The Lego Movie as a manifesto and blueprint for collaborative economies
The Lego Movie was a hard sell. I saw the trailer in the theater waiting for Monsters University to be screened, and I did laugh, but I also worried just a little bit. I had played the Lego co-branded video games a little (at least Lego Star Wars and Lego Harry Potter), and I had seen a couple of the Lego cartoons, and I was generally pleased but not overwhelmed—and I’ve never been a fan of the “scraping for a tie-in” film genre either. Two things put me over: Will Arnett’s delivery as Lego Batman, and the fact that I have a five-year-old son.
I wasn’t able to find much commentary other than standard reviews (NPR called it “a cash grab with a heart”), but Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress took a solid crack at interpreting the movie as a critique of American popular culture. It could very easily be so much more than that. (Important Note: I don’t believe that the following is the authors’ intended interpretation, but it is one interesting way to view this strangely great film.)
Let’s start with the villain. Will Ferrell’s Lord Business steals a superweapon called “the Kragle” in the introduction. Soon we find him as the ruler of a moneyed empire, including the city of Bricksburg. President Business is a very obvious face of the real capital-government alliance (the so-called “military-industrial complex”), for which Fox News attempted to take the movie down a peg. The world of Bricksburg is a case of what Marxists might term “late-stage capitalism”: there’s monolithic production of culture, threats of violence to those reject conformity in meaningful ways, widespread corruption, and bait-and-switch incentivization tactics like Taco Tuesday.
Emmet is an everyman, a full consumer who derives his social identification from the consumption of mass culture, the willful stifling of his own creative impulses, and the joyful acceptance of his own wage servitude (overpriced coffee! yes!). He is so successful at complying with the institutionally-sanctioned sociocultural norms that he lacks even the minor aberrations that make a personality, and he is unsuccessful at making friends. It’s important to note that consumption, even when done in a community setting, is insufficient common ground upon which to build a relationship. Emmet is not rejected because he is weird—he’s rejected because he has suppressed his humanity, becoming one with the state which has produced his culture.
Emmet’s journey begins when he comes face-to-face with Wyldstyle, one of the rogue, individualistic Master Builders. Diverse, largely youthful, artistic, spiritual, and independent, this class of creatives lives separate from the institutional worlds dominated by the strict organizational forces of Lord Business. For such a brick in the wall as Emmet, simply meeting someone this unique causes his personal narrative to fracture, and this fissure only widens upon being forced by fate to take up the Builders’ cause. The mass culture participant attempts to find a pigeonhole in which to shove the creative (“Are you a DJ?”), but forced to a crisis by his exclusion from the economic system, his only chance at forming lasting social ties lies in the Creative Class itself, the only social stratus that will accept him.
Though it is savvy to the fact that mass culture is a front for Lord Business’s stasis-inducing, rent-seeking rule, the Creative Class cannot succeed on its own because it rarely presents a collective front. When it does, it unwisely chooses frontal assaults on capital itself, or runs away to communes (see Cloudcuckooland). Ultimately, the Creatives can never gain the numbers or the organizational strength to defeat the corrupted corporate state without connecting the machinery of collaborativism to the engine of capitalism, and this only as a last resort suggested by a participant in the normal wage-economy. Emmet assumes a leadership role both as a liaison and a double-agent in planning against the state. The last thing President Business expects is that we follow the instructions, building collaborative trojan horses with the skins of mass culture and state-sanctioned consumer products.
The Master Builders are by themselves far more capable, gifted, and talented than the regular schlubs in Bricksburg (of whom Emmet is schlub prime), but can neither work together nor with the schlubs. Previous attempts to subvert Business have failed precisely because the Creative Class is outnumbered and their attitudes toward popular culture are offensive to the average blue collared minifig. There needs to be a gentle conversion process, by which a loving evangelism of sharing and peer-to-peer exchange turns workers away from capital-funded goods and services, by turning them on to the community.
As such, even the most canny creative-class plan with everyman guidance cannot succeed. The masses need to participate, and cannot do so until 1) they are threatened with violence (the Kragle is apt—it freezes the masses in their place, much like the modern elite's systemic refusal to raise pay) and 2) they have the support and guidance of the creative-plus-enlightened-everyman alliance. As the micromanagers descend and the cyanoacrylate death looms, the masses’ initial reaction is panic, then solidarity as the collaborativist Creative Class leads the resistance.
After that, the wheels come off the film. Emmet becomes a super-powerful Gandalf-the-White type leader, President Business makes a heel-face turn, and it all becomes nonsense. It’s clearly a fantastic way to end a Hollywood movie. Redeem the bad guy, everyone feels better, there's a fun ending joke, and the curtain falls. But if there were ever a political victory by those who want to moderate the influence of capital, the task ahead would not be to do battle with robot drones, but to ensure that the next generation of Presidents Business could never come to power.
We're still quite a way off from that, though. In the progression of the film, we're just entering the building trojan horses stage. I say this because we've just come out of the "get our asses handed to us after trying a frontal assault" stage that was Occupy Wall Street. I would love to argue that The Lego Movie itself represents a first crack at this, but this ending makes me question this assertion. It may just be that the writers of the film were expert lampshade-hangers, not sociopolitical subversives. "Lampshade hanging", a phrase well loved by the TV Tropes community (whence also the term "Cloudcuckooland"), means open self-awareness. The Lego Movie is about 50% lampshade by volume, from Emmet's jumping jacks, to "Are you a DJ?", to the meta-meta-meta mindscrew that is "Everything Is Awesome". Clearly, nothing was too subversive, or it would never have gotten Lego's nor Warner's imprimatur.
But allow me a little extra indulgence for just one moment, because the counter-capital economy always needs permission from the capital economy to operate. (See the recent crazytimes in re: the Uber car service.) By creating a largely inoffensive piece with truly subversive themes, perhaps the film acts just like the space freighter built to The Instructions, which carried Benny and Batman through Lord Business's gates. When fostering alternatives to the gigantic behemoth that is capital in the 21st century, it pays to be a little cynical.
This narrative may make a little more sense when one considers exactly how inoffensive the movie actually was. When opportunities to crack jokes at the expense of actual media icons arose, the writers demurred, and the parody television show “Where Are My Pants?” is not a clear sendup of anything equally banal in the real world (e.g. the reality genre). The aural confectionary “Everything Is Awesome” was cooked up by professional pop writers, sweetened by Tegan and Sara, and made silly by SNL staple comedy troupe The Lonely Island. While Wyldstyle originally makes fun of Emmet for liking it, eventually even she, the hippest and toughest of all the creatives, eventually succumbs to its beats. Perhaps its inanity is a disguise—hiding the anthem of the revolution.