Last night I watched the LEGO Movie and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s fast-paced and action-packed enough to be enjoyed by children, and humorous enough to be enjoyed by adults. Just right. Kudos to the makers.
[spoiler alert] Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the movie yet, but intend to.
All art is open to interpretation, of course, but there’s little doubt that the over-arching message on the surface of this story is: creativity, innovation and cooperation is what makes “every-thing awesome!”, but people can’t create, innovate and cooperate if they aren’t free to act of their own accord and are glued in place by rules. Without freedom everything is most certainly not awesome.
Towards the end it is revealed that the movie is also the story of a human father and his son. The father refuses to let his son play (in any meaningful way) with the large LEGO society that he has spent months building, which resides in his basement. The son is scolded for breaking parts off of his father’s perfectly ordered world and using his imagination to build new buildings and vehicles that don’t ‘fit-in’ with the grand design, and for using things in ways that they are not ‘supposed’ to be used.
The father, overcome with fear of losing control of his perfect world, loses sight of the very reason why he went to the toy store with his son to buy LEGO in the first place: to have fun together; to create, innovate and cooperate together to build amazing new worlds. So afraid is he, in fact, of losing control that he buys glue to ensure his world remains forever fixed.
The father’s world is amazing, but it is his world and his world only; there is no room for his son to express his awesomeness because his father won’t let him put blocks together in ways that please him. The tragedy of this scenario is expressed by his son in the form of a narrative set in the father’s LEGO world, which is also the plot of the LEGO movie. The son invents a baddie called President Business (his father) who wants to control everyone by glueing every one and every thing in place, and a hero called Emmet (himself) who is a Mr. Nobody construction worker whose job is to just build stuff according to the rules – but who might just save the world.
Only when the father picks up the evil President Business and sees that it looks like him does he realise the emotional pain he is causing his son, and only then does he understand his son’s internal struggle to believe that he can build awesome things like his father too.
Most of the movie is set in the make-believe LEGO universe, of course and not in ‘reality’ in the father’s basement, but there is lots of interesting symbolism within. President Business’s ‘micromanagers’, which are spider-like robots that grab hold of people and arrange them as they ‘should’ be, represent real world government bureaucracy and regulation. President Business, on both an interpersonal and society level represents fundamentally the same thing – a ruling authority who controls people for his own benefit – within the ‘reality’ in the movie and in actual reality. In the former, the father controls his son for his own benefit. In the latter a political ruling elite and their crony corporate pals control society (to varying degrees) for their own benefit.
The masterbuilders symbolise entrepreneurs and inventors in real life. The people who “see everything” and make new things that no one else had thought of out of existing stuff, and add to society’s awesomeness in profound ways.
The “bad cop” character is interesting. His ‘good side’ is literally erased by President Business. Perhaps this can be interpreted as a metaphor for the corrupting nature of power.
Emmet, the construction worker and our main protagonist, symbolises the ordinary person who is great at working in a team and following orders, but who could be extraordinary if only they believed they could be. Emmet has never believed he could be extraordinary because, having lived life following rules and not thinking for himself, he has never glimpsed his own potential to create, innovate and invent. The opening scene of the movie shows Emmet acting according to the rule book as soon as he wakes up. He is micromanaging himself but according to rules written by someone else. He is essentially a robot carrying out instructions who believes he is free but does not how to be free. Personally, I think the rule book is a good metaphor for State Education.
This somewhat tragic, but ultimately optimistic and positive vision of Man is the most wonderful aspect of the movie. Through this movie the writers are declaring that every ordinary person has the power to be extraordinary and that it is a tragedy when they don’t believe this is so. They show how people who believe this of themselves are the building blocks (if you’ll pardon the pun) of awesome societies, and how they solve problems by ‘seeing’ connections between things around them.
In the scene where the masterbuilders and superheroes are faced with the task of building an exact replica of a government ship, they show the value of cooperation, which Emmet, without knowing it, is already especially skilled in having worked as part of a team all his life. He takes charge, coordinating their efforts and reigning in their creative urges in order to make sure they are all working in the same direction. Here they show that Emmet already has great value but just doesn’t realise it.
Perhaps most importantly, the writers also show that being extraordinary isn’t just about inventing and making useful objects, it can also be about being morally extraordinary and acting courageously – as Emmet does when he plunges into the abyss to save the enslaved masterbuilders; who are forced to use their brilliance to solve problems for President Business but who do not get to see any benefit themselves from doing so (which sounds a bit like taxation to me).
The overall message of the movie is clear: we are all better off if we’re free. But the writers do reveal their belief that a ruling authority of the government kind (and of a specific size) is necessary for ordered, progressive (and sane) societies to exist when we learn that the LEGO realm that has no government is called ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’. This I found quite amusing even though it seems to be rather rudely insinuating that people who argue for a stateless society are insane! The writers seem to believe that for a stateless society to even function it would have to be inhabited by creatures who must constantly repress all negative emotions (in order to avoid conflicts because, as the writers see it, there is no way to resolve conflicts), and that therefore it would resemble some kind of insane asylum with no rational action. This illustration of their idea of the stateless society, although hilarious, is quite absurd and represents one of several common misconceptions of it, but thankfully that doesn’t in the least bit detract from what is a great movie with a wonderful message. Liberty is awesome!
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