by Red Negro
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film The Lego Movie.
Despite the condemnation of the recent box office hit The Lego Movie (2014) by the Fox News network as an ‘anti-business’ film, Lego Movie is a film that celebrates capitalist triumph, while delivering a subtle warning about the consequences of neoliberal common-sense taken too far.
Lego Movie begins with a story about Lord Business – played by Will Ferrell, who takes over the Lego world by obtaining the ‘Kraggle’, a super weapon that allows him to take over the world, forcing a hegemonic idea of ‘following the instructions’ on the denizens of the Lego universe, while also placing him within a stone’s throw of his ultimate plan that is revealed later in the film.
The main protagonist of the film, a construction worker by the name of Emmet Browkowski—the personification of an urban white working class male with the stereotypical Eastern European immigrant background, living in relative comfort—who is an ordinary denizen caught up in the hustle and bustle of ‘Lego City’, a hustling and bustling post-industrial metropolis. Emmet’s life is characterized by his ‘routine’, the organic community of his coworkers, the spectacle of late capitalist mass culture, and his ordinary, but jovial character. However, Emmet eventually gets caught up in a resistance movement that interrupts his “9 to 5” life.
By stumbling upon the “piece of resistance”, a special Lego piece that represents the threat of non-conformity possessed by a particular master builder known as “the special”, Emmet becomes the symbol in a powerful struggle between the Evil Lord/President Business and the master-builders. Evil Lord Business, now the president of Octtad Corporation and the Lego Universe,the Lego Universe, is revealed to be charismatic leader with a darkside. His complete triumph over the Lego universe as a Steve Jobs-like overlord sends him barreling down a spiral of madness, seeing subversion in all corners. In particular, the “anarchical creativity” of the master builders is seen as a threat to a world defined by capitalist utilitarianism, law and order, consumerism, and the day-to-day stability found only in real life’s western, core capitalist states.
Emmet through the course of the film engages in a one hour and thirty minute quest, struggling with being a reluctant hero, finding a unique identity for himself , and finding harmony between the ‘world-spirit’, or geist, of Lord/President Business’ and the seemingly revolutionary individualism of the master builders. Emmet’s struggle, along with Wildstyle and the master-builders as his comrades, concludes not as a Jacobin revolution against Lord/President Business’s rule, but as a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. Emmet tells Lord Business that he is “the most talented, intelligent, most important, and gifted person in the universe.” According to Emmet, Lord/President business is special, like everyone else, but is currently the center of the universe, a position he should use wisely. Instead of being an evil capitalist tyrant, Lord/President Business is a misguided philosopher-king.
Lego Movie is a film with a pro-capitalist message that flies way over the heads Conservatives, and for good reason. The fact that Fox News was not able to recognize the film’s pro-capitalist message is a testimony to the dissonance between the American right and America’s socio-political realities.
The first major theme embodied within the movie is the protagonist’s daily instruction-driven routine, a representation of the mundane daily rituals done by average people under late capitalism. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History is alive and well in Emmet’s day-to-day ritual of waking up, watching morning entertainment’ shows, desire-stirring commercials about drinking overpriced franchise coffee, traffic jams, and his 8 hour/5 day a week high-rise construction job. This theme, which contributes heavily to the identity and narrative of Emmet, is a celebration of western liberal capitalism as a hegemonic power idea. The clockwork perfection of western, post-industrial capitalism, devoid of meaningful alternatives and destructive civil wars, paints the Lego Movie‘s world as a fictional reflection of our society’s current state.
This leads to the second major theme of the movie, and the target of its critique. First, Lord/President Business himself is a powerful metaphor for Western capitalism’s almost-effortless victory over Soviet Communism, and ruling class paranoia at the prospect of anti-capitalist revolution hiding up the sleeves of the discontented. The ever-increasing distance between an unceasingly wealth-acquiring business class, and the masses of working people around the Globe, has created a siege mentality among the world’s rich. The drive to invest in artificial islands, private security forces, and policy-shifting lobbying firms is all embodied within Lord/President Business’s dissatisfaction with his absolute control over the lives of the Lego Universe’s denizens, and his unhappiness that his “perfect world” is being undone by the meddling activities of people wanting to take ownership of the world they happily reside within.
Second, Lord/President Business’ micromanaging madness is also an allegory for neoconservative discontent with not being credited for capitalism’s triumph over Communism. For Neoconservatives in general, and Republicans in particular, Americans naively dismiss the freedom-saving power of Conservative anti-communist paranoia, making them appear in the eyes of the American New Right as useful idiots who are unknowingly being preyed upon by an ominous and unseen anti-capitalist threat—Donald Rumsfeld and his “known-knowns and unknown-unknowns” is a lucid example of this line of thought. Because of this, Conservatives have to protect the victory of American liberal capitalism by enforcing the stabilizing values of small-town, middle-American, middle class WASP life; heteronormativity, traditional gender roles, the patriarchal-nuclear family, personal responsibility, and fiscal conservatism upon the American people for their own good. This is embodied in Lord/President Business’ evil plan to essentially super-glue all of the denizens of the Lego Universe into their ‘proper places’. The consequences of multiculturalism, atheism, sexual diversity, and free thinking are seen as socially destructive forces for neoconservatives, opening doors for communism and other unknown evils to sneak in and destroy American life. Hence, Lord/President’s war against the master-builders.
This leads to the third, and most poignant theme of the film. The master-builders represent the institution of the humanities and its discursive presence in western life. It is no secret that the humanities as an institution is seen as inefficient, without value, and outdated in a world directed the by the hidden hand of the market and its discursive attributes– technocracy, the worship of physical science, and the ‘culture of professionalism’. Lord/President Business’ edict for the Lego Universe ‘follow the instructions’ at first glance is a homage to the struggles of children building their own Lego creations at the disapproval of parents who spent a hefty sum on theme-based Lego sets. Yet, underneath this seemingly innocent homage to childhood is a metaphorical tension between late capitalism’s universal-ideology of corporate etiquette – its obsession with network culture and resume-building life choices- and the human propensity for spontaneity, philosophical inquiry, and social change. All of this contributes to the film’s central message: Capitalism’s triumph is to be celebrated, but it is threatened by paranoid anti-communist Conservatives, a naive-worship of expert (scientific) knowledge, and an ideological obsession with utilitarian life choices. “We must learn to cope with the occasionally destructive dynamism of capitalism, while at the same time leaving ample room for non-conformity. Life under capitalism will find a way, if we let it.”
In conclusion, Lego Movie is far from being the virulently anti-capitalist film, like Robocop of the 1980s, that has Conservatives in an uproar. Instead, Lego Movie is much like The Butler, in that it is an acknowledgment that social progressivism is of compelling social and political interest, provided that it is tempered with a pragmatic weariness of radicalism, and a compassionate conservatism.