Never before in history have liberal clichés about the evils and the rapacity of capitalism been combined so ironically as they are in The Lego Movie, a gargantuan triumph at the box office in its first weekend. This fast, flashy, colorful, and intermittently hilarious movie—from the writing-directing team that transmuted the 1990s teen-cop TV drama 21 Jump Street into a wild and funny 2012 comedy with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill—earned nearly $70 million.
Aside from the millions of tickets sold, every second of advertising, every poster, and every mention of The Lego Movie only serves to enhance the value of the Lego Corporation, whose worldwide sales in 2012 topped $4 billion. The company’s vice president for “global licensing and entertainment” said this to Businessweek: “A lot of people might think, ‘OK, this is all about them trying to sell the most toys.’ For us, this was always about building the Lego brand.”
All this in a film in which a character called President Business (also known as Lord Business) has totalitarian control over the moods and thoughts of every character and intends to destroy the world in a few days’ time.
The critics who like The Lego Movie—and that is most of them, as the movie has a head-spinning 96 percent “fresh” rating at the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes—have fallen over themselves to remark on its “subversive” qualities. By this they mean that though it may have been made by major multinational conglomerates, it somehow manages, without those conglomerates knowing it, to blow the whistle satirically on their soul-deadening conformist hypnosis. The reviewers seem to think that it’s a modern version of the Stalinist mural Diego Rivera painted in the lobby of Rockefeller Center—only rather than having it destroyed, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had it mass-marketed!
They’re suckers, the lot of them. The “subversive” message of The Lego Movie is really just part of the overall marketing strategy shared by the studio, the distributor, and Lego—the perfect way to ensure that a corporate product gets itself treated kindly by liberal critics as it attempts to break free of the limitations of its kiddie audience.
The goal, from the beginning, was to make a “four-quadrant movie”—appealing to: people under 25, people over 25, males, and females. Indeed, according to Businessweek, this is the third effort by Lego to make a major motion picture that could be released to theaters, as the two previous films (far more straightforward action adventures aimed at boys) did not have mass appeal and went straight to DVD, where they also made fortunes. Favorable reviews play a significant role, because they help make a kiddie movie not just a trial for parents, but something cool in and of itself. Creating “cool” is now the ultimate marketing challenge, because it’s not supposed to be something you can create—although, by now, that’s just part of the myth of cool itself.
So how does one do this with a movie about blocks and figurines? The solution writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller devised was to begin with the satire. The central character, Emmett, is a Lego “minifig” version of Winston Smith from 1984, trapped in an entirely cheery Oceania where everybody sings the same inane song (“Everything Is Awesome”), watches the same inane TV show (Where Are My Pants?), and thinks President Business is just the greatest guy, because he provides them with Taco Tuesdays. It’s capitalism at its most hypnotic!
After this, the plot gets crazily convoluted: Emmett is mistaken for a messiah-like figure, Batman and Wonder Woman show up, and President Business has a plan involving the use of something he calls Kragle, which, it turns out, is Krazy Glue.
Eventually, (spoiler alert) we learn that the entire adventure is actually taking place in the basement of a suburban house where a little boy wants to play with his father’s Lego city. Dad doesn’t want him to do so and intends to use the Krazy Glue to fix everything in place, thus denying his son the right to reassemble the figures.
“One of the great messages of the movie is that everybody can be creative and that there’s no wrong way to build with Lego,” its executive told Businessweek. “For us, that’s a really important message.”
Message received. Like Winston Smith, who loves Big Brother at the end of 1984, we love Lego. Only, for George Orwell, that was the ultimate horror; in The Lego Movie, that’s the ultimate point. The true subversion of The Lego Movie is its subversion of mindless anticapitalist showbiz liberals.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.