Skip to comments.The LEGO Movie is Practically Communist
Posted on 02/07/2014 11:57:05 AM PST by nickcarraway
A tubby panda bear becomes a kung fu master. A snail races in the Indy 500. A forgotten garbage-robot saves humanity. Our cultural products for children these days often reflect the fact that we live in the age of empowerment. Its become something of a cliché, frankly the outcast or nobody who wins the big race and/or saves the world. And at first glance, The LEGO Movie, as brilliant as it is, appears to be no different. The films hero, an average construction worker named Emmet, is told that by finding a sacred object, called the Piece of Resistance, he has fulfilled a prophecy and become the Special, the most interesting and important person in the universe. Wielding the Piece of Resistance, the Special is to lead a rebellion against the dark forces of President/Lord Business, who rules LEGO land with an iron (plastic) fist.
If you think you know where the story goes from here, thats because narratives of empowerment have become practically the norm in American culture. We believe that children need encouragement in order to become their best selves, and our movies and stories often reflect that. But have we taken it too far? In an eloquent article in the Atlantic last year, Luke Epplin criticized childrens films for what he termed the magic-feather syndrome so named for the feather that Dumbo once thought could make him fly. (Of course, the feather wasnt magic at all; the real feather was Inside Him All Along, or rather inside his giant, flapping ears.) Epplin writes: It's probably no coincidence that the supremacy of the magic-feather syndrome in children's movies overlaps with the so-called cult of self-esteem. The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can't fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it's the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community.
Epplin contrasts these magic-feather narratives with Charles Schultzs Charlie Brown comics and films. Because Charlie Brown, for all his belief in himself, remained forevermore an adorable loser who had to learn to be happy with his lot in life to accept his place in the Peanuts Great Chain of Being.
But even as many films have adopted the self-esteem narrative, there has been a counter-current of films pushing back against it. These narratives of exceptionalism are rare, but theyre out there. Chief among them is Pixars The Incredibles, in which a family of superheroes has to keep its powers hidden from a society that has grown to resent them. Whats more, the bad guy, Syndrome, is a resentful former fanboy frustrated that his lack of superpowers kept him from becoming a hero himself. As A.O. Scott articulated it at the time, the films message seems to be: Some people have powers that others do not, and to deny them the right to exercise those powers, or the privileges that accompany them, is misguided, cruel and socially destructive. (Or, as the film itself so succinctly puts it: If everybody is super, then no one is.) Other films have carried the torch of exceptionalism to varying degrees, In Monsters University, for example, adorable cyclops Mike Wazowski dreams of becoming a world-class scarer only to discover, ultimately, that hes better off as a functionary, leaving the scaring to the truly talented one, his hulking beast pal Sulley. In The Nut Job, Surly Squirrel uses his wits to get his own food for the winter, in direct opposition to the collective needs of the rest of the parks animals; even though he eventually learns to be a begrudging team player, his superiority is never really in dispute.
The LEGO Movie, however, takes a different approach. The film opens on a scene in which the great, Gandalf/Morpheus-like mystic Vitruvius (voiced, hilariously I might add, by Morgan Freeman) makes up the prophecy about the Special on the spot, as hes being terrorized by Lord Business. The special-ness of The Special is, therefore, bogus right from the start; when our protagonist Emmet starts to realize his destiny later on, we understand that hes living a fake dream. Indeed, the terms here are so blunt, so direct the Special is an expression that cant even bother to be syntactically correct that they feel like digs at the very artificiality of the narrative of self-esteem. And so, just as the film plays like a spoof of many popular genres (of superhero movies, of quest narratives, of dystopian sci-fi, etc.), it also plays like a parody of the you-can-be-anything-you-want school of storytelling.
The film also acknowledges the inherent double-standard in the idea of ordinary people becoming extraordinary: At one point, the heroine Wyldstyle tearfully reveals to Emmet that she herself was looking for the Piece of Resistance, hoping that she would be the Special. I cant begin to describe how remarkable and rare a confession this is, coming from a heroine of a kids movie. Its something these kinds of narratives rarely address the angst of the dreamer who isnt the one to fulfill this fictional destiny, even though theyre clearly more suited for it. (Wyldstyle actually is powerful and brilliant, unlike Emmet.) So, even as it purports to present a self-esteem narrative, The LEGO Movie dares to suggests that for every ordinary schmoe who gets to be special, theres someone more deserving who doesnt.
So, is The LEGO Movie an exceptionalist narrative in disguise a film that purports to be about a zero becoming a hero while mocking that very idea? No, because the film has, I think, a different agenda. It wants to take the self-esteem narrative to its logical extreme. Unlike other movies, it refuses to shy away from the social implications of saying that everybodys special. Instead, it shows it. In the midst of the movies climactic battle, after Emmet finds out that he isnt the Special that no one is he tells the people of LEGO land that theyre all special, and he inspires them all to break their chains and start creating and building. As a result, the people rise up, and start conjuring up cars, planes, weapons, all sorts of crazy vehicles and other instruments and whatever else in their battle against the forces of Lord Business.
As a result, something rather politically loaded, almost transgressive, emerges. Its a downright proletarian LEGO revolution right at the climax of that most capitalist of film genres, the toy-based childrens movie. (Remember, the movies villain is named Business.) It is, of course, a fantasy of equality and revolution, but its in keeping with the disruptive, anarchic spirit of the film itself. In other words, after exploring the simmering debate between stories of self-esteem and stories of exceptionalism, the movie settles on the self-esteem side, but with a self-aware wink. Narratives of exceptionalism argue that if everybody's special, then nobody is. To that, The LEGO Movie offers a sly retort: Everybody IS special, BECAUSE nobody is.
Is there a transgendering Lego man?
Only when a Democrat is in office. When a Republican is in office, they're named Government.
Ooooh, a movie about plastic cubes. Where can I find tickets. < |:/~
If it was Communist, they’d be building gulags.
DO.. NOT.. SEE.. Don't Go See Lego!
Didn’t this guy see the trailer? This movie isn’t worth watching, much less writing a column about it.
Kids will go (and be taken) to this movie if for none other than because the bricks are shiny and the film is new. The submerged idology may not even register on the surface. Our author is very adult-smart (and I agree with him as an adult), but a well trained young person KNOWS better than to bite so hard.
A good parent will put on The Incredibles after dinner, though.
Exactly. Quite hypocritical. One of the largest toy exporters in the world. Have you SEEN the price of some of thier sets, in one of the MANY outlets around the country???
OTOH, Lego Batman makes a snarky comment about Ben Affleck. :)
All Legos are inherently transgendered. With insies on one side and outsies on the other.
Leggo of my Eggo!
Geez, the author of this piece thinks waaaaaaaay too much.
For some reason Mrs. Mudd sticks in my memory ... maybe ‘cause I’m twice divorced?
lego’s are about 10 cents for each piece, and have been for a long time. The sets you are referring to just have A LOT of pieces.
The small, seemingly insignificant person who goes on to perform heroic deeds is not something new dreamed up by the self-esteem movement; it's as old as children's literature ("The Little Tailor"), if not as old as literature itself (David and Goliath).
cld51860 complained about the cost, I didn’t.
I can also tell you the specialty sets (e.g. Star Wars), cost a lot more than 10 cents a piece.