Waiting for Lego
by Umapagan Ampikaipakan
All of us, regardless of when or where we were born, are intimately familiar with the sharp and searing pain that only a 2×4 Lego brick can bring. When embedded in the soft soles of our feet, those kaleidoscopic building blocks inspire little more than an outburst of some very colourful language.
My childhood home was a health hazard. Every room littered with Lego bricks. Of all sizes and colours. In every nook and cranny. Under couch cushions and behind armoires. It’s floors indelibly imprinted by blood stained circles within squares. I grew up with Lego. I bought into the hype. I believed the marketing. All of that jazz about inspiration and invention and creation. About the only limit being that of our imagination. I believed it then. And I believe it now. Even though all I ever build are spaceships.
I am a fan. It is a point that needed to be made for reasons of full disclosure. In order to make clear whatever bias I may have had when walking in to watch The Lego Movie in cinemas last week.
Now make no mistake, The Lego Movie is a two hour technicolour toy commercial with enough whoops, zips, and bangs to sell millions of dollars in merchandise. It is loud. It is psychedelic. It is meticulously detailed. It is chock so full of pop-culture references that it feels like it was written by two guys shackled in a room for months on end with nothing but 80s cartoons and Lucky Charms.
It is also the most subversive film you will see this year.
On the surface, The Lego Movie doesn’t look like it’s breaking any new ground.
Emmett Brickowski (enthusiastically voiced by Chris Pratt) is your average guy, with an average job, living in an average world. He is the perfect neighbour. He is the perfect worker. He is the perfect citizen. Never, ever, breaking away from the instructions that have been so painstakingly laid out for him. Every once in a while he wonders if there is more to life, but such thoughts are quickly banished by the hypnotic techno rhythms of a piece of propaganda music that reminds him – and the world – “that everything is awesome, that everything is cool when you’re part of a team.” But then, late one night, deserted by his workmates, Emmett meets a pretty girl named Wyldstyle, he finds a mysterious object called The Piece of Resistance, becomes the object of prophecy, and sets out to save the world from the evil Lord Business.
It is, in fact, every summer movie you’ve ever seen. Ever. A story about an ordinary guy who learns he’s the chosen one, who saves the world by breaking the rules, with plenty of heavy-handed preaching about how all of us are special and can rise to greater heights if we just unlock our true -but hidden – potential. It is Avatar. It is The Matrix. It is Star Wars. It is The Wizard of Oz. It is Groundhog Day. It is The Lion King. It is The Hobbit. It is all of those things. But it isn’t, in any way or form, derivative.
Because The Lego Movie is, above all else, a send-up of all of those things. Because it isn’t enough that Emmett is special, it isn’t enough that Tony Stark is Iron Man, he also has to be a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” he also has to be “the smartest, most talented, most interesting person in the world.” And if prophecy says so then so it shall be.
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Departure. Initiation. Return. A rejection of the comfortable, known world, an initiation into a new level of awareness, skill, and responsibility, and then a return home. The Lego Movie takes Joseph Campbell and tears him apart. The Lego Movie takes every summer blockbuster you’ll see this year and tears it apart. The Lego Movie tears itself apart.
It struggles with the dichotomy of free play versus instructional building. It toys with questions of commercialism. It makes fun of the monomyth, relentlessly mocking the hero’s journey, only to return to it in the end and reinforce the power of the individual. There is even a moment in the film, when the token female character – beautiful, talented, and the object of desire – disappointedly states that she really wanted to be the chosen one. But of course she can’t. Not here. Not on our screens. Not in Hollywood. The most she can ever aspire to be is Gwyneth Paltrow at the end of Iron Man 3. It is as sharp a critique of big-budget storytelling that you’ll ever get from cinema – animated or otherwise.
The Lego Movie isn’t just one long obeisance at the altar of Lego. It isn’t even an exercise in nostalgia. It is instead a masterclass in satire and sedition. Executed with so much sincerity that you can’t help but be subverted.
*This article also appears in Popadom. Umapagan Ampikaipakan’s fortnightly column in #edGY.