“The Lego Movie” is one long commercial
As a parent, it’s hard not to be cynical about children’s movies. In general, these films are aimed at the parents as much as the kids, often filled with adult puns and knowing humor far over the heads of the supposed audience. A lot of the animated fare that finds its way into the multiplex straddles the line between audiences, many times erring too far on the side of adult entertainment.
Then, of course, there is the inevitable media bombardment, with constant advertisements for toy tie-ins and McDonald’s Happy Meals. These films seem to be made for the sole purpose of encouraging children to nag their parents for more stuff. It’s been this way since I was a child, and if anything, the movies have at least improved in quality. Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how far Hollywood will go to combine advertisement with entertainment. Enter “The Lego Movie.” This is a film that is well made, funny—but completely cynical at the same time. Whether it’s intentionally as meta as it appears is up for debate, but make no mistake, the criticisms made about American consumerism in the subtext are abundantly on display in the film’s actual purpose. “The Lego Movie” is one long, high-quality commercial, chock-full of nostalgia and devoid of real heart.
The story takes place in the Lego world, where everyone is virtually the same. Everything comes with instructions, from where to eat, what to listen to, and how to make friends. The hero, Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a generic construction worker who finds himself inexplicably in a race against time to save the world from the evil President Business (Will Ferrell). Business wants to make everything uniform, using a ultimate superweapon (known to us as Krazy Glue) to freeze the world in place, exactly as it’s meant to be. On the opposite side is the rebel faction of Master Builders, who want to construct their own world as they see fit. It’s an argument over order vs. chaos, adulthood vs. childhood, black vs. white.
Of course, this is as complicated as the film gets and on the whole it works well for a children’s movie. Much of the film is told through what one would assume is the eyes of a very creative and clever child, with random plot points and silly asides. At the same time, the film wants to make jokes about Starbucks and pop music and suburban living, laughing at the boredom inherent in everyone being the same. But it’s the subtext beneath the subtext that is so fascinating.
The movie is an advertisement for Legos, plain and simple. They want you to buy their play sets, play their video games, and visit their theme parks. They cleverly list the sets they have available for purchase in the narrative of the film, including several outdated sets that I have no doubt will soon have a re-issue. Despite the fun story, despite the humor, despite the undertone of creativity, it’s important to remember that Lego has one goal. That goal is to remind the audience that it doesn’t matter how you play with Legos, as long as you play with Legos. Buy these toys and you’ll have as much fun as the characters on screen.
More telling is how engaged I was in the film until the end (spoilers ahead—skip to the end if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to). This is a really fun film that pulled me into the narrative and held my attention very well. When the narrative revealed itself as a frame story, my perspective suddenly changed. As the camera panned out to reveal the basement of Will Ferrell’s character, I felt like I’d been had. I remembered that the movie is based on toys, toys that cost money. In some cases, these toys cost a lot. The price of admission for my family would only buy a small set of Legos for my son. I realized that someone would have to be Will Ferrell to have such a large a collection. My investment in the film never recovered, and I spent the remainder of the movie noting one reminder after another that it was just propaganda for a toy company. If anything, that realization was the most entertaining part of the film.
I understood what I was paying for at the outset; I’m fairly savvy as a consumer and movie-goer. It was a chance to do something with my family for an hour and a half, something flashy and colorful to distract my four year old for a few minutes. But I wasn’t prepared for the self-aware contradiction that is “The Lego Movie.” It would be an excellent discussion piece for a media studies class. The film is an example of why cynicism and realism are often the same thing.