The LEGO Movie, creativity, and the building blocks of art

A confession. You probably heard a lot of people tell you “OMG that movie was amazing” before you went. You probably doubted it, because you’ve been burned before. A LOT. Maybe you even felt tempted to find something to dislike just so you didn’t feel like a sheep. Well, go on and whistle for the border collie, because my confession is…a movie about LEGOs made me cry.

There’s a lot to love straight off the bat. It’s immediately fun. The animation is super nifty, detailed and technically astounding*; it really looks like it was done with stop-motion and it gives it a charming, handmade feel. It’s very much a kids’ movie, not because of the subject, but in that it has the qualities of a child’s brain. Its landscape is visually riotous, jokes fire off at lightning speed in a slightly non-sequitur pastiche, and its logic doesn’t require the approval of outside observers. It’s funny, fast, and smart; the writing is really strong and on-target. It’s got a great celebrity cast who bring fantastic voice acting skills to the table. This is important, because it’s a different skill set, and many animated films have suffered from poor casting. But most importantly, this film has a message that speaks to nearly everyone about the nature of creativity; and I think that’s why it’s really been a blockbuster.


Let’s rewind. Somewhere in Hollywood, a bunch of executives all had the bright idea that if they’re going to mine every conceivable existing property for “safe bets” to build film franchises around, why not do TOYS? Genius. Five films from a theme park ride; you could probably pitch a cereal box. Battleship was really, really bad, and three Transformers movies down the line we’re still at it. The audience is pretty skeptical, and even I figured we’d be getting a 2-hour long ad for new playsets. I don’t try to understand Hollywood executives; that way lies madness (possibly an inevitable side effect of trying to predict the future). But they’re carrying on, and I’m sure many more bad movies will come out of it.

Yet by some stroke of fate, LEGO winds up in the hands of people who actually understand why anyone plays with LEGOs to begin with. When Pacific Rim came out, I saw a review that said it was the movie a nine year old would make playing with their action figures. I don’t remember the context, so I’m not sure if it was intended as a compliment or an insult. This is definitely the movie a kid would make playing with their LEGOs. Literally. We find out at the end it’s the entire conceit. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Play isn’t trivial. When children play, they’re doing something extremely important. Play exists not just in humans, but in many species, as critical practice for skills to survive and thrive in later life. Play is an elaborate rehearsal for every struggle yet to be faced. Recent research has shown that this “rehearsal” doesn’t stop when we’re adults; it just switches stages. The emotions we experience exploring fictional worlds help enrich our lives in the real one. Play is important. Stories are meaningful. They’re proving grounds for truth. [See also: my essay on fiction and truth re: The World’s End.]

Aren’t movies are a vast toy box, too? LEGO makes sense as a movie because movies are not unlike a building toy. We build worlds from pieces edited together. We build stories using the same bricks we have since the dawn of humanity, in infinite combinations. They can take us anywhere our imagination can. Film can be a razor, a laser, a spotlight into dark and unspoken places. It can be a grand tower there only to exist, or the joy of smashing what we create into bits just to see how the pieces crumble.

In this case, they’ve brilliantly used familiar building blocks as a platform to make something really new and different, with a complex set of concepts operating on different levels of the film:

In the LEGO universe: a bad guy named Lord Business is sucking the life out of being a LEGO person by segregating them by type and forcing them to only follow the instructions. Emmet is a guy who’s struggling to understand his identity beyond what’s been proscribed for him** – by Lord Business, or by any prophecy about how special he is. There’s a message there about how you define yourself not by what makes you the same or different, but what makes you “you”.

In the human universe: it’s about a dad becoming alienated from his son because he’s corrupted the idea of play. He’s made toys into a static thing that children aren’t supposed to touch, and toys that aren’t meant to be played with lose their meaning. As adults, the writers must find more of themselves in Ferrell’s dad trying to reconnect not just with his son but with his own child self. He’s living in the midst of these skeletons of something he loved, but their soul has fled. And he’s losing his son and himself by clinging to the remains. Isn’t that the deepest danger of nostalgia? To keep the trappings but not the heart?

As a LEGO movie: it’s a movie FOR LEGO about LEGO that’s stridently and almost completely against the idea of kits with instructions to follow – basically everything the company’s been pushing for the last 25 years. (I was a kid when they started to phase in more kits; I angrily stomped around in my Junior Builder t-shirt, because kits were lame and expensive. As an adult, I buy them.) Of course, you can buy kits that recreate a movie about instructions being pretty lame, and they will sell. A bit of a meta headache. But in the end, they’re encouraging kids to buy toys and then actually play with them. Everybody wins.

