The Lego Movie is really fun, and funny, and cute, and has a pretty reasonable couple of morals to impart about the importance of imagination and individuality, and it’s great, right? Just like the song says, everything is awesome.
Strip all that away, though, and what’s left? A gleaming toy commercial about that bewildering preoccupation of the American cinematic mindscape: the little boy who just wants to play catch with his dad.
Because what we don’t have enough of in kids’ movies (or movies full-stop) is a nuanced exploration of the burden of white male privilege.
That’s a deeply cynical way to look at a bit of light-hearted entertainment, isn’t it? The Lego Movie isn’t trying to do anything radical, anything game change-y. It’s just cute and quick and fun, and contains some gentle reassurances about how important it is to be yourself and have fun. That’s all any kids’ movie it trying to do, isn’t it? Stop overthinking things! Let’s all just take a deep breath and then laugh and hug and go eat cookies and not talk about anything.
Oh, pish posh. Let’s get talking. Hey, there are spoilers for the entire film below.
Let’s start with the boy and his dad narratives. I’ve mentioned before that these are just rife in entertainment. (Do genre films seem particularly fascinated with them?)
Whatever. The point is, these father/son narratives are all over the place. And, buried at the mushy core of The Lego Movie is another one: this time, it’s Will Ferrell who loved Lego when he was a kid and turned into a collector as an adult and now won’t let his adorable precocious son play with his carefully manicured Lego sets. ALSO in addition to playing Controlling Dad, he’s also (it’s implied) Distant Dad - he’s credited as ‘the man upstairs’ (a man with Godlike powers who is also physically distant, geddit?) and, also additionally, provides the voice over for Lord Business/President Business, the Lego universe villain, all of which suggests with the subtlety of a sledgehammer taking on a grape that Dad Isn’t Around Enough and Can’t Connect With His Son. And, indeed, the film’s plot revolves around the idea that the (imaginary) Lego universe in which the bulk of the movie takes place can only proceed once real-world father and son bond over their love of making awesome things out of tiny blocks that hurt when you step on them, barefoot, in the middle of the night when all you wanted was a glass of water and can’t you please put your goddamned toys away when you’re finished playing?
Let’s turn to gentle moral #2: individuality! The Lego Movie contains a laudable, if not wholly original, effort to reassure kids (and the rest of us) that it’s not only okay for kids to be little weirdos, but actually a world full of little weirdos is the best of all possible worlds. Everything is awesome when you’re true to yourself! Emmet starts the film as a nice, friendly but friendless (seriously; he has no friends), opinion-free construction drone; one of a million, an object a collector literally buys in bulk to fill up the background of a scene. Just as the kid/creator picks him out and gives Emmet personhood, making him the hero of his story, so does Emmet discovers his creativity and individuality and how those things are actually super awesome, and it’s all a lovely thinly-veiled metaphor for the kid who’s creating the entire story in his head, the way kids do. Ultimately real-world kid’s father realizes that imagination and creativity are what make the world a better place, which leads to their reconnection out in the real world and saves the day in Lego Universe world, and thus it all ties together very nicely.
Except that there’s already a creative character who’s striving for individuality in the film. And that character is Wyldstyle, one of only two main female characters in the entire film – the other being a unicorn-cat. (Wonder Woman sort of has a cameo, I guess). Wyldstyle is a ‘master builder’ – she’s incredibly inventive and can knock awesome Lego constructs together in, like, seconds. She’s unique. She’s constantly reinventing herself: we learn that she regularly renames herself, ‘Wyldstyle’ being only her most recent nom de guerre. And we learn that she wants to be a hero. She wants to make the world a better place.
And all of that, all of the fascinating questions of identity and agency her character sets up, are thoughtlessly swept away because Emmet thinks she’s cute and then falls over and discovers the thing that she’s been searching for which will save the world. Emmet gets the journey and the credit and the character growth and the gentle moral, and whenever Wyldstyle points that out, her concerns are ignored by everyone else because this isn’t her story, it’s Emmet’s story, and she’s just the love interest, in the end. Even her name, her glorious name which she gave herself, becomes a plot-point in Emmet’s story, when he keeps asking her what her ‘real’ name is because god forbid the way she introduces herself isn’t what’s on her Lego birth certificate, or something? The point being, the film which claims to be all about the value of the individual regularly undercuts the individuality of one of its most vibrant characters.
Wyldstyle’s ‘real’ name, by the way, is Lucy. We learn this during the emotional climax of the film, when Emmet and Wyldstyle literally and figuratively connect. Because renaming yourself is significant of ‘personal insecurity’ not, y’know, agency and individuality.
It’s just a name, right? How can it be that important? Because it’s her name that she gave herself. Why do you think God let Adam name the animals? Because names have power. And when you deny someone the name she has given herself, you deny her very personhood. You deny her the right to control what is, perhaps, the most fundamental aspect of her individuality.
Righty-o, then. What does the film have to say about heroism itself? Well, heroism is important. Sometimes you don’t chose to be a hero; heroism choses you. But then, after heroism choses you, you embrace your destiny (which was actually just made up by Morgan Freeman or something anyway, because the power was always within you) and chose to be a hero. Then you sing a song! That’s about as complicated as The Lego Movie’s interrogation of heroism gets, which is just as well. See, again, there are lots of characters in The Lego Movie who want to save the world. There’s an entire secret cabal dedicated to it! And then there’s Emmet, who literally falls into the job and eventually figures everything out and is the real hero. Or something? I don’t deny that Emmet’s complete uselessness is hilarious; it is. And many of the other ‘heroes’ are similarly useless, really. But, again, poor Wyldstyle (who is emphatically not useless) is left out in the cold; she’s legitimately really good at what she does and was all set to do what she had to do and make the sacrifices she had to make to save the world – which, in most cases, is considered pretty heroic stuff – and all that gets shunted aside the moment poor hapless Emmet falls down a hole and gets stuck to the lid of a tube of superglue.
That’s not to say that the way Emmet’s heroic journey is set up is itself fundamentally flawed. It’s not! It’s just that, when paired with Wyldstyle’s journey, one version of heroism can undercut the other. And, because The Lego Movie is about sad little boys who just want to hang out with their daddies, Wyldstyle’s heroism is the heroism that loses out. Accidents take precedence over acceptance; mischance over sacrifice.
But that’s all okay because the world is saved and Emmet is a fully-realized person and the father and son reconnect and Wyldstyle gets a real boyfriend by the end of the movie which is actually what she really wanted, right?