Is The Lego Movie Really All That?
by Johnathan Pritchett,
contributing writer to SBCToday
First, I must make a confession. I am an AFOL (Adult Fan of Lego). Even if I didn’t have kids who love the little bricks, I’d still spend more disposable income than is reasonable on products from that wonderful company in Denmark. I’ve been playing with those toys since that Blue 1980-Something Space Guy was new. I still have four of them sitting on the same shelf where I stash my most frequently referenced biblical commentaries. Obviously, I am biased. I wanted to love this movie, and have been waiting for something like this movie for more than 30 years.
Yes, the movie is fantastic. It is fantastic for Lego fans, fantastic as far as kids’ movies go, and fantastic for films in general. The voice work is superb, and having an excellent screenplay helps to that end. The animation is spectacular. A Lego aficionado will marvel at some of the designs on film since literally everything in this film could be built from actual Lego bricks. It really is “all that” in terms of the buzz it has been getting?
However, it has received its fair share of commentary on the themes presented in the movie as well. The title is really asking whether The Lego Movie is “all that” with regard to what has been said about the movie. It has been labeled as “anti-capitalist” by Fox Business. It has also been called one long toy commercial, “Marxist,” “theological,” and the L.A. Times even called it “postmodern” for crying out loud.
Is it any of that? Not really.
The major themes are ultimately about the balance between teamwork and individual creativity, and how everyone is special in their own way. Most of these other ideas are read into the movie. Yes, it is subversive toward culture, but only in the sense of being clever, and at times, self-deprecating. It has no hidden message past the themes of balancing individuality and teamwork, creativity and following instructions. The subversiveness comes in the exploration of the theme itself through the setting. Yes, the Lego world in which the film is set has a fascist sort of leader in President Business. However, the fascism presented here is controlled by giving the people what they seemingly want. He keeps the people in line with overpriced coffee, inane sit-coms, and cheesy (but infectiously catchy) pop songs. So, it is commentary on American reality in that sense.
It also makes quite a bit of sport on the extreme “individuality” impulses in culture as well, especially at the expense of Batman, who is arguably the most popular and the most individualistic, self-absorbed, and narcissistic comic book character out there. Many people reviewing the film have overlooked this other aspect of the film. I didn’t, and I thought it was hilarious, too. In fact, the whole movie is hilarious. In any case, the film does not simply lampoon conformity in favor of extreme individuality.
Of course, it is important to credit the filmmakers for what they did; but unfortunately, people want to saddle films that have a lot of buzz with things the filmmakers either didn’t actually do, or only did superficially for sport, but certainly not for indoctrination. For instance, Fox Business can’t be serious when they accuse a movie made by a major film corporation, based on a huge toy corporation, for being anti-capitalist. Categories of either capitalist individuality versus Marxist leveling are not only too simplistic and reductionist, but too confined to a spectrum irrelevant to the film. Since when did communism or Marxism ever inspire or encourage creativity? Nations like China rip off far more patents than they are known for innovating and originating. President Business’ concerns in the film are not profits, but his idea of perfection. Seriously, it makes less fun of capitalism and more fun of how corporations who peddle pop-culture can turn people into drones, and, do so by seemingly giving people want they want. I don’t see Top 40 radio changing any time soon, especially given that the theme song to the movie that represents this very droning is now on it, and rightfully so. Again, it is an infectiously catchy song. My kids and I have been singing it for a week now.
So, how do Warner Bros. and Lego get away with all this? Well, I can’t speak for Warner Bros., but Lego has always been a corporation with high ethical values, good business sense, quality product, and dedication to creativity while giving people instructions to build the sets they sell. Yet, they also realize that they are in the business to sell products to make profits. The thing to be appreciated is that this is a good film product, based on a good toy product. That’s why they could get away with it, even if on some level, they also contribute to pop culture droning. That they remain self-aware of that, too, is a plus for them.
