The Lego Movie: Review and Philosophy
Spoiler Alert: This review will contain spoilers of the ending of the movie.
Introduction and Summary:
The Lego Movie caught my eye mainly because I have sisters who are 8 and 9 but also because it was recommended by friggin' everyone. Did it live up to the hype? Mostly. I'll start by providing a quickie review of the movie now (possible spoilers to follow).
The Lego Movie takes place, obviously, in a city made out of Legos. Citizens of this city are living in a kind of happy but heavily authoritarian society, where everyone is handed rules to follow like automatons by the ruler, Lord Business.
Much like society in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, people in the Lego city are entertained throughout their rule-abiding days with mindless frivolity so that they don't realize that they're being oppressed.
The truth is, a long time ago, every Lego man and woman was free to travel to whatever Lego-world they desired and to build whatever they wanted. But Lord Business imposed his own fascist order on the place, separating the Lego people into various themed places.
So, average construction worker Emmet is out doing his average Joe construction worker stuff when he stumbles on a mystical bit of plastic he is told is the mystical "Piece of Resistance", and he runs into a girl calling herself Wild Style.
She tells Emmet that finding the Piece of Resistance makes him the prophesied Special, someone who will be so creative and talented as to be able to put the breaks on Lord Business' machinations for good.
The only problem is, as Emmet fumbles his way through adventures in a series of adjacent Lego-lands, Emmet doesn't feel special, let alone like "The Special". He's dull and uncreative, unlike the rest of the "master builders" he meets along the way (people in secret defiance of Lord Business), he rarely even has any original thoughts.
However, of course, like in any Hollywood action flick ever, Average Joe saves the day and gets the girl in the end. But hey, getting there is all of the fun.
The Lego Movie in many ways contains a lot of United States Big Movie Industry cliches that I'm pretty sick of, but that doesn't make it a bad movie. Average guy becoming an action hero. Manic Pixie Dream Girl saves man from a life of boredom. Girl starts out as taken and then ends up with the main character by the end. Ragtag bunch of misfits stick it to the man. Fight a bad guy and win a girl. And, another annoying thing about the movie was how many franchises the Lego company executives could throw into the movie, when most of them add very little to the plot by being in the movie.
However, there's a lot this movie did well. The side characters were probably the most interesting example of the "ragtag bunch of misfits" I've seen in a while.
Lego really shines here with its creative animation and Lego-based world-building. This is Lego doing what it does best; creating imaginative fantasy worlds in which children's creativity can flourish.
The main tension in the movie is about how Legos should be used and not used, but it's also about a struggle between anarchy and totalitarianism. It asks, how much control should individuals have to build their own lives? It's about as libertarian as movies get, rather like an Ayn Rand novel for kids. Ok, I take that back because, unlike an Ayn Rand novel, this has a story that makes sense and that entertains rather than lectures.
Overall, I'd give the movie about an 8/10.
Here are also a few interesting philosophical ideas I think the movie touches on:
1. Personality and Creativity
In the Lego Movie, the good guys are "Master Builders", who are defined by their creativity and individuality. What sets them apart from the rest of Lego society is that they don't just follow the rules, they prefer to create their own reality, even if it tramples on whatever pre-existing order there was. This infuriates the dad/Lord Business, who wants everything to be neat and orderly.
The Master Builders, such as Wyld Style, Unikitty, and even Batman, all have unique personalities, which the project into their ideas. In philosophy, religion, and psychology, the idea of "self" is very important. Individual perception of the self, whether real or not, is a major concept in humanist psychology. In The Lego Movie, the Master Builders are all about being unapologetic about their uniqueness. Being true to their identity frees them to create the world around them, instead of following some overbearing political authority's rules for how that world is supposed to look. This is a good metaphor for real-world artists, who have an impulse to create for themselves and not necessarily for the sake of pleasing others or keeping the order of society intact.
The thing is, in the absence of these creative impulses, the only other choice left to the Lego-people is "obey the rules". This would make them less like sentient beings and reduce them to mere automaton objects made to populate someone else's vision of a utopian society. Creativity, and creative self-expression then, is some of what makes people (and unikitties) sentient beings rather than objects or machines.
2. International Connectivity Contributes to the Fall of Totalitarianism
For centuries of human history, the dominant form of political organization has been autocratic, whether talking about princes, kings, queens, emperors, etc. Throughout more recent history, in the 20th century and today, totalitarian regimes still try to cling to this idea of "kingdom" or "empire" that is dying out gradually but surely.
Over time, we have seen many authoritarian governments topple, and the general trend seems to be toward democratization and decentralization, worldwide. I would argue that this has a lot to do with technology. In military terms, weapons technology has become so advanced that the usual way of building an empire, war, is decreasing due to the threat presented by nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
But the more crucial thing, I think, in the world's gradual march to democracy is the improvements in communication and information technology. Authoritarian governments rely on secrecy, transparency and a well-informed citizenry boosts a country's potential for success as a democracy. Also, old authoritarian regimes, such as the Nazis or the Russian Bolsheviks relied on threatening citizens with a fear of the world outside their borders. This is exemplified by Orwell's 1984, in which perpetual warfare against some external threat is used to keep the citizens of Oceania in a constant state of fear and rage so that their energy is spent on that and not rebellion, or questioning of their own government.
In the Lego Movie, what really changes Emmet's perspective of society is travel to other worlds within the Lego world. He realizes through this experience that life is not just what he thought it was, that there is not just one culture, and that the world is beautiful in its complexity and diversity. Just like citizens of North Korea or Stalin's Russia, travel outside is restricted under Lord Business, simply because people bringing in outside influences and experiencing the full diversity of the world are seen as a threat to order.
3. How Fictional Role Models Seem Real to Us
In The Lego Movie, super heroes and many other fictional characters are Master Builders, and Batman becomes one of the main team of Master Builders in direct conflict with Lord Business. (Ironically, because Bruce Wayne is a billionaire and head of his own company that does business things and all.) Well, obviously, the movie does this to cram as many recognizable beloved children's characters into the movie as cameos, to sell the movie and associated merchandise.
But, what I do find interesting, is that the characters like Superman and Wonder Woman, despite their amazing superpowers in their own stories, are merely mentors and advisers to the main characters in this story. Maybe they wanted to avoid having a hero that makes the story boring by being too powerful. But I also think that maybe, this has a lot to do with the fact that in real life, we can draw strength and inspiration from fictional role models, despite them not physically existing. Superman doesn't really swoop in to save anyone in this movie, but he doesn't need to. His supporting role in the film is actually a lot like the supporting role he might play in a fan of his' life: that of an ideal to look up to, rather than an actual person.
This movie is, despite being somewhat lacking in narrative creativity (ironically), and sometimes seeming a little cheesy, nonetheless one of the best American children's movies to come out in a while, probably since Frozen. It is a delight to watch, and features some great characters. It also features some of the most imaginative world-building you can think of, and is probably worth looking at just for the impressive animation and imaginative set-designs alone. It also has a lot of heart, exploring the father-son relationship, as well as the larger symbolic conflict between order and chaos, or between totalitarianism and creative free will.