The LEGO Movie's Lessons for Public Life

The Lego Movie is many great things. An expansive epic complete with opening scene prophecy. A powerful and moving story of sacrifice and redemption. A brilliant cultural critique of reality TV, think-tanks, over-priced coffee and pop music (you’re singing “Everything is Awesome” aren’t you?)

It’s a classic romance (Boy meets girl, boy loses girl to Batman, boy gets girl) and a superbly animated and voiced film, including the voices of Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Chris Platt, and Will Farrell, among others.

The story centers around Emmett (voiced by Chris Platt) a “completely ordinary” citizen of Bricksville who (very accidently) obtains the “Piece of Resistance” the block spoken of in the prophecy, the one block that can stop the most powerful weapon in the universe – the Kragle.

In this LEGO universe there are many worlds and in the beginning “all the people of the universe were once free to travel and mingle and build whatever they wanted.” The LEGO universe consisted of a diversity of inter-connected worlds, and the creative diversity of the people.

But Lord/President Business (Will Farrell) saw this as chaos and so began to impose conformity on the worlds, erecting walls between them and hunting down those creative builders with different beliefs to him (the MasterBuilders). He stole the Kragle with the intention of enforcing conformity with his vision and banishing diversity.

So instead of multiple worlds or spheres, each with a distinct and important part to play connected together and so facilitating the diversity and creativity of all - Lord Business seeks ultimate authority over all worlds and seeks to impose conformity with his structure on everyone.

Emmett, grappling with his new identity, newfound powers and his destiny is guided by a wise old wizard – Gandalf, no, Dunbledore, no, Vitruvius, that’s it, voiced by Morgan Freeman. Together with WildStyle (Elizabeth Banks) and Batman (Will Arnett) they set out on their quest.

They face off against Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) and Lord Business with his diabolical “relics,” including the infamous “Cloak of Ban Da’id” which I can attest causes the wearer great pain when removed.

So how does any of this relate to real life, to contemporary society?

I think perhaps in three ways.

First, the film gives us two differing attitudes towards diversity. The first view holds that diversity is a bad thing, that different parts of our lives, different “worlds” should be kept separate by walls.

It holds that conformity should be enforced, by subtle means like cultural homogeneity or by mythic super weapons if necessary.

You may think this is not an issue for us today, but think about the wall of separation we most often talk about in the public square? The one Jefferson erected, and many today still see as sacrosanct, the one between the “world” of religion and the “world” of government.

Think about the ubiquitous OcTan cooperation’s promotion of conformity through music and TV and think about real life Hollywood’s zeal for conformity to its ideas of sexual behavior and identity.

Think about the way Lord Business hunts down the MasterBuilders, those with different beliefs to him and think about all the different groups (including Christians) who have tried to impose conformity of belief over the years.

Instead, we need authentic diversity that upholds both the varied dimensions of human life, each with its own set of responsibilities (e.g. the LEGO worlds) and the diversity of beliefs people hold (e.g. the LEGO builders). Only with both these sides of diversity can human beings truly flourish.

Second, the LEGO movie shows us that neither collectivism nor individualism provide helpful models for upholding this authentic diversity.

The film explicitly, highlights the dangers of one man having authority and power over all the others and enforcing conformity. Yet, more subtly, the film critiques individualism and the idolatry of freedom we are all prone too. As you’re watching the earlier parts of the film you may be tempted to think that the message is one of individual liberty, of unfettered freedom of expression and pursuit of self-interest.

But that idea is dispelled as the fellowship escapes the demise of the realm that represents that individualistic view, Cloud Cuckoo Land. They construct a submarine to escape, with each making a distinct contribution authentic to who they are (Batman notes he only works in black … or sometime s very dark gray) while working together on a single submarine.

The LEGO movie both upholds diversity and extols cooperation – in a way that tries to avoid both the dangers of collectivism (Lord Business) and the dangers of individualism (Cloud Cukoo Land).

Lastly, the film helps us discover anew that the “specialness” of each and every person, comes from their existence not their utility. It is all LEGO men and women, not just the “useful” MasterBuilders who are special.  Human dignity in not some abstract principle, but a “life disposition” that sees all people, whether in the womb or the hospice or wherever, as valued, purely because of their existence, not their utility.

Some of the most pressing questions we face as a country over the next decades will have to do with how we live together in light of our deep differences – and the LEGO movie affirms that life is multi-dimensional and interconnected, that authentic diversity is important, that both collectivism and individualism both diminish human potential, and that every person is “The Special” are all eminently worth remembering as we participate in public life.

And of course finally, that everything is awesome ….

-Peter Mitchell is the Director of Communications at the Center for Public Justice