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.