The Lego Movie and the Gospel of the Creative Class


Any parent who has ever stepped on one of the wonderful Danish bricks known as Legos might find their faith in karma reaffirmed by The Lego Movie. Indeed, a reasonable observer could not be blamed for doubting that a film adaptation of a toy could be hailed by critics as “the first fantastic movie of 2014,” or as “wickedly smart” with “a joyous wit.”  Yet this is what the Lego company—and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller—have given us as payback for all those hurt feet: a fresh, dizzying, and audacious animated film about interlocking blocks and anonymous minifigurines.

Of course, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies gave us plenty of reason to doubt the premise of toy-as-movie, just as other such Hollywood gimmicks as video-game-as-movie (Lara Croft) and storybook-as-movie (Jumanji, Where the Wild Things Are) have also paid paltry dividends.  Then again, that was Michael Bay, and that was Transformers.  The latter’s slogan that there’s “more than meets the eye” is in fact misleading.  Beyond the car-robot-car-robot sequence of transformation, there’s not much there.  For my four-year-old nephew, a race car that turns into a dinosaur-robot is an almost irresistible proposal, but for the rest of it’s the epitome of a one-trick T-Rex.

Legos, though—Legos are different.  They were like Lincoln Logs zapped into the twentieth century and beyond.  They embodied the very schizoid dilemma that The Lego Movie attempts to explore: a kid can let her imagination run wild, piecing bricks and propellers and flowers into almost anything that can snap together; yet they also came in sets with instructions for how to assemble them into a predetermined shape.[1] They possess what new media scholars call a modular quality, in the sense that the components of any Lego structure can be pulled apart and rearranged in nearly infinite configurations.  In some ways, Legos were a post-Fordist toy for a pre-digital age, yet, as The Lego Movie itself shows, the conflict between order and anarchy, freedom and structure endures even as technology changes.

First things first: The Lego Movie is not a stop-motion animation film made with actual Legos, though it draws on countless classic Lego scenarios (space, the Old West) to plop them down in a far more plastic and flexible world of CGI wizardry.  The film follows the story of Emmet, one of the little yellow men who came with boxes of Legos.  He is the perfect, ordinary worker bee, who loves a moronic, universally beloved TV show that’s not too different from Two and Half Men or Rules of Engagement (Where’s My Pants?) and a chirpy dance-pop tune called “Everything Is Awesome!” (described by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir as “deliberately idiotic and insanely catchy”).  Emmet works as a construction worker in a land ruled by President Business, who enforces mandatory conformity and sends out demolition crews to destroy anything and everything “weird.”

Hold on for a second, though.  President Business?  The ruler of Bricksburg is in fact the evil Lord Business, a nefarious villain who wants to destroy the world with a super-powerful weapon called the Kragle on, of all days, Taco Tuesday.  Behind all this delirious silliness it is hard to miss the social and political implications of a cartoon where the primary antagonist is, simply, Business.  The oppressive rule of President Business requires that everyone like the same, dumbed-down popular culture, love their jobs, and avoid doing anything unusual.  His company, Octan, is a sort of Halliburton/GE full-spectrum corporate villain, with its hands in industries ranging from oil to media to, notably, voting machines.  The film dings our contemporary culture of self-improvement, as everyone carefully follows books of “instructions” to tell them “how to” do everything, while it also nods toward the post-9/11 surveillance state: Emmet remembers that if he sees anything “weird,” he should “say something.”  Sound familiar?

In a country like the United States, where elections were bought and sold even before the Supreme Court allowed a nearly unlimited spigot of corporate money into the political system, a film that pits the good guys against President Business is an unexpected delight.  We are, as Noam Chomsky has said for years a “business-run society,” and, as the historian Richard Hofstadter concluded in his survey of US political history, Americans have ultimately deferred to the interests of private property and liberal capitalism more often than not (except for the occasional populist disruption, as in the 1890s or 1930s).  More recently, President Obama has been scored for not catering to the interests of “business” enough, even as he saved Wall Street and a number of the nation’s biggest banks and corporations from utter ruin.  In America, Business is indeed President—and possibly Lord.

Yet The Lego Movie is about more than this sneakily subversive premise about corporate domination.  It mostly centers on a more familiar target of satire: the suffocating effects of mass consumerism.  Emmet is happy to go about his day, consuming President Business’s obnoxious pop music, lowest-common-denominator sitcoms, and overpriced coffee.  (His living room has a poster for “A Popular Band.”)  The culture industries in corporate capitalism tend toward producing as standardized and universally accessible product as possible—a critique as old as Adorno, and not especially fresh in the twenty-first century.


What sets The Lego Movie apart is its implicit message about creativity, not just its critique of conformity.  Emmet soon learns that he is “the Special,” the “greatest, most interesting, most important person in the world” (a nod to Dos Equis?).  Because he has stumbled upon “the Piece of Resistance”—one of the film’s most delightful in-jokes—he has been anointed as the one who will save the world from the repressive rule of Business.  Helping him are Wild Style (Elizabeth Banks), a cyberpunk hipster, and the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), along with a  motley crew of “Master Builders” who have had to go into hiding because President Business opposes their freewheeling creativity and unwillingness to follow the rules.

Among the Master Builders are Batman, a boastful, brooding narcissist voiced in a hilariously husky turn by Will Arnett.  Superman turns in a brief cameo, while Green Lantern’s pop cultural stock continues its long, slow, seemingly inevitable slide (thanks a lot, Ryan Reynolds), as comic book fans in the audience get to snicker at the green also-ran’s lame attempts to hang out with cool characters like Supes and Bats.  There’s also room for William Shakespeare (doing the worm, no less), Gandalf and Dumbledore (“It’s Dumbledore, not Double-door!”), Lando Calrissian, and Shaquille O’Neal.

