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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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times