Last weekend I saw The Lego Movie with my family and I was blown away. It’s an entertaining movie that can be appreciated at face value, which might be that it’s a commercial for Lego just over an hour (and that’s what many people are calling it) and yet, I also found, there is a profound, powerful message promoting individuality and creativity and imagination.
This was something that occurred to me while watching it, and something that I reflected upon later as well as talked about with my family. It took a few days to write this post, as I’ve assimilated my thoughts as well as questioned them, wondering if perhaps I’ve read way too much or too deeply into a kids/family movie (because kids/family movies are supposed to be pretty lightweight, right?). At the same time, however, I realize that, rather than be passive and let it solely entertain me, I engaged with the movie and that these thoughts are my dialogue with it. The best art, or anything for that matter, is art that engages, that impacts and affects you, and, long after you’ve exited the movie theatre or turned the last page of a book, stays with you. Such is the case with The Lego Movie.
While I have written only about the themes of the movie’s message, there are occasionally a few plot details that may or may not be constituted as spoilers. In fact, this whole post may be a spoiler as I went to see The Lego Movie with only the knowledge of the basic plot and what I’d seen in the various clips – none of which explicitly revealed the movie’s message and that subsequently moved me so deeply. Thus, you have been warned. Continue reading at your own discretion or come back to this post later, after you’ve watched the movie, and read it then.
The protagonist, named Emmet, is just your ordinary, regular construction worker who learns that he is “The Special”: “the most important, most interesting, greatest person of all time” and will save the world. Qualities that Emmet effusively denies until he eventually rises to the occasion, while learning to think for himself after following instructions for every aspect of his life and realizing the power of imagination as well as creativity and innovation.
“Follow the instructions” is a mantra throughout The Lego Movie, as President/Lord Business decrees that everyone must follow the instructions: a vain attempt to make everything perfect and to never change anything. (There’s a twist to President Business that adds to this, although I’ll keep that a surprise.) As it is explained later, however, the reason why people don’t leave things exactly as they are is because someone else’s (President Business) creativity inspires them to create something of their own, or to riff on it; “stealing like an artist“.
In an otherwise upbeat and positive movie promoting individuality and creativity, there is a darker note, albeit as briefly as it is noticed by Emmet before he forgets, in a scene early on in the movie in which President Business addresses the populace with a reminder about following the instructions or they’ll be put to sleep, then swiftly moves on to announce Taco Tuesday while Emmet is watching his morning TV. Within the same breath, he also announces that he’ll be destroying the world as we know it in two days’ time and there is a moment of shock from Emmet – “Wait! What did he just say?!” – and is barely able to process it before the next program, “Where’s My Pants?” comes on a split second later and Emmet promptly forgets.
While watching, this scene struck me. Within the space of less than two minutes, the writers had managed to make a succinct, yet subversive, statement about today’s media reminiscent of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Russell Brand’s speech on Newsnight about how entertainment is used to distract us from important issues. Hardly has the worry of the world’s destruction entered Emmet’s head than sooner it is gone, distracted by a show in which the guy’s only line seems to be “Honey, where’s my pants?” and the same scenario repeats and repeats ad ifinitum.
The theme song, “Everything Is Awesome!!!” (yes, officially with three exclamation points) is in itself deceptive. With a catchy beat and infectious lyrics, one might miss the lines “We’re the same, I’m like you, you’re like me, working in harmony”; reminding me of the “like and equal” argument that Meg Murray had with IT, the massive disembodied brain, in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. In an interview with the writers and co-director Chris McKay, Chris Miller states about the song that, “People can’t quite tell that it’s supposed to be both sarcastic and sincere at the same time.”
In contrast is Wyldstyle: a character who is independent and doesn’t follow the instructions. While Emmet is the universal “nobody” who becomes a “somebody”, Wyldstyle is somebody who is a shining example of individuality over the course of the movie. As a character, and more specifically, as a female character, she has received some criticism for what some have interpreted as falling into the tired stereotype for female characters, that of being someone’s girlfriend and playing second fiddle to the male characters or scolding them, after appearing to be a strong female character but what actually makes her strong is what she isn’t. While she may not follow the instructions for building, she conforms to the expectations of someone else: her boyfriend, Batman, by trying to be something she’s not – tough and mean – but Emmet sees through this and calls her out on it. Wyldstyle isn’t even her real name (“Are you a DJ?” she’s asked by Emmet when she first tells him her name; this is repeated again by Vitruvius in the Wild West) – instead, we learn she’s actually called Lucy when she finally tells Emmet. (“Lucy? What kind of name is that? It sounds like the name of a bank teller,” says Batman soon afterward.)
Conformity in order to meet someone else’s, or society’s, expectations is something explored with another female character, Samantha “Sam” Sparks, in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which Phil Lord and Chris Miller also wrote and directed. Sam is incredibly intelligent, but in order to be accepted she often tries to pretend to be less smart than she actually is as she would be made fun of due to her intelligence.
While “strong female characters” in fiction and TV/film are de rigour and are supposed to be kick-ass; conversely, a female character can also be strong without being aggressive: she can possess a quiet courage, such as holding her own in a time of turmoil or sometimes even if it means having to follow the rules to survive – I nearly always get exasperated when a woman in a movie or TV episode puts herself into the line of danger after being explicitly told to stay safe (usually by a man – which I suppose constitutes in itself a reason to not listen, since we’re supposed to be shown by this example that she’s strong and independent, not a damsel in distress. In the immortal words of Grumpy Cat, “No.”). A female character can still be feminine, she can fall in love without it being obligatory and is still strong, not despite that but because that’s part of who she is. A strong female character is strong not because she’s tough or isn’t a love interest, but because she is true to herself.
I believe that Wyldstyle/Lucy is a strong female character because what Phil Lord and Chris Miller have done, with her character, is telling girls (and boys) that we don’t need to conform to be someone other than our true selves to be liked by someone or accepted, whether by a person or by society.
The Lego Movie is a great movie for kids and adults alike with many jokes and one-liners, while also managing to be cleverly subversive and promoting a powerful, positive message at the same time and it is done masterfully. Five stars!