LEGO, Devo, and Mass-Produced Humanity: The LEGO Movie
Kevin Christensen | On Feb 25, 2014
Anyone who has ever gotten a LEGO set knows that when you first pull the pieces out of the box, you have two options: You can follow the instructions or you can build something else entirely. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller understand the rules of playtime. Thanks to them, The LEGO Movie is packed wall to wall with clever humor and tractor loads of good fun.
Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation embodies Emmet Brickowoski, a lovable yet simpleminded everyman (everyminifigure?) who loves his life, enjoys his friends, and always follows the instructions. But the attentive viewer will notice that behind the cheery primary colors and peppy attitude, there’s something distinctly Orwellian about this LEGO world. Everyone has the same morning routine, the same favorite song, the same positive outlook. Maybe its because they are LEGOs, you think to yourself. You can’t expect LEGOs to have that much personality. Anyways, thanks to a prophecy, a call to adventure, and a white-bearded mentor named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman of course), the film is soon dutifully following the instructions for your basic Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey. Or is it?
This is where Devo comes in. That’s right. You heard me.
Devo, the kitsch-sci-fi rock group from the 80s led by Mark Mothersbaugh has always been known for its deadpan surrealist humor and biting social satire. Their 2010 album ‘Something for Everybody’ is no different. Alongside catchy upbeat electronic music, Mark and his team sing robotically about their fast-food pop-culture driven dystopia that they live in. Personality is minimized and people are likened to rockets on a collision course for their pre-programmed targets. Do they live in the future or the present? It’s impossible to tell.
During the build up to the release of ‘Something For Everybody’, Devo sardonically put a billboard up in Waco, Texas that “had been designed using focus groups to determine what everybody would like”. The focus groups reported that people like: The color blue, soft textures, family comfort, and sexiness. Not surprisingly (and intentionally so), the result was rather hideous — a woman in a swimsuit sticking halfway out of a blue gelatinous Devo pyramid, with a happy family looking on from their couch. The subtitle: “This is something for everybody.”
I suppose it should have not come as a surprise to me when the credits of The LEGO Movie rolled to reveal that the very same Mark Mothersbaugh was the film’s composer. And also not surprisingly, the land Emmet lives in reflects our own; the dumb tv shows, the generic yet addictive pop songs, and the overpriced coffee that we all buy anyway. All things that can become our sedentary comforts, prompting us to never look for another option.
But what about that time when we were kids and we chose NOT to follow the instructions? No, we’ve all grown up and have jobs now — there is no time for experimenting. Best just conform to the familiar pattern. It’s the safe thing to do. It’s also the method adopted by the film’s villain, President Business. He wants things to be just the way he likes them, without anyone else messing it all up. “All I’m asking for is total perfection” he declares. And so his domain is populated by lemmings who all live the same lives and have just enough perks to keep them ignorant and happy as they follow his instructions to build his world for him.
There is a lyric from Devo’s song ‘No Place Like Home’ that reads “We are creating a brand new world around us / We are creating a brand new world without us.” It seems particularly poignant in this case — when everything is made for everybody, personality disappears and creativity is squashed.
Themes in The LEGO Movie are similar, which could have something to do with directors Lord and Miller’s longtime collaboration with Mark Mothersbaugh. But these ideas actually flow naturally from the very fact that LEGO minifigures ARE mass produced, and there are literally millions of identical plastic persons that populate its sets. The director duo were smart to turn to the ideas of conformity and creativity, as these seem to be the yin and yang of the LEGO world.
But amidst the social satire, they never stop having fun with it all — after all, LEGOs are about having fun and being creative. In the world of this film, the minifigure creations seem to be made in the image of their creators — they too have the creative spark. In fact, their heroes are the ‘master builders’ — those who are so creative they can build anything out of literally anything. But they underestimate President Business — who would commit the unthinkable to keep everything just the way he wants it.
However, just when all of the thematic subtext is screaming out that authority figures stifle creativity and rebels are to be glorified, the film takes a rather brilliant turn into something deeper and more thoughtful. Yes, and just when you forgot that this is a film about children’s toys. The aforementioned Devo song intones “Can’t have a rainbow without the rain / can’t have a payday without the pain” and ends with the line repeated over and over, “And there’s no place like home to return to.” The meaning is clear as it is in the final act of the LEGO movie — home and family and simple acts of love can transcend our mass-produced humanity, and a selfless act shines so much more brightly than clinging to ourselves.
Kevin Christensen is an award-winning director and writer. His work online with New Renaissance Pictures and WebSerials.com was called by YouTube “some of the best dramas the web has to offer.” His passion is exploring the variegated aspects of visual, narrative, and non-narrative storytelling in different mediums from animation to feature films to television and documentary.