‘The LEGO Movie’ Is An Amazing Critique Of American Mass Culture

CREDIT: Warner Brothers

This post discusses the plot of The LEGO Movie in extensive detail.

At the beginning of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 21 Jump Street, their 2012 cop comedy that was a repurposing the television show that ran from 1987-1991, Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman), explains to two young cops (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) that they’re being assigned to a unit in which they’ll be impersonating high school students to investigate drug crimes.

“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times,” Hardy says. “You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

It was a very funny acknowledgement of the main objection that most people had posed to the very concept of a 21 Jump Street. But Hardy’s grumpiness also set a bar for the movie so low that Lord and Miller could leap over it with even more glee than an apocalyptically high Channing Tatum diving through a gong. If 21 Jump Street was proof that Lord and Miller could make a terrific, funny movie within the confines of Hollywood’s constricting business model, their follow-up, The LEGO Movie, released last weekend, proves something more ambitious: that the two men can take their industry’s obsession with pre-existing properties, sequels, Chosen One narratives, and overhyped emotions and make a surprising soulful movie out of all these tacky little pieces of plastic.

The plot of The LEGO Movie is as follows. Emmet Brickowoski (Parks and Recreation‘s Chris Pratt) is a happy, brainwashed construction worker LEGO who lives and works in Bricksburg, a city run by President Business (Will Ferrell). Business is a dictator who has homogenized culture to the point that there’s only one television show, an idiotic sitcom called Where Are My Pants, and a single hit song, the admittedly amazing “Everything Is Awesome,” made conformity the norm, and reduced his citizens’ identities to their interests, be it in cats, surfing, or sausage. He also happens to be a super-villain who’s stolen a secret weapon called the Kragle, over the objections of a stoner-sage wizard with the evocative name of Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), and plans to freeze his entire society in place, thwarting a secret society of LEGOs known as the MasterBuilders, whose wild creativity threatens Business’ vision of perfection. And Emmet is unwittingly drawn into this conflict when he comes into contact with the Piece of Resistance and meets another LEGO named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a pretty, creative MasterBuilder who, along with her boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett), is part of the resistance.

But it has another layer as well: the movie shifts into live-action when Emmet’s story turns out to be the creation of a little boy whose father (Ferrell) has created an exquisite LEGO universe in the basement and forbidden his children to play with it. The Kragle is actually the Krazy Glue the man plans to use to cement his creation into place, ending the possibility of infinite rearrangements that are exactly what make LEGOs so endlessly amusing. President Business is a stand-in for the boy’s father, whose appropriation of children’s toys and determination to strip them of their anarchic creativity is actually a kind of death.

As much as President Business stands in for industry, it’s not for capitalism in general, but for the movie business in particular. The LEGO Movie never pretends that the products of mass media aren’t outrageously entertaining–that would be a willful denial of reality. Instead, it asks us to consider what we’re losing out in that homogenization.

Almost everything in The LEGO Movie functions on multiple levels. “Everything Is Awesome” is genuinely a beautifully-constructed earworm, made lovely by Tegan and Sara, and funny and silly by the Lonely Island. But as many times as it’s possible to listen to the song on a loop, it feels like an awful waste that this is the only song we’ll ever get to hear by these collaborators. Who wouldn’t want to hear more of what they could do together? And finally, the song is a perfect expression of the formula that’s subtext in so much Hollywood advertising and text in internet-optimized headlining style: if every possible thing elicits the same reaction at the same pitch, how can we have meaningfully different experiences? Awesome isn’t the only thing to value.

Similarly, it’s highly entertaining to have Batman bopping around Emmet’s quiz, showing up with conveniently-timed Batmobiles, and tossing Batarangs at strategically placed buttons. But The LEGO Movie‘s version of Batman reminds us of just how much our tonally homogenized superhero movies and their failure to move beyond origin stories have cost us. This Batman has all the same attributes as Christopher Nolan’s or Tim Burton’s, but in different quantities: he’s an arrogant showboat who composes “deep” metal tracks for Wydstyle, even though he doesn’t actually know her real name. When, at one point in the movie, Batman seems to ditch Emmet, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, and the mission against President Business to go hang out with Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, it’s entirely keeping with his character, and it’s the gesture that follows that reads as a surprise. Superheroism is a small part of The LEGO Movie‘s pastiche, but their interpretation of Batman is the freshest we’ve seen on the big screen in several years.

And even its larger narrative, The LEGO Movie casts a gimlet eye on the Chosen One stories that have so dominated both young adult literature and the big screen in recent years. In these stories, young people tend to be targeted because they possess special powers, or to discover, once they’ve been chosen for a school or a contest, that the abilities they’ve previously applied to normal tasks are actually a portent of something larger.

But Emmet, after accidentally discovering the Piece of Resistance–or not really discovering it, it gets stuck to him after he falls down a hole–doesn’t turn out to be the Special, as the Chosen One in Vitruvius’ prophecy is called, or even particularly special at all. He’s a bit of a bland guy with some silly dreams that turn out to be useful in an emergency. And Vitruvius ultimately confesses that the prophecy is bunk, a propaganda tool he dreamed up to keep his cohorts going in the fight against President Business. When he’s freed up from the burden of being highly unusual, and singularly responsible for Business’ defeat, Emmet actually becomes a more productive member of the team. And his fellow questers are freed up to use their talents without feeling like their skills are somehow inferior or getting in the way of Emmet realizing his greatness. The abilities that Emmet eventually learns are available to all LEGOs, and the citizens of Bricksburg eventually rally in defense of their city, unleashing joyful, creative chaos in the fight against President Business. It’s a nice inversion of the idea that the super-villain advances The Incredibles that “When everyone’s super, no one will be”: in The LEGO Movie, when creativity is available to everyone, the things they create turn pleasure and joy into a kind of infinitely renewable resource.

In The LEGO Movie, that conflict plays out on two levels. In the LEGO world, Emmet’s adventures bust President Business’ monopoly control of creativity, and blows up the idea that you have to have any particular abilities to become a MasterBuilder. Given the opportunity, everyone is awesome. In the live-action segments of the movie, the young boy reminds his father that they’re both capable of building extraordinary things, and that his father’s static vision of his dream universe isn’t the only way for something to be exceptional and fascinating. In a nice twist, and an important comment on the terrible state of gender equality in the entertainment industry, the father tells his son that he can’t just give the little boy a chance to play. They have to invite his younger sister down into the basement, too: the movie ends with her creations from the Planet Duplo mounting an invasion of Bricksburg.

And on a third level, Lord and Miller are almost certainly talking about themselves. Working together, they’ve produced three delightful franchises from unexpected places: their surprisingly good 2009 adaptation of the essentially plotless picture book Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, which earned a sequel last year, 21 Jump Street, which they’re reprising later in 2014, and now The LEGO Movie. But for all the box office success of these projects–the first Cloudy made $243 million, 21 Jump Street brought in $200 million on a budget of just $42 million, and The LEGO Movie made $69 million in North America this weekend–it would be easy for Hollywood to treat Miller and Lord as an exception to be tolerated, rather than as a potential business model to be emulated. It’s true that it’s hard to recreate wildly singular visions: Pixar’s present struggles are evidence of that. But with The LEGO Movie, Lord and Miller have filed not just an impressive addition to their resumes, but an eloquent brief on behalf of filmmakers–and film lovers–everywhere.