I am a Lego parent, twice over. So it was pretty hard not to enjoy The LEGO Movie. All of the clever references about how kids play with Legos and what kinds of junk get mixed in with their Legos are really funny to me. And of course the visual effects of the movie are just really impressive. (Not awesome, but really impressive.)
But trying to come to some sort of resolution about what I thought about the message of the movie is sort of making my head spin.
In a sense, it is a perfect illustration of our postmodern predicament. I mean, it’s a movie about a mass-produced consumer product—a toy, an entertainment—and while the film pretends to be about some real human themes like belonging and rebelling against authority and authentic self-expression v. conformity–it ends up ultimately being about none of those things but really only about Legos…and playing with Legos. Like everything about our postmodern moment, the film is mired in layers of meta, and the gestures that it makes toward transcendent meaning are in fact just distractions from the fact that it really only points back to itself. (Thus, the decidedly un-awesome title, The LEGO Movie, is really quite telling).
If I were going to invite three people to a conversation about this movie to help me get a grip on it and stop my head spinning, they would be Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Frank. (I would invite Marshall McLuhan too, but I’d like to also be able to follow the conversation myself).
Chabon, a writer and a dad, wrote an essay a few years back lamenting the advent of cross-marketing into the Lego world. In the days of his youth, prior to the introduction of the licensed mini-figure, Chabon remembers, a box of Legos could literally become anything a kid imagined. Legos did not come with pre-imagined characters from existing story worlds (Lego Batman, Lego Harry Potter, Lego Star Wars, etc.), and the point of Legos was not to replicate a scene from some existing movie by building a model designed by an adult. Kids could make up, whole-cloth, worlds and characters and scenarios, exercising genuine imagination. Chabon writes how miffed he is by the “authoritarian nature of the new Legos,” and the fact that playing with them is more like solving a puzzle with a singular solution that has already been provided than actually creating anything.
But just as you think Chabon is going to end the essay as a lament on the triumph of marketing over imagination, the inevitable dumbing down of the next generation of late capitalism, he pulls it back and offers hope. His kids, he’s noticed, once they follow the instructions the first time and build the corporately predetermined sets, don’t leave them that way. That’s not the way kids actually play with Legos, he realizes. No, once they’re built once, they get broken up and tossed into the box and mixed all together into a giant postmodern Lego chowder. And his kids cross-pollinate all these cross-marketed sets. (E.g., his son liked to put a Lego ghost costume on a Lego Green Goblin minifigure, set it on a horse with a light saber to do battle against a Darth Vader minifugure [also on a horse] bearing a bow and arrow). Chabon sees this pastiche (I’m tempted to say “this brick-olage”) on the part of his children as revolutionary. The childish imagination cannot be trammelled, it transgresses the “structure of control and implied obedience to the norms of the instruction manual.” In short, Chabon’s final scoreboard reads: kids/humanity/freedom/imagination: 1; authority/control/corporations/conformity: 0.
But so here’s the first head-spinner: The LEGO Movie, produced by the aforementioned corporation/authority that is the target of Chabon’s critique, appears to have the very same message as Chabon. The movie’s supposed main theme is that conformity, synecdochized by the trope of following the instructions, is bad. The main character, Emmet, is a portrayed as a nob, a total dufus, held up for our derision and mockery. And his despicable characteristic is that, in a world of conformists, he is the most conformist of them all. At one point he stands in a long, robot-like line in order to buy a $36 latte, to which he responds, “Awesome!”
Conversely (in the supposed message of the film), genuine self-expression and rebellion against authoritarian structure is good. When Emmet is first tested to see if he is a Master Builder, he asks “Where are the instructions?” Wrong question. Master Builders don’t use instructions, man. They can see through the structure of this world—like Neo in The Matrix—to visualize the potential of all the bricks around them. They deconstruct the existing, imposed instructions-generated structure and reconstruct it into imaginative solutions to their problems. The Master Builders inhabit a world—Cloud Koo-Koo Land—completely unlike the pristine, bland worlds ruled by President Business (the villain, obviously). It’s a colorful, zany mishmash of de/reconstructed sets. A world where Lego Batman and Gandalf and Shakespeare and Unikitty are friends with a pirate with a shark for one arm and a canon for the other. I.e., it is just the kind of world built by Chabon’s kids.
I.e. the movie pretends that its message is the same as Chabon’s: Don’t follow the (our) instructions! Don’t be a conformist! Rebel against, you know, like authority and marketing and stuff!
I say “pretends” because, in actuality this seeming proclamation of Chabon’s revolutionary chant is really just a way for them to close the door on the way out he has provided from their “structure of control.” It is a move by which this resistance is entirely absorbed/incorporated/neutralized.
The best illustration that the movie has absorbed and neutralized Chabon’s resistance is, of course, the toys. By which I mean not the toys in the movie, but the merchandise—the real-life, physical toys marketed and sold in conjunction with the movie. This movie ostensibly about not following the instructions or building the predetermined sets or being a mindless consumer of course has a whole array of licensed, predetermined sets for sale—complete with instructions—so that kids can recreate scenes from the movie about how they should be imaginative and not just recreate scenes from movies. And these boxed sets, since they are made up of toys representing characters & scenes from the movie, come pre-pastiched and pre-mashed-up and pre-de/reconstructed. It appears Chabon’s solution, his escape route from corporate, authoritarian, imagination-crushing consumerism has been swallowed up by said corporation, chewed up, and spat back out as merchandise.
Which brings us to head-spinner #2: As I said to my wife when we were shopping for LEGO Movie Legos for our 9-year-old’s birthday, “You realize that these are not toys. These are meta-toys.” Because the film’s toys are not so much toys per se as they are references to “real” versions of themselves. E.g., if you go out and buy a Benny the Astronaut mini-figure today, it is not just an un-ironic, “direct” Benny the Astronaut toy. No, it comes with a pre-broken helmet and a pre-scuffed space logo, because it is a toy version of a film version of a toy Benny the Astronaut. Yup, it is the toy of the movie character of the (same) toy. So, like the title of the movie of which they are the merchandise, the toys are actually references to themselves. (As in, the original Benny the Astronaut was a reference to actual astronauts, but the LEGO Movie Benny the Astronaut is only a reference to a Lego astronaut).
If all this recursion and self-reference seems clever but otherwise meaningless—sort of like a hall of mirrors—it’s not. In fact, these layers of meta are the crux of the whole matter here. They are the move that keep us from asking for anything more than “bread and circuses” because they make us feel like we’re leaving the circus when we’re just moving to a different seat. But that’ll have to come in the next post. (In case you’re wondering, I am going to connect this to God/religion/theology eventually).