Because there are so many agenda-driven entertainments out there, there is a knee-jerk reaction today to try to glean the political bent of a movie. Is it a conservative story or a liberal one? Does it speak to individual liberty or does it attempt to wrap collectivism in pretty shiny packaging? As a result, we see movie reviews by those on the left which decry movies being “too jingoistic,” while on the right we see reviews that mourn the indoctrination of our society with “collectivist” values.
The truth of the matter is that a great movie, with a solid storyline, can, and does, rise above those designations. Sometimes a story is so well-crafted that it can successfully be all things to all people. The Lego Movie is just such a film. To the conservative and libertarian, the movie will read as a paean to individual liberty, while to the liberal and progressive it will speak to the value of collective effort.
The movie is essentially a journey of self-discovery by Emmet, our minifig protagonist who lives in a world where, as the very catchy theme song goes, “Everything is Awesome.” There don’t seem to be any social ills and people are diverse, happy and very respectful of one another. Yet, as is always the case, there is a downside. In this seeming utopia, people’s individuality exists within a very narrow framework; namely the instruction book. This book, a Lego instruction manual, clearly and vividly, through the use of simple pictograms, lays out out the required steps necessary to live a good and productive life as a citizen. Deviation from the instruction booklet is illegal.
The society is presided over by President Business, a charismatic politician and owner of the only business in the Lego world. In our LegoTopia, it turns out that the corporation and the government are, in fact, one in the same. As the Lego site describes:
President Business is the president of the massive Octan Corporation… and the entire world. All he wants is for everybody to follow his instructions for how to build and act all the time.
Bread, circus, law and morality emanate from the same place.
Conservatives might knee-jerkingly wince at the prospect of yet another evil businessman as the central antagonist, but I’d urge them to look past the label and note that what is being presented in the movie is not a demonization of business, but rather an indictment of the marriage between business and government. His name not Mr. Business. It is President Business. This title is genius and gives us insight into the movie’s brilliance as it tackles both sets of ideological windmills: namely, the corporate bogeyman that the Left waxes about and the governmental bogeyman that the Right fears. The important point the story makes is that when government is in the business of business and business is in the business of government, bad things happen. As we find out, President Business is really Lord Business. What masquerades as freedom and goodness is nothing more than a patina for tyranny.
As the story moves along, our everyman protagonist who lives life by the literal rules set out by President Business’ instruction manual struggles to find his own identity:
Every day, Emmet goes to work exactly by the steps in the instructions booklet that he always keeps in his hand….Emmet wants to be popular, but he struggles to stand out in the crowd. Even his fellow construction workers hardly know he’s there.
Eventually, as is common to the genre, Emmet learns that there is more to his personality than even he suspected as he is forced, reluctantly, to take up the mantle of greatness. Emmet is portrayed throughout as a non-original thinker, not an artist, an everyday guy who most people can’t pick out of the crowd.
During the journey of self-discovery, Emmet comes across a secret society of “Master Builders.” In the Lego world, these are the talented few who can see what a lego brick can become. They can build anything, using only their imagination, will and creativity without the use of instruction manuals. These powerful thinkers and artists have been forced into hiding by Lord Business in his attempt to bring order to the world. These are wonderful artists, original thinkers and all are fiercely independent and creative. Among their ranks are Lincoln, Shakespeare, Batman, Dumbledore, Shaquille O’Neal, Gandalf, Superman and Dracula. Each one with the power to see lego bricks not only for what they are, but for what they were and could be. Their imagination is limitless.
What seems like a Galt’s Gulch full of creative force, however, turns out to be more of an isle of impotence. There are brilliant artists, to be sure, but with a distinct inability to work together for the greater good. Thus they are kept under the thumb of President Business’ rule. They all possess enormous individual talents, but together they can accomplish nothing. Their collaborations are anarchy with each person building what is brilliant only for them. As a matter of fact, we soon find out that, until Emmet comes along, the only one who is able to use the collective power of the Master Builders is the tyrant himself. Without the ability to work together, these vastly talented individuals devolve into a pettiness that breeds social impotence and allows for tyranny to continue. Hence, none of them is able to put aside their individual vision to work together and bring down President/Lord Business.
As the movie progresses, we learn that both individualism and collective effort are necessary to bring about the destruction of tyranny. We learn that even the most common of common men is able to rise, via self-discovery, to heights unimagined. We learn that within each of us is an artist. But we also learn that none us is an island; that in order to fight and remain free we must do so alongside others.
Searching for an agenda-driven subtext in this movie, whether right or left, will prove both fruitful and barren — It Is That Good. The Lego Movie balances the notions of individual liberty with those of collective effort flawlessly. Whether you’re Left, Right, progressive, libertarian, or anywhere in between, I’d urge you to see this movie. It speaks to themes of identity and place in the world that are above politics, and yet, because they do so honestly, the lessons learned from the movie are applicable to politics. No matter what your political stripe, this movie is so brilliantly made and its story so resonant, that you’re likely to find in it a message that appeals to you. You might even come to understand that many of your concerns are shared by those with whom you disagree.