Like the bricks from a Lego skyscraper that have been transformed into a train, spaceship, or dog house, the newly released “Lego Movie” has managed to find acclaim across the political spectrum. According to Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress, it “asks us to consider what we’re losing out in that homogenization” of the movie industry. It might be the most “classically liberal film in the history of film-making.” The film has elements that are “echoes of Jesus and Guru Nanak, the father of Sikhism.” Or perhaps it is a critique of both the right and left, the film’s antagonist Lord Business as “the Lego Ceaușescu, if you swap the communism for capitalism.”
In an environment where everything is politicized, it is pretty striking to see bipartisan and cross-ideological appropriation of “The Lego Movie.” To be sure, the film does play lip service to political tropes, but what really makes the film work is that it represents the highest form of capitalist expression: it is a commercial.
The fact that the film is an extended advertisement or “sponsored content” for Lego products is something reviewers acknowledge without considering why it succeeds as a piece of advertising. Perhaps this is because so many movies based on toys have already been made and most of them tried too hard to insert products into the real world: the “Transformers” movie team cooperated with the Department of Defense to integrate U.S. military hardware into the lineup of what the toys could become. The new “Battleship” movie found a contrived way for aliens to be attacked by calling out grid-based coordinates. The G.I. Joe movies attempt to take slightly absurd character designs and translate them to live action.
The “Lego Movie” does not attempt any of that. It knows its products are toys and proudly advertises its products as toys. In fact, the film does not deserve an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Picture, it deserves a Cannes Lion Grand Prix–the award given to out to the best in advertising.
Successful advertising appeals to a deeply-held value that resonates with its audience. The famous “1984” commercial from Apple spoke to fears of conformity and loss of identity. The original “Dove Evolution” ad showed how Photoshop distorts commercial products and spoke to the desire for authenticity in the marketplace. Chrysler’s “imported from Detroit” series addressed the existential angst rooted in the decline of America’s manufacturing base.
“The Lego Movie” builds on this tradition. In the final 20 minutes of the film, the Lego brand asserts itself as both a toy for creativity and a means to connect generations instead of being estranged. (To explain why will require spoilers below.)
The “Lego Movie” is primarily a standard action-adventure film. Emmet, a regular Lego construction worker, is swept up in a conspiracy to overthrow Lord Business, the evil overlord of all the Lego realms who despises creativity and seeks instead to literally superglue all the different Lego realms into place.
Emmet engages in standard action movie hijinks before falling off the edge of the Lego universe and landing at the floor of a basement, where it is revealed that he is not just engaging in action adventure hijinks: instead he really is just a toy in someone else’s giant Lego model.
It is in these final 20 minutes that the real conflict of the movie is revealed: all of the Legos in the movie are actually the toys of an eight-and-a-half-year-old boy named Finn who it turns out has invented the creations and story lines that have been expressed in full glory on film. But the amazing Lego creations don’t actually belong to Finn, they belong to his father played by Will Farrell.
Farrell does not play with his Lego creations, he builds them according to the instructions and displays them in pristine fashion. In the most hilarious part of the film, Farrell defends his actions by claiming that the Legos are no longer “toys” when he uses them. Instead they become a “highly sophisticated interlocking brick system.”
Farrell does not approve of Finn taking the preexisting sets and making “hodge-podge” spaceships and ruining his perfect dioramas. It turns out that Lord Business’s plan to superglue all the Lego sets is actually Farrell’s plans for his sets, and Finn has dramatized this motivation in the fictional Lord Business.
But as Will Farrell sees what his son has created, he realizes that he actually has amazing talent. When he discovers that he is losing the respect of his son and has been made into the villain of the story, he reverses his super-glue policy: he and his son reconcile and the father agrees that Finn can now play with his Legos as long as he lets his little sister join in as well.
Like all toy companies, Lego understands its commercials have two audiences: the children who want to play with the toys and the parents who hold the purse strings and need to be convinced to part with their money.
In advertising terms: the film needs to present a compelling value-proposition to the parents. The parent asks, “why should I part with my money in exchange for this plastic which is also a choking hazard and painful to step on?” The film replies: “Because your child will have fun and you can bond and avoid estrangement!”
Advertising aficionados often cite one particular 1980s AT&T ad as the platonic form of this proposition. A working mother is about to leave her children with a babysitter and no one is happy with this arrangement: the children are making a mess, and the mother would rather spend time with them anyway. The mother explains that she has to work because of a very important client meeting: prompting the youngest child in her toddler seat to ask: “Mom, when can I be a Client?”
And at that moment of parental despair, the answer appears: a cell phone which will let the mother conduct the business she needs to do from the beach while still playing with her daughters, able to have it all.
And the “Lego Movie” makes this value proposition: fathers can avoid becoming estranged from their sons if they jointly take part in the activity of constructing Lego toys. There is nothing in the final 20 minutes of the film that could not have been presented in one minute and 30 seconds.
To the extent that the film does have a politics it is not a politics that is primarily about freedom and liberty, or capitalism and conformity, though those themes do play a part. It’s a politics of how, through the magic of plastic, families can be strengthened and fun can be had by all. At a time when our politics is wrestling with the question of how to achieve family stability and promote lives that have meaning when communities are weaker: that paean to domestic stability really does transcend political ideologies.
Noah Kristula-Green is a Project Director at the Winston Group in Washington.