Is it postmodern? Hardly. That it is clever, self-deprecating, and ironic, contains social commentary, and doesn’t settle on the simplistic, but rather balanced view of individuality and teamwork, doesn’t make it postmodern. There is objective truth within the scope of this movie’s own “realities” (there is a meta-narrative in the film). Seeking to find a balance in the themes it explores is not the same as living with apparent contradictions (that aren’t there), “tensions” or “having it both ways,” as the L.A. Times supposes. Nor is there any of the relativistic jargon and goofiness here.
As for the film being theological, it is not. Well, at least, it is not in any classical sense of the word. It does touch on philosophy though; but unlike some other reviewers out there, I could not call it “deep” or anything. God is not mentioned in the film, though “the man upstairs” is. The “man upstairs” is not a god, and theology is the study of God. What is here, which seems lost on the L.A. Times for calling it postmodern, is that the movie is “worldview consistent.” The aforementioned meta-narrative speaks to this. It is hard to discuss it without spoiling the ending, so I recommend stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t like spoilers.
There is a meta-narrative in this film. Some of the characters are aware of a transcendent reality, which one character refers to as “the man upstairs.” Comparisons to The Matrix have been made, but only because that is the movie in everyone’s recent memory that has a similar concept of an awareness beyond the initial setting of the film. That’s a shame really, because theologians of all kinds have argued for millennia that everyone has an innate sense of transcendence generally, and the divine specifically. Nothing new here. It isn’t proper to call this movie “theological” in the technical sense anyway, but it does indeed point to something consistent with a robust theistic worldview. In similar ways to Toy Story, the toys both have a life of their own, as well as their world being ultimately the product of a mind, which directs the story, as the reveal in the end demonstrates. A child playing with toys is not “theological” in that sense, but it does present a worldview consistency for the film given that it is based on toys, and the events are the product of a kid’s imagination.
The reveal at the end is a welcome addition to the film because, outside of horror movies (of all things), there are rarely films that presuppose transcendent realities with any real consistency and stick to them throughout. What usually happens in movies that hint at transcendence is some sort of forced non-transcendent explanation for all the weird things that are happening, or end up just being woefully incoherent, like The Matrix. While I was highly entertained by The Matrix movies, the writers of those postmodern messes wrote those works into inconsistent, incoherent, and inescapable corners. That is not the case here. The Lego Movie just presupposes that the toys do exist within themselves, and that a kid is playing with them, and it sticks to that.
Given that transcendent awareness, and the reveal at the end in the film that follows through on its own presuppositions in a consistent manner, this provides parents with a springboard to use as an excellent opportunity to discuss with their children what, in recent centuries has been what John Calvin called sensus divinitatis (sense of divine), and that can only be a good thing.
Another aspect from the movie relevant for spurring discussion within the Church is the balance between individual creativity, teamwork, and following instructions, within a social context of pop culture droning. Everyone in the Church is “special” indeed, and gifted by the Spirit. However, the Church is also a corporate body, which is called upon by the Head, Jesus Christ, to perform certain tasks in and for the world. Working together is not optional.
Too often in the Church, we seek to parody the world in our endeavors rather than encouraging and promoting our own unique status within it. The Church also consumes a lot more than it creates in general (even if and when we are buying Churchy kitsch from LifeWay or Mardel), and this, too, is a shame. In The Lego Movie, in order to succeed, the heroes had to put their individual gifting and creativity toward a common goal. In a Church marketing culture where we riff on everything from Budweiser (“King of Kings” for example) to Apple (iLove, iPray, etc.), creating culture by tapping into our individual giftedness and talents, rather than simply consuming and copying culture, should be our priority. Doing so, though all the while not discounting what culture has to offer that contains elements of the good, true, and beautiful as well, like The Lego Movie itself, for instance. This is because those elements found in culture can be signposts and springboards to discussing the truth of the Gospel and thematic elements in Scripture. All of that is vitally important, while understanding that we must work together as a corporate body, conform to an objective standard, often follow instructions, and remember that God is a God or order and not chaos.