I thought I knew what people like about The Lego Movie. I saw Wall-E and Toy Story and enjoyed their substantive messages, and their occasional one-liners that “only an adult would understand.” Still, those films were created primarily for kids, and say very little about the state of contemporary culture. In fact, until I saw The Lego Movie, I didn’t think a kid’s movie could say much about the way we live now. But when I saw it, I realized that its unconventional form is exactly what makes it such a representative postmodern and millennial film.
In the film, Will Ferrell voices President Business, the president of the “Octan Corporation and the world.” President Business represents a fascinating (and often hilarious) vision of the increasing incest between politics, media and consumerism. In his first appearance, he is presiding over the production of a TV show, signing autographs, approving a new PR campaign for “Taco Tuesdays” and signing legislation, all while walking to his office.
President Business has created a world in which every aspect of society is unabashedly designed to perpetuate consumerism, which one might call the media-industrial complex. He has kidnapped all of the “master builders,” those who are capable of building things without instructions, and forces them to churn out the blueprints for his profit-making empire. These master builders are eerily reminiscent of many of our culture’s most popular artists, who are increasingly becoming ambassadors of consumerism, like Bob Dylan in his recent Super Bowl ad. The regime’s theme song, “Everything is Awesome,” and its most popular TV show, “Where are my pants?” feel like only slightly exaggerated versions of our most blatantly commodified attempts at culture.
An underground resistance to President Business’s regime emerges, similar to that depicted in The Matrix trilogy. However, unlike the stoic intensity of Neo and Morpheus, the resistance group in The Lego Movie displays a veritable exposé of millennial sensibilities. One character, for example, continuously and self-consciously changed her name in her youth before finally settling on Wyldstyle, because it truly represented her. Members of the resistance also deliver a constant stream of ironic one-liners that are funny in a markedly different way from the occasional appeals to adults in a film like Toy Story. Meritocracy, creativity, and individuality are also important characteristics of this group. In fact, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller capture young people’s ways of communicating perhaps even more accurately in this film than they did in 21 Jump Street, a perceptive and brilliant work in its own right.
But what are Lord and Miller saying by presenting the resistance movement, with its millennial sensibilities, in direct opposition to President Business and the media-industrial complex? On the surface, it would appear that these two entities and the ways of living they represent are fundamentally at odds, simply in terms of what they value and how they communicate.
Yet, the film’s live action scenes straddle the line between touching and absurd, featuring a father (played by Will Ferrell) who has constructed an elaborate Lego world, and his son, who has created the resistance narrative, and emphasizing the futility of this generational struggle.
Someday, millennials will control the world created by our “ridiculous” parents. Significantly, the filmmakers don’t tell us whether we have the capacity to fundamentally change anything about our world, even after we take control. The characters in the resistance are remarkably superficial, and appear deeply indoctrinated into certain aspects of the media-industrial complex, with the exception of their disdain for President Business himself. This observation leads me to believe that after President Business’s downfall, creativity and originality will continue to be commodified, but in a subtler way, thus perpetuating consumerism with a gentler hand.
The question, then, is, if this is what Lord and Miller were trying to say, why do it in a kid’s movie about Legos? As for the Legos, perhaps we are entering a trans-human era of culture, in which non-human entities are better allegorical tools than real humans. The choice of medium, on the other hand, seems to be an ironic statement in itself. Millennial exceptionalism can be viewed as a child’s exploration of an absurd grown-up world controlled by systems that can be hard to take seriously.
Ben Schneider is a freshman majoring in international relations and English. His blog, “The Way We Live Now,” runs Tuesdays.