In true postmodern, Robot Chicken fashion, the film is a pop culture Cuisinart of near unstoppable amalgamating force.  The filmmakers chop up, slice and dice, and make thousands of julienne fries out of every bit of pop culture they can get their hands on; indeed, the cost of clearing intellectual property rights for the film would likely pay for the national budget of a small island nation many times over.

The film is also a giant remix in stylistic terms, a promiscuous melange of everything from Toy Story to Star Wars (Emmet is clearly Luke, and Business resembles Darth Vader), The Truman Show to The Matrix.  Throughout, The Matrix allusions are inescapable; Emmet is Neo and Vitruvius is Morpheus, the Magical Negro/John the Baptist character.  When the Master Builders are captured, Business locks them up in a massive storage facility that looks exactly like the towering rows of pods in which the evil computers in The Matrix sapped humans of their life juices while keeping their consciousness locked up in a virtual reality simulation.

The Lego Movie is indisputably a spirited volley against corporate culture in general, but also of the culture industries themselves.  “Send in the micromanagers!” President Business announces, and hordes of flying robots swoop in to destroy anything creative or unusual, evoking both Bill Lumbergh of Office Space and the flying monkeys The Wizard of Oz.  The massive, high-tech prison where the Master Builders are confined is known, intriguingly, as the Think Tank.  Here, President Business exploits the minds of his super-creative prisoners to create the boring, coercive instruction books that tell the citizens of Bricksburg how to do absolutely everything in their lives.

The role of the Master Builders in the narrative becomes increasingly clear as the film progresses.  They are the renegades—not only the nonconformists but the truly original and talented people.  Their autonomy and freedom to create is constantly circumscribed by the OCD tendencies of President Business, who complains that he just wants people to stop messing with “my stuff” (i.e. everything).  In fact, he wants to shackle them and channel their creativity into making more oppressive crap.

They are, in essence, the “creative class” of Richard Florida.  As the sociologist-consultant argued in an influential 2002 book, this class is made up of people who are (surprise) “creative,” which encompasses “scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers and architects… nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts and other opinion-makers” as well as doctors, lawyers, information-technology professionals and many others.  What unites these disparate groups is that their work depends on their minds.  “Their property—which stems from their creative capacity—is an intangible because it is literally in their heads,” Florida says.

It is not just that they do “knowledge work” or rely on their brains, though.  What distinguishes these “creatives” from their inferiors in the working class or service class (think retail) is that they enjoy a high degree of autonomy and discretion in their work; a magazine editor must “exercise a great deal of judgment” to do his job, and a scientist will “perhaps try something radically new from time to time” if she is going to make a major breakthrough.  In Florida’s view, this on-the-job independence is quite different from the experience of a factory worker or low-level office employee, whose days are defined by highly routinized labor with little room for individual decision-making.[2]

In other words, creatives like the Master Builders flourish when they have a free hand to explore their imaginations—quite like the kid who is free to assemble Legos—while the working classes are more like Emmet and his drone-like fellow workers, who simply follow instructions.  Like Florida’s creative class, the Builders will lead the way into the future: a sort of Randian vanguard, but without all the solipsistic libertarian selfishness.  They are the outer to the inner of corporate culture, a revolutionary and disruptive force. (Here one thinks of Silicon Valley’s constant prattling about its ability to “disrupt” the old order by introducing technology as a new, unpredictable, and exogenous variable—often just for the hell of it.)

Of course, like most Hollywood product, the film plays fast and loose with both sides of the issue.  It does not necessarily celebrate the knowledge economy in the way Florida does, since it suggests that Business has placed all creative industries, such as music and TV, under the oppressive yoke of mindless conformity, not just the construction worker-bees. Meanwhile, it celebrates the capacity of ordinary Joe Schmoes to be “special” and creative too—a mash note for YouTube and iMovie as much as Lego, and a message that naturally glosses the way that new modes for democratizing creativity also become subject to capitalist discipline.  (For a prescient example, see Tiziana Terranova’s 2000 essay “Free Labor.”)

The film also sends an oddly contradictory message about mass culture.  A bland consumer like Emmet, whose mind has been dulled into an almost Zen-like state of emptiness, possesses the power to challenge the machine when the fractious creatives cannot. (The geniuses can’t work together.)  Is this bashing the actual audience for the film or celebrating them?  Both?  Neither?  And even as rebels like Wild Style and Batman are held up as creative iconoclasts, they have their foibles; the former is a pretentious hipster who doesn’t want to admit that she knows a popular song, and Batman is a conceited blowhard.

Reading too much into a cartoon about a toy might be silly, but the directors have clearly been given license (ha) to run relatively free with their film, and the meta twist at the end undoubtedly intends to invite metaphysical speculation.  Whatever its class politics, The Lego Movie is an exuberant and entertaining film about creativity—indeed, a celebration of imagination—that does for a tiny plastic brick what Scorsese’s Hugo tried to do for the art of film itself: invest it with a sense of wonder.  That the frontiers of freedom are defined by a corporation that makes little blocks in a certain range of shapes and colors remains a pesky fact.  But it’s a long way from Henry Ford’s Model T, which came in any color as long as it was black.

[1] Legos have recently gotten even more high-brow and model-plane-oriented, with pricey boxes that allow kids—though more likely adults—to build small plastic versions of masterpieces by Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright.

[2] Richard Florida, Rise of the Creative Class, 68-9.