As a movie: it’s a movie made for and by a film industry definitely run by its own Lord Businesses that corrupt the work of creative people by pushing conformity, brand identities, and lack of original thought. (Ostensibly. Bear with me.) If you really think about it, it’ll make your jaw drop that it got made. They built a corporate wet dream around 2 hours of an active decrying of that SAME system. It was greenlit by its own villains. It’s incredible. And since it’s on track to make crazy money, THAT is how you change the system from within. It’s a huge achievement.

But you don’t realize quite what a significant achievement it is until you remember the ending. It’s NOT pointing at the system and demonizing it, as Fox News claims (they’re nutbunnies, always ignore them). No, Lord Business isn’t overthrown and chucked into an abyss by the triumphant Little Guy with his Big Ideas. This story totally defies expectation in every way with a confrontation that turns into an invite to collaboration. They suggest that it doesn’t have to be an endless struggle where one side wins at the cost of the other. It’s possible to unite the imposed order of “business” and unstructured creativity into a worthwhile whole. I genuinely can’t think of another movie that has EVER said that, has ever suggested that “David and Goliath” work together. It’s an idea pretty profoundly contradictory to our current obsession with geniuses wronged by an uncaring system (one which I’ve come to believe is artistically self-destructive). It’s a pretty daring idea right now that even executives may have hearts and can be re-trained to use them, and that artists benefit in some real way from what people who think in business terms can do. Movies that make money can be good, because good movies can make money!

So they’ve made this incredible statement about the film industry, and many things with “industry” and “business” appended to them. But there’s another layer beyond that. They make a statement about creativity itself in an individual sense, and undercut even more genre convention when they do it. The “chosen one” is chosen because he’s NOT special. He’s “just a construction worker”. He’s the everyman, and that makes him special. And everyone is the everyman. Does your brain hurt yet? Okay, let’s try to explain their point another way…

Many people love to blame being raised as a “special snowflake” for feelings of failure in later life (not just Tyler Durden, either). Maybe what you achieve in life isn’t based on being “special”; not because you’re not special, or no one is, but because everyone is. The only difference between an apparently “special” person and everyone else is an active choice to believe in their ideas and fight for them. Creative people have been trying to give this advice to self-doubting young people for years, many of them crushed by the weight of a systematic assumption that art requires instructions** and that the path to success is matching a picture on a box. But it takes a certain kind of eloquence to communicate it with Morgan Freeman playing a LEGO ghost on a string, and it’s such an important point that speaks to any and all of the other themes. The whole point of the film was that when you stop thinking of your toys as precious, stop thinking of instructions as law, and let yourself play – that may not always be where genius happens, but it is where happiness does.

And that’s how a movie about LEGOs made me cry. I really, really like it. Big Ideas aside, it’s just a whole lot of fun, and made with a great deal of passion. I’ll be honest; I don’t know anything much about Phil Lord or Christopher Miller, so I’ve got new people to track down and high-five for being awesome.

So go forth, kids. Understand the instructions, but choose when to ignore them. Don’t be precious; build and destroy. Make mashups. Blaze trails. Believe in the value of all your ideas, especially the “stupid” ones (like a double-decker couch, or a movie about LEGOs). You never know where they’ll take you.

* OMFG can we talk about the “water droplets” on the “camera lens”, which are actually totally nonexistent LEGO pieces on glass that isn’t there?! Did I ever squeal internally about that. Details, man.

** Shoutout to Wild Style, since her storyline is also about a search for identity (and how we sometimes go about that the wrong way). She serves a fairly conventional purpose in the story, but does so with uncommon depth. Even though it makes sense in the film’s context that she would solve problems with building skills, it is nice that they don’t fall into the trap of writing a “strong female” who “kicks ass” without real motivations or skills. And she forms a relationship with Emmet as a result of her own character arc, not just his. Kids’ movie or no, they had me worried for a split second I was going to see LEGOs make out, so I additionally thank them for steering clear of that creepy iceberg.

*** I’m not opposed to analyzing art, or how to make art. But with children in particular, experimentation is far more important than method. A lot of method comes naturally over time. But it’s very hard to re-learn experimentation. This is, incidentally, how I got in trouble in first grade art for refusing to do color-by-number assignments…

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Anne Darkly
Professional geek, plush artist, movie lover, writer trying to get back on the wagon. Or off the wagon. There's wagon involvement. Everyone told me to get a blog, so I did. Yee-haw.
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