“The LEGO Movie: Art, Toy Commercial, or Both?” asks a three-way conversation posted at The Dissolve today, and they’re not the only ones arguing over the import of the block-built blockbuster, which surpassed strong tracking estimates to take in nearly $70 million in its opening weekend. Critics, including this one, were already making grandiose claims for its importance — not to mention its general awesomeness — but now that it’s enshrined as the year’s first critical and commercial smash (sorry, Ride Along), a second wave of essays is gathering, focused less on proclaiming what Genevieve Koski calls the film’s “everything-is-awesomeness” and what it means to have the banner of individuality flown by a movie that began as a tool to sell blocks. “Speaking as a parent,” The Dissolve’s Keith Phipps says:
[I]t most immediately made me look forward to the day my kid is old enough for real Lego toys and not mere Duplo toys (which are referenced hilariously). That means the movie worked brilliantly as a commercial, I suppose, but it never felt like a commercial. Like the Toy Story films, it shows how toys stoke kids’ imaginations and lets those imaginations travel to places beyond the apparent limits of the toys themselves. The way the story keeps changing on the fly give it a kid logic.
The headline to Alyssa Rosenberg’s ThinkProgress essay calls The LEGO Movie “an amazing critique of American mass culture,” including but not limited to the idea that creativity is limited to a select few.
In the LEGO world, Emmet’s adventures bust President Business’ monopoly control of creativity, and blows up the idea that you have to have any particular abilities to become a MasterBuilder. Given the opportunity, everyone is awesome. In the live-action segments of the movie, the young boy reminds his father that they’re both capable of building extraordinary things, and that his father’s static vision of his dream universe isn’t the only way for something to be exceptional and fascinating. In a nice twist, and an important comment on the terrible state of gender equality in the entertainment industry, the father tells his son that he can’t just give the little boy a chance to play. They have to invite his younger sister down into the basement, too: the movie ends with her creations from the Planet Duplo mounting an invasion of Bricksburg.
But at Reverse Shot, Adam Nayman isn’t buying it, or the idea that The LEGO Movie is substantially more than “a feature-length commercial that’s hip enough to kid its own product as part of the hard sell.”
I’d say it’s a fine irony that a movie so determined to satirically skewer groupthink has generated so much of it. Except that The Lego Movie isn’t all that subversive in the first place, notwithstanding its startling opening passages, where armies of little yellow men and women goose-step stiffly and happily through their flawlessly visualized CGI universe, an image to bring Busby Berkeley and Siegfried Kracauer to the edges of their seats.
His Reverse Shot colleague Julien Allen agrees, though his doubts are mitigated by the fact that “when we got home, my kids didn’t ask me to buy them a pirate ship or a Batmobile; they just dragged the box of old bits out from under the bed and got to work.”
If it begins by openly acknowledging (and satirizing) a Bernaysian utopia of a controlled consumer society — something, incidentally, that the kids of today know all about but the kids of yesterday didn’t — this broader social commentary soon gets jettisoned. In its place comes a demented odyssey which tips the wink to its intellectual property rights in a warm, sincere manner—we’re all in on the joke, but the joke is actually funny — and champions the merits of rebuilding and combining as opposed to shelving and purchasing.
What Nayman and Allen are wrestling with is essentially the dilemma explore in Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool: Once the rhetoric of rebellion becomes part of the lingua franca of advertising, it loses its power in a non-commercial context. If “Revolution” sells Nikes, what does yelling “Revolution!” do? There’s no easy way out of this conundrum: Reinvent the language, and you risk losing the ability to speak to a mass audience; accept the constraints that come with larger budgets and accept that, on one level, the house always wins.