I see another Noah beat me to the punch on “The Lego Movie.” But, you know, you can always add another brick to the critical wall. So:
A lot of the commentary on the movie has asserted that the message (or a big part of the message) of the movie is: don’t limit yourself by following the instructions. Let your imagination run free! But this strikes me as a seriously weak reading.
Emmett does not have a soaring imagination yearning to fly free. The only thing he ever invented is a double-decker couch, which everyone agrees is a terrible, terrible idea. There’s actually a scene where the other characters go inside his mind, so we know just how sunshiny-spotless it is. The only thing his head is good for is to serve as an impromptu axle for a wheel.
What he is good at is following instructions – and making sure that other people follow them.
There’s a crucial scene where the evil forces of Lord Business are attacking cloud cuckoo land, and the various master builders – Batman, Wild Style, Unikitty, etc. – have to work together to build a submarine so they can plunge safely into the ocean below. But they don’t exactly know how to do that. They each have a “thing” – Batman uses only black pieces, natch – and so they each work independently on a portion of the sub. Vitruvius even tells Emmett, in the middle of the crisis, that he can contribute to building the sub by, you know, doing whatever comes to mind. (This is when Emmett builds his double-decker couch.)
Lo and behold, only a few minutes after submerging, the sub breaks apart into its constituent pieces. It fell apart because it lacked a unified design to hold it together. As Emmett points out later, the master builders’ problem is they don’t know how to work as a team. Which is the one thing Emmett does know how to do.
Emmett does become a master builder after his encounter with the “man upstairs” (an instantaneous transformation that doesn’t actually make any sense in story terms), but even after this transformation he isn’t able to defeat Lord Business. Lord Business can only be defeated by convincing him to switch sides, stop micromanaging, and work with the master builders as their leader and coordinator rather than insisting that all ideas have to come from his office.
Yes, Kristula-Green is right that on the “meta” level of the humans who are playing with the Legos, this narrative resolution parallels the reconciliation of father and son. But within the frame of the Lego universe, this resolution represents the apotheosis of corporate management culture truisms. There’s no revolution to overthrow Lord Business; instead, Lord Business retains his position of authority but learns how to properly manage a corporate environment that encourages individual creativity and channels it effectively towards corporate ends. The captive master builders are freed from their prison cells and the rebellious ones outside are re-integrated into the new corporate culture.
This is how companies like Apple and Google present themselves. It’s also how the Lego corporation presents itself. And it’s equally valid as a metaphor for the process of making a movie like, say, “The Lego Movie,” which required effective coordination of the efforts of numerous creative individuals and the interests of multiple corporate franchise holders, and could never have been accomplished if those creative individuals had been shackled and forced to conform to a single person’s vision – but also could never have been accomplished if there were no coordinating vision at all.
And that’s not the message for the grownups. The sentimental business with the father and son – that’s the message for the grownups; that’s the ad. The corporate culture message is for the kids. Take a trip through kids’ entertainment these days, much of it produced by the Disney corporation, and you’ll see quite a bit of very similar messaging. And the dystopian visions of so much YA literature are the dark mirrors of the same corporate scenario, where children are forced to compete with each other in brutal games arranged by heartless adults. Rod Dreher has been writing a bunch about “narrative collapse” lately, but the narrative hasn’t collapsed. We still tell stories about how we’re supposed to live our lives. It just isn’t the narrative he’s looking for.
“The Lego Movie” isn’t distinctive for selling kids on the promise of a “cool” workplace culture where you can exercise your creative impulses if you learn to work well with others.
It’s distinctive for making that world actually seem fun. As fun as, you know, playing with Legos.