Why is The Lego Movie pushing anti-capitalist propaganda?

The villain is named Lord Business, a man who hates “hippie-dippy stuff” and thunders over Bricktown, where the workers drink Over-Priced Coffee™. No wonder Fox News declared the film “anti-capitalist”.

This piece originally appeared at newrepublic.com

In his seminal 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter wrote that “paranoid” was the only word adequate to describe the “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” possessed by the extreme actors of the American Right. I had that in mind when I went to see The Lego Movie to investigate Fox Business’s claim that the film was “anti-capitalist” and “pushing its anti-business message to our kids,” expecting to roll my eyes over yet another witch-hunt. 

But I’ll concede this for once in my life: In a sense, Fox was right.

The Lego Movie follows the adventures of Emmet Brickowski, a construction-worker Lego figurine completely devoid of original thoughts or interests. Consequently, he’s the ideal citizen of Bricktown, a Huxleyesque city governed by explicit behavioral instructions issued by corporate oligarch Lord Business – or “President Business,” as he’s known to the sheeple. Everything changes when Emmet finds a bizarre, distinctly un-Lego-like red artifact that makes him “the special,” a savior destined by prophesy to thwart Lord Business’ plans to freeze the world with Krazy Glue. The second and third acts ensue, wherein Emmet joins a cast of Lego-ised pop culture characters on a journey to fulfill that prophesy – which, spoiler alert, is ultimately revealed to be a stand-in for a dispute playing out between a live-action child and the real “President Business,” his anal-retentive father who wants to glue his “adult models” into permanent perfection. 

It’s true: The Lego Movie is pointedly critical of late capitalism consumer culture. The villain is named Lord Business, after all; he hates “hippie-dippy stuff.” The inhabitants of Bricktown drink Over-Priced Coffee™. The film’s anthem is theBrave New World-ish “Everything Is Awesome.” The archetypical proletariat protagonist, the climactic class revolt, the laughable “relics” made from middle-class waste – The Lego Movie lays it on so heavy, even a five-year-old would get the drift. I suppose that’s the point, and explains how the folks at Fox picked up on it. But this is a film which, among other things, features Lego Abraham Lincoln piloting a jet-fueled rocket chair out of a meeting with Batman, Gandalf, and a robot pirate. Subtlety isn’t quite the point. But even more cartoonish is a world where full-grown adults devote ostensibly serious news time to decrying a children’s movie. And that, more than capitalism itself, is precisely what The Lego Movie is attacking. 

Furthermore, corrosive bourgeois sentiment isn’t alone among The Lego Movie’s“targets,” if we can even use so serious a term for objects of ridicule in a children’s film. In its trim hundred minutes, the movie manages to assault an impressive array of cultural bull’s eyes, from academic think tanks (literally manifest as the best and the brightest with tubes plugged in their heads, threatened with electroshock if they fail to produce whatever new ideas are demanded of them), to film tropes in general (“it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true”), and even Lego’s own legacy of long-forgotten trend products made embarrassing by time, like theShaquille O’Neal figurine. And the politics are hardly one-sided: “Cloud Coo-Coo Land,” an aptly named locale for perpetual-rainbow dance parties and an explicit ban on negative thoughts (which must be “pushed deep down, where you’ll never, ever find them”), makes a mockery of those all-too-familiar Facebook liberals whose politics seems best expressed by cat GIFs and conflict aversion. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, we should remember that this movie cannot possibly be anti-capitalist. Beneath the satire, after all, is a feature-length toy commercial for a ubiquitous plastic product valued at $14.6 billion. The film was produced by a major studio, banked $69 million in its opening weekend, and already has a video game tie-in available on Amazon. Even in the film itself, the profit motive isn’t seriously at risk. If it were, then perhaps The Lego Movie would end with the overthrow of President Business and the installation of a socialist utopia, or – in the “real world” where the Legos are revealed to exist – a moralising replacement of the Lego models with some environmentally friendly hemp dolls and an illustrated kids edition of Chairman Mao’s The Little Red Book.

But that isn’t what happens. Despite Fox’s claims, the function of capitalism in our society isn’t the target of The Lego Movie. Lord Business isn’t so-called or so-hated because he’s “the head of a corporation where they hire people” and “[people] feed their families” – he’s called that because he’s the projection of a young boy whose obsessive-compulsive father wears a tie and does some kind of business-y job that, being ten years old, the kid doesn’t have a more precise word for. He’s hated because he’s a boorish control freak spoiling his son’s attempt to have fun with Legos. The kid isn’t upset that his dad pays employees a wage for their labor, he’s upset that his father is so fixated on his paranoid need to make everything the way it’s “supposed to be” and so self-conscious about any questioning of his “adult” use of the toys that he’s going to literally glue them in place, preventing his child from using his imagination again. 

This movie isn’t revolutionary; at bottom, it’s more about empathy than politics. President Business is a villain because despite having everything, his overwrought sense of victimhood transforms him into a caricature of megalomania at even slightest hint of criticism. That sort of privilege-blind persecution complex is the real target of The Lego Movie’s scorn, and ironically, Fox’s full-scale meltdown over its “anti-capitalist” message is a pretty good case-in-point. 

Emmett Rensin is an author, essayist, and political activist in Chicago, Illinois. His previous work has appeared in USA Today, Salon, The Los Angeles Times opinion blog, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He can be found on Twitter at@revemmettrensin.

This piece originally appeared at newrepublic.com

 

Emmet Brickowski, The Lego Movie's proletariat protagonist. Image: Warner Bros.
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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred