My favorite movie of all time is The Lego Movie, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Yeah, I know it might seem childish, but I think you only think that because you haven’t really thought about the genius behind all the fart-jokes and hyperactivity. But have no fear! I am here to enlighten you.
People have been making stop motion films with LEGO since the 1970s. They were called “brickfilms.” LEGOs were used to make music videos and other fan creations. And although the LEGO company fought the fans at first, they soon came to embrace LEGO filmmakers. They realized that any content made by fans that feature LEGOs is free advertisement for their product. Then, in 2014, the same division of LEGO that established Lego Studios greenlit the first official feature-length film, The Lego Movie. At the core of The Lego Movie is the ultimate action/adventure film that both embraces the genre and satirizes it at the same time.
The Lego Movie starts off the way most adventure movies start, with a prophesy:
"One day, a talented lass or fellow
A special one with face of yellow
Will make the piece of resistance found
From its hiding refuge underground
And with a noble army at the helm
This Master Builder will thwart The Kragle and save the realm
And be the greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times
All of this is true, because it rhymes."
Similar to the adventures of Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter, the prophesy singles out one individual whom everyone relies on to save them. But unlike Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins, the individual this prophesy is referring to is a toy, a LEGO character named Emmet.
Emmet is your average guy, representing us: the average person that plays with LEGOs and watches LEGO films. He lives his life playing by the rules, following all the instruction manuals and trusting the status quo. Then, two characters named Wild Style and Vitruvius reveal that Emmet is “the special” from the prophecy. They dare him to use his imagination and think outside the box. Only through creativity will they be able to defeat President Business, the LEGO character representing parents who want all LEGO creations to be assembled following the instructions and then be glued together.
This film is a lesson in problem solving, teamwork and creativity; dealing with the main struggle when building with LEGOs: do you free build or follow the instructions? A question that inspires a journey for LEGO builders as they set out to build, and a question that inspires the prophecy in this film. This prophecy serves as the catalyst for the adventure and as the moral at the heart of this movie. We are all Master Builders. We are all special, and we are all interesting.
[bf_image id="q9d6pl-ge5hyo-7go1mq"] All adventure films have a prophecy, and all adventure films have a reveal. And The Lego Movie has a reveal that takes the adventure genre to a whole new level. So, big *spoiler alert* as I dissect what exactly it all means. The reveal of The Lego Movie gives the audience another set of master builders and is about as meta as it gets. Throughout the whole movie, I was thinking about the goofiness of some of the lines and how when one of the character’s pirate ship drove away the sound it made was a voice making the sound of a boat motor instead of an actual boat motor. The climax of the film comes when Emmet is catapulted into a wormhole and lands on the floor of a live-action basement. The audience then discovers that all of the elements of the film that had seemed like goofy quirks are actually because a little boy is playing with LEGOs in his basement. The movie we have seen with Emmet and the prophesy all took place in this boy’s imagination as we saw the game he was playing come to life. The animation represents imagination, and the live-action represents real life. The boy is recreating the conflict in his life through the toys he is playing with. His dad doesn’t want him to play with the LEGOs and threatens to glue them all together if the boy continues to take them apart. This is the central plot of the LEGO adventure unfolding in this film, and they are tied together through their villain. Through this reveal, the film acknowledges it’s a story about toys that is being told by humans. It’s an adventure film wrapped in an adventure film.
The action/adventure genre is all in our heads, just like Emmet’s journey is all in a boy’s head. Action/adventure is unrealistic, this we know. It’s trophy, it’s testosterone-driven most of the time and its reliance on the power of one can make it comical. But these are the reasons we love action and adventure films so much. We love Indiana Jones even though he could never accomplish all he does by himself, and we love Harry Potter even though he monologues more than he fights for what he believes in. There is always an element to an adventure film that requires us to suspend reality, making the genre exist more in our imaginations, more than in reality. Oftentimes, the physical adventure is just a metaphor for the deeper, more cerebral adventure, in which the audience learns a lesson. In The Lego Movie, Emmet’s journey is a representation of a boy working through his issues with his father. Through Emmet’s journey, which is unrealistic and unrelatable, we understand a deeper journey about the struggles of a young person to express himself creatively.
The Lego Movie is a turducken of adventure metaphors. In addition to the usage of the adventure genre to represent the emotional journey of a child, the film also uses self-reflexivity of the genre to distract from the fact that the film is, in essence, a 110-minute commercial. There is a commentary on big business folded into this film about action and adventure. In one aspect President Business represents parents, but in another aspect, he represents corporations trying to control consumers. President Business is President of the world. His company, Octan, controls everything as Emmet points out, “Octan! They make good stuff: music, dairy products, coffee, TV, surveillance cameras, all history books, voting machines…wait a minute…”
The Master Builders are a group of revolutionaries trying to overthrow Octan, promoting free-thinking and freedom of creativity. The relationship between Octan and the Master Builders is meta in its depiction of the LEGO Company as both big business and the revolutionaries. The Lego Movie acts as LEGO’s own justification for their position as one of the largest toy companies by presenting themselves as the Master Builders, a team literally named after the people who work at LEGO. In the New York Times article, The Brilliant, Unnerving Meta-Marketing of ‘The Lego Movie,’ Heather Havrilesky writes, “I feel wary. Where does the second-largest toy company in the world get off offering up a Marxist parable about the mind-control perpetrated by corporate profit mongers, like the second-largest toy company in the world? The realization that Lego anticipated my wariness and addressed it in the movie makes me even warier. But then Batman shows up, and so do Dumbledore and Han Solo and a bionic pirate and Lando Calrissian, and they build spaceships and submarines and double-decker couches and, well, everything is awesome!”
LEGO is self-aware in this film, using the movie as a platform to tell parents that yes, we’re trying to sell you LEGOs, but it’s not that bad because we recognize the issues with corporate promotion and in the end, big business is defeated when we recognize we are individuals who deserve to be treated as such, just as much as the little guy does. In the final scene, Emmet convinces President Business to back down by telling him, “You don’t have to be the bad guy. You are the most talented, most interesting, most extraordinary person in the universe.” LEGO portrays its brand very favorably, and it disguises the fact that it’s just one big ad, by making fun of itself.
Havrilesky writes, “Rather than imbuing the product with magical qualities, it embraces and undercuts those qualities in one swift gesture. The effect is to subvert consumer prejudices and preconceptions and make us forget that we’re caught in a commerce-focused undertow… By acknowledging that their central message is unbelievable or at least exaggerated, the branding masterminds gain our trust and bolster our faith in the brand.” And that’s really a journey in and of itself. A company sets down the path to achieve “average worker” status. And how do they reach this goal of leading audiences to believe they are the Master Builders and not President Business? Through self-deprecating humor.
The unexpected journeys of The Lego Movie have given LEGO the opportunity to take their brand to the next level. They have worked the balance between selling and entertaining almost perfectly. And they show that the way to do that is through meta adventure-comedy. Only through recognizing their flaws, and the flaws of the film genre, are they able to distract from their promotion. As Emmet says at the end of the film, “The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true. It’s about all of us.” And then, almost as if he is speaking directly to the audience, he says, “And now, it’s about you.”
In the process of selling LEGOs, the audience goes on a cinematic journey full of quirky self-awareness and fun that makes each audience member nostalgic for the days when they were a kid playing with LEGOs. This movie has some unexpected depth that deserves more credit. I loved it when I was 13 and I love it now. The Lego Movie is successful in selling their brand and making movie magic, and just like all good adventure movies, the audience learned some lessons along the way.