Life is strange. Life is busy. Life is often hilariously mirrored by art. Art is often hilariously mirrored by life.
Whether you were preoccupied serving overpriced cappuccinos to pay for your liberal arts degree, dragging yourself to another coding conference in Silicon Valley, or trying to make that next entrepreneurial step in your given trade without getting a handout, there are a million reasons why regular adults with complicated lives might have missed seeing the 2014 children’s Hollywood hit The Lego Movie. As the decades pass, however, I have a strong feeling that people are going to look back at this film and be unable to believe that it came out two whole years before the 2016 election.
And so begin the spoilers.
The Lego Movie, as you might presume, is an animated film about a universe where everything is made out of legos. Within those constraints you get a beautifully optimistic caricature of the modern world, where both the good guys and the bad guys fail to materialize as they should and the future of the world depends on the daily behavior of ordinary people. Be it prophetical or accidental, The Lego Movie managed to cleverly caricature society’s most influential forces, only then to turn them on their head and point them back at the real thing that has been guiding society all along—how well we can cooperate.
The conflict of The Lego Movie is that in an ultra-capitalist society that claims everything is awesome, everything is actually far from being awesome. The lego characters are distracted by their jobs and by consumer products from plots to glue individual lego pieces together with a “Kragle” (krazy glue) in order to keep the world from falling into chaos—but at the cost of all progress, creativity, and individualism. Wielding this ultra-dangerous Kragle are the police, who are under the command of a large-haired all-powerful leader named “President Business” (though some versions of the Lego Movie refer to him as “Lord Business” now) who seems to control all financial and political institutions under the name of one kleptocratic corporation from atop a flamboyantly tall tower. President Business and the police are immediately portrayed as authoritarian bad guys, but this is not the whole story.
The protagonist of this story is a completely average construction worker named Emmet, who is told by rebels that he is “The Special,” a chosen super genius who can build amazing lego creations that can save the world from the extreme measures of law and order being taken by the police. He’s taken to a secret hiding spot where he meets with Master Builders, lego characters who resemble modern pop culture heroes, ranging from Gandalf to Superman. The most frequently occurring master Builder is Lego Batman, who despite being very successful, famous and capable, is so unbelievably smug and self-aggrandizing that it renders him ineffective and unreliable in many situations. Weighed down by identity politics (aka getting caught up in the fact that they are Dumbledore, Wonder Woman, etc), all of the master builders, despite often being brilliant, are horrible at efficiently communicating with one another and finding common ground. President Business is by contrast, a great communicator. He’s constantly making TV appearances and approving entertaining slogans that serve both as entertainment and as organizational tools for the masses. Ultimately even he is doing what he thinks will be turn out to be “great.” The obvious issue is that many don’t agree, don’t get to weigh in, or don’t even fully understand what’s going on.
If you just follow the archetypes, it’s pretty clear that what is occurring in The Lego Movie is that the world is moving towards a place of conservatism and escapism in the face of ambiguous order. The power structures that be start to double down on keeping things from rapidly changing in a million different directions as a means of preserving their interests. Conversely, the out of the box thinkers who want to preserve individuality and creativity are so disunited and splintered that they are not able to offer any tangible solutions. The Master Builders, being the lego equivalent of celebrities, tech entrepreneurs, academics, or any other brand of fame-fueled inteligencia are collectively in many ways as disruptive as the authoritative forces that they are fighting. This is because they share the same quality of self-righteous absolutism—and are more into the super cool lego stuff that they want to build on their own than they are interested in working with others to find solutions for everyone. This vacuum of influence is what allows President Business to step in and vow to literally keep things in place with new and intense measures.
But even while the Master Builders and President Business’s forces tear each other apart for the majority of the film in goofy and creative ways, The Lego Movie ends on a positive note, showing that the struggle occurring over the course of the film is actually a super surreal rendition of a child messing with his Dad’s gigantic lego set. This is symbolized by the lego characters. As we see, Emmet (protagonist) is the child and his father is President Business (the antagonist). They eventually come to terms with one another, using the line “You don’t have to be the bad guy.” Just as the father and son reconcile, Emmet, the archetype for the average person in the current world, is able to both move President Business to a place of acceptance and empathy while also humbling the Master Builders into being cooperative with one another.
The Kragle glue gun does not freeze things into an unbreakable rigid structure of the past order. Nor do the master builders dissolve the current order into a something so unbelievably individualistic, borderless and meritocratic that the average person occupying it must be shunned or looked down upon for not being more unique. In the end, Emmet’s power as “The Special” doesn’t come from his strength or his intelligence (two things that he admittedly lacks) but from his ability to develop the resources he has (which are ultimately meager compared to his world at large) and combine them with the work and ideas of others in his immediate reality.
At the end of the day, in 2016, we too are constantly fighting to tear down and rebuild old structures while maintaining other ones. The disagreements over how this should be done are highly consequential and not ever entirely logical. Like a pile of legos, this process of change is unfathomably messy and unpredictable, but inevitable. If we want to keep the best of what we’ve already built while still being free enough to build and adapt to new conditions, we have to do the work of cooperating with others, especially when we don’t agree. It’s from cooperation that we get, besides mere compromise, a necessary balance between order and chaos.
Just like Emmet, no masters are coming to save us. Only you can do that.