he thinks defines him: favorite song, “Everything is Awesome,” favorite TV show, “Where Are My Pants?” favorite restaurant, any major chain restaurant, are also everyone else’s favorite song, TV show, and restaurant. Emmet does not hold these opinions because he sat down one day and made a decision that these are his favorite things. He made this decision because these are everyone’s favorite things, and he just wants to fit in. Emmet reminds me a lot of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, an outsider trying desperately to fit in and join the crowd. The Tramp did find a way into the group, but only by embracing that which made him unique. Just like the Tramp, Emmet will fit in when he embraces what makes him uniquely him. Like The Tramp, and like all heroes, Emmet got caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally, he became a hero.
The Land of the Legos is ruled over by Lord Business, but there is a resistance of Master Builders who oppose Lord Business, led by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). Vitruvius may be named after Da Vinci’s infamous drawing, but he has been blinded of Earthly vision and simultaneously blessed with inner vision, reminiscent of Tiresias, a guide of both Odysseus and Oedipus. Lord Business may have power and an army, but Vitruvius and the resistance have a prophecy on their side: One day, a hero with a face of yellow will appear with the “Piece of Resistance,” and Lord Business shall be thwarted. It is no shock that Emmet happens to accidentally find the Piece of Resistance—he was a hero in waiting from frame one—but what is important is what brings Emmet to the Piece of Resistance, and that is the female, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). Here, The Lego Movie shifts gear from being a political satire to The Hero’s Adventure.
Much like Athena appearing before Telemachus and telling him, “Young man, go find your father,” Emmet begins a journey that will not only save the kingdom but brings him to a realization of the images he has in his dreams, the image of The Man Upstairs. Guided by Wyldstyle (who holds the role of femme fatale, damsel in distress, helpful Goddess, and love interest) Emmet travels through various worlds (The Old West, Pirate Ships, Space, etc.), gathering various companions (Batman, Unikitty, Metal Beard, Benny the 1980s Space Man, etc.) in hopes of besting Bad Cop/Good Cop and defeating Lord Business and his ultimate weapon, the Kragle! Emmet and company save the day (of course they would, it’s a family film, after all), but a greater conflict is behind the scenes, and it is that reveal and resolution of this particular conflict that elevates The Lego Movie. Without this touch, The Lego Movie would have been a fun but slight movie. With this touch, The Lego Movie is imbued with a timeless quality that will continue to build with future viewings.
Movies are public dreams, and the dreamer here is a child, thus to fully comprehend the magic of the movie, we must view it with the same logic that a child uses. Psychoanalysis uses dreams to interpret the subconscious, a place where fears and desires are buried so deeply; they manifest in bizarre metaphors and forms. Here the child builds worlds using Legos to act out his problems with conformity, consumerism, and lack of attention. To borrow a line from Tyler Durden, “Our fathers are our models for God. If our fathers fail, what does that say about God?” This Father is the all-controlling Father that lords over the world. He is an Old Testament God: lots of rules and very little wiggle-room. In fact, His rules are so final that His desire is to use Super Glue to freeze all things into prescribed positions. Finality for a child is not death but stasis. To be a child is to be free, flowing, and evolving. They are in constant flux, sometimes even at a breakneck pace (which the movie mimics masterfully in certain scenes). It is not easy to keep up with a child, which is why children are commonly punished by being made to sit still, go to their room, ten minutes in the corner, and so on. The parents are freezing them into place, a fate worse than death.
Yet, all of this only explains what is in The Lego Movie, but it doesn’t get to what makes The Lego Movie works so well. It works because it manages to have its cake and eat it too. It eschews commercialism and consumerism, but I have no doubt that kids everywhere will want to purchase their own Emmet and Wyldstyle sets. I wonder, will they follow the instructions, or will they embrace their own Master Builder? Where does The Lego Movie come down on society versus the individual? It seems quite clear that those willing to follow instructions construct society. Those that buck that trend are individuals. Harmony is achieved through Emmet. Emmet succeeds where society and the Master Builders can’t by combining both and becoming The Master of Two Worlds (this becomes doubly true in a moment of pure illogic when Emmet manages to move in the Real World in hopes of returning to the Lego World). The characters of Batman, Wyldstyle, and Metal Beard show us that an individual can achieve great things by donning a persona and becoming larger than life. Emmet shows us that staying true to your nature (and building a double-decker couch) is equally important and effective. Throughout the movie, we are constantly reminded that this way (individualism) works, but this way (conformity) works too. To make it, a hero must be armed with both.
All of this seems a tad heady for a movie with a bunch of Legos. If we spend too much time analyzing this and that, then the magic falls right out. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote
Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between two perspectives is dissolved. (p. 213)
This is also true of movies. If they are to be interpreted literally, then the life (and power) will be sucked out of them. Which is precisely why The Lego Movie is an excellent movie for children: They are not trying to overthink or solve it. Children will simply go with it. The movie, in its most pure sense, is working. Buy the ticket, take the ride. At its heart, The Lego Movie is about a father and a son connecting. I think that should be the ultimate takeaway. Whether it is a story, a movie, or a Danish building block, all things exist in hopes of bringing us closer to the ones we love. The Lego Movie manages that in spades. And so do Taco Tuesdays. Life’s awesome like that.
The Lego Movie (2014)
Written & Directed By: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
Story By: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Produced By: Igor Khait, Roy Lee, Dan Lin, John Powers Middleton
Starring: Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt, Jadon Sand
Warner Brothers Pictures, Rated PG, Running Time 100 minutes, Released February 7, 2014.