“The LEGO Movie” is obliterating the competition, with its 95 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an expected $69.1 million in domestic ticket sales on opening weekend. I myself succumbed to the buzz, taking my children to a packed 2:40 PM Sunday showing at the local cineplex.
The movie begins in Bricksburg, where all media, business, and government are controlled by the Octan Energy Corporation. The Bricksburgers are all rule-followers who love “President Business,” the embodiment of crony capitalism who runs the whole show. Under his iron-fist rule, everyone follows the instructions at home and work, enforced by cheery “I’ve got my eye on you!” advertisements and surveillance cameras. The world’s free thinkers — known as master builders — are President Business’ greatest threat. These are the mini-figurines who reject the cultural and legal norms enforced by President Business. They are caught via a massive surveillance and military system and locked up against their will. One of the rule-following citizens is a perfectly boring chap named “Emmet,” a construction worker on a team that destroys interesting and unique buildings and replaces them with brutal and uniform office structures.
One day Emmet spies free-thinking hipster “WyldStyle” breaking some rules and digging through some bricks. Following her, he ends up discovering an important item that might be able to thwart President Business’ evil plans. The movie has easily one of the most palatable dystopian settings ever presented to children, made more accessible by its fidelity to LEGO limitations and style.
The film is being presented by fans and detractors as anti-business. Here’s FOX Business:
If you don’t want to watch, a few highlights from the panel discussion:
“The LEGO Movie” is latest example of Hollywood’s anti-business agenda …. It feels a little bit more threatening when they start to push this out to our kids … the Head of a corporation is an easy target … embed anti-capitalist messages … Hollywood has been long dominated by far left, very anti-capitalist.
But it wasn’t just the capitalists at FOX Business who are discussing President Business. You have, for instance, noted anti-capitalist Michael Moore:
Yes, I really mean this: “The Lego Movie” is hilarious, smart, satirical/political (the President’s name is “President Business”) & fun. GO!
President Business is the Lego Ceaușescu, if you swap the communism for capitalism.
And BuzzFeed’s Hunter Schwarz weighed in:
There’s a bad guy in the Lego movie named President Business who’s voiced by Will Ferrell and looks like Mitt Romney. pic.twitter.com/UwGSVyL6rQ
Insofar as LEGO figurines look like humans, President Business also happens to look exactly like … Will Ferrell, which might mean more in the context of him voicing that part, but don’t worry about that. Let’s think for a moment about whether a movie that is literally a 1-hour, 40-minute commercial for LEGO product is really anti-business. I’ll answer that one for you by telling you what my 4-year-old said the moment we got home: “I’m going to play with my LEGOs!” No, idiots! This is not an anti-business film. It’s almost creepy how pro-business it is, in fact!
“The LEGO Movie” isn’t just pro-business. It’s also about the importance of hard work, creativity, ownership, innovation and human dignity. There might not be a more classically liberal film in the history of film-making, when it’s all said and done.
Yes, it really is anti-crony capitalism, which only furthers the classically liberal message. Even if the big corporate interests in this country prefer thwarting competition via massive legislation, onerous regulations and other barriers to entry over the risks of a free-wheeling market, cronyism is not the same thing as capitalism.
Limited Government Plus Virtue
It’s a little difficult to discuss the movie in detail without ruining it — and you all are going to want to go see it — but suffice to say that the movie’s commercial message is that LEGO encourages creativity. (Christopher Orr notes that this runs completely contrary to the unfortunate conformity LEGO has been encouraging in recent years with its pre-designed kits.) Throughout the movie, the key characters bravely move around different settings. They begin in restrictive Bricksburg and move to the wild frontier of the “Old West” and other domains. WyldStyle explains that all people were once free to travel, mingle and build as they wanted. But then President Business started controlling everything.
President Business himself tells us that he’s so upset with people who mess up his plans that he wants to lock them down exactly as they should be. “Stop building that stuff!” he cries. Later he says, “All I’m asking for is total perfection!” bringing in “micromanagers” to help out. It was that scene’s call to immanentize the eschaton, by the way, that convinced me the FOX panelists hadn’t seen the film before critiquing it. President Business actually gives a character a choice between fealty to him or “a tea party with your mom and dad.” A tea party! And the character given that choice is both “Good Cop” and “Bad Cop,” thanks to LEGO head swiveling that has happy faces on the back side of angry faces. But mostly it reminded me of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s quote from “The Gulag Archipelago”:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
This is not an anarchist cri de coeur, with the film also rejecting the absence of rules and government itself. In one pivotal scene, Emmet explains how rules help build teamwork, efficiency and the ability to meet objectives.
And then there’s this bit:
Here’s the book version:
Inside the cloud was the strangest place Emmet had ever seen. There were swirly buildings and plants that weren’t shaped like anything Emmet had ever seen before. Weird creatures, bizarre robots, and crazy animals were dancing all around, enjoying their bizarre surroundings. “O-kaaay …” Emmet said, taking it all in. “So this is Cloud Cuckoo Land. That makes sense.”
“Hiiii!” An adorable unicorn-kitten hybrid bounced over to them. “I am Princess UniKitty, and I welcome you all to Cloud Cuckoo Land!”
“I’m just gonna come right out: I have no idea what’s going on or what this place is. At all.” Emmet’s eyes were wide with amazement as he looked first at UniKitty, and then at all the other crazy characters and swirly kaleidoscopes whirling around them. “There’s no signs on anything! How does anyone know what not to do?”
“Well, we have no rules here. There is no government, no bedtimes, no baby-sitters, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind,” explained UniKitty.
Wyldstyle put her hands on her hips. “You just said the word no, like, a thousand times.”
UniKitty smiled at her sweetly. “And there’s also NO consistency.”
“I hate this place,” Batman moaned.
“So do you guys have laws here or building codes or gravity?” Emmet asked.
“Any idea is a good idea,” UniKitty continued. “Except the not-happy ones. Those you push down deep inside where you’ll never, ever, ever, EVER find them” She began to get upset, but then just as quickly went back to her adorable self again.
This was such a fantastic critique of modern “tolerance” culture and such a good, if odd, defense of natural law that I had to check if Robby George had helped out on the screenplay. (Negative.) Since I used scare quotes there, I have to mention a favorite line from the movie. President Business responds to Emmet and uses “air quotes.” He goes on to say something like, “Did you see the quotation marks? The quotation marks mean I don’t believe you.” Perhaps journalists will stop scare-quoting those civil libertarians with whom they disagree!
A Film For All People, With A Special Message For Authority Figures
Even though the film is a 100-minute commercial for a business, it’s also an ad for personal responsibility, individual choice, meaningful work, natural constraints, the dignity of the individual and the fight against a government that desires control of the lives of citizens. Its message about heroism being based in creativity, hard work, and resourcefulness — not superpowers — is deeply unifying.
Ultimately, though, the movie’s meaning is in taking abstractions about freedom and control and making them deeply personal. See, it’s not just government officials and corporate executives who micromanage and dictate — out of fear or a desire for control. Parents do it, too. As do spouses, girlfriends and boyfriends, friends, neighbors, teachers and everyone else. The profound message of “The Lego Movie” is that we all have a bit of President Business in us, no matter our particular vocation. What makes “The Lego Movie” so poignant is that it helps each of us internalize the importance of celebrating freedom — sure, within constraints — in each of our stations in life.