The Power of a Building Block

The Power of a Building Block

Note: This post contains some major plot spoilers for The Lego Movie

When I was a kid, my brother and I had two boxes of treasure. You could run your hand through them and hear the clinking cascade, or grasp a fistful and watch the pieces fall through your fingers. So much opportunity, so much potential to work with.

One was a box of Playmobile, the other a box of Legos.

We spent many long, creative afternoons beside that Lego box, which represented a conglomerate of various sets collected over the years. Nothing stayed in its original state very long, but was sacrificed to the common hoard of building blocks. The results were wonderful and varied. A medieval castle might arise from the icy foundations of an arctic science laboratory. A pirate might don a space helmet (no wonder I love Firefly and Andy Osenga). Wild and incongruous creations emerged from our uninhibited eight-year-old minds.

And yet there was also something about coming home with a new box of Legos, watching the carefully packaged plastic bags plunk out onto the floor, along with that smooth blue booklet of instructions. We’d sit there with brows furrowed in concentration, trying to discern each step, not quite understanding how the awesome image on the front cover would emerge, but trusting that the master builders behind the plan knew what they were doing. And once the last piece clicked in, you’d have a sleek spaceship or a labyrinthine castle.

It was with nostalgia for this time of life that I  went to see The Lego Movie. It honestly wasn’t on my radar for must-see films in early 2014, although I do enjoy a good animated film. But then the highly positive reviews started rolling out. And then it got a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Seriously? That’s better than most of the Oscar-nominated films this year. Finally, I read this fantastic review by Jeffrey Overstreet and I knew I had to go.

They were right. The Lego Movie is a great film, filled with creative visuals, a clever sense of humor aimed at riffing pop culture clichés, and something I did not quite expect—a profound message about the nature of creativity itself.

The main character of the film, Emmet, is a bland cog in the machinery of the perfect world created by the evil Lord Business. He’s a construction worker who is used to following plans and rules, and he loves it. But through an accident he comes into contact with the mystical Piece of Resistance and the Master Builders, a group of brilliant individuals who stand against Lord Business and his inhibiting master plan of perfection, and believe Emmet is the Special who can defeat him. They are charismatic rebels, like goth girl WyldStyle, and Batman, each with their own genius level talents and skills.

Based on this premise, you’d expect such a film to work itself out in the following way: Emmet, through a series of tests and lessons with a wise old mentor (yes, there actually is one, played brilliantly tongue-in-cheek by Morgan Freeman), comes to realize that he really is the Special, unlocks his hidden abilities, and saves the day in heroic fashion. And while that sort of happens, there’s something much bigger going on in the story.

Our society exalts the Master Builders, the highly individualistic, creative geniuses like WyldStyle and Batman and Vetruvius and Superman. After all, who wants to be a boring old drone in the system?

But as Emmet points out at a crucial point in the film, they don’t know how to work together as a team. They are undisciplined and unorganized. In the end, it is not some untapped well of genius that Emmet accesses to save the day. It is his boring, cog-like ability to follow a plan that brings the team together and harnesses their abilities.

But what makes this story idea even more fascinating is the huge twist in the final act, which reveals that this story is the creation of a young boy playing with his father’s Lego collection in the basement. The father, played by Will Ferrell, is obviously the inspiration for the son’s Lord Business character (who Ferrell also voices). He sees the Lego city he has built as a world of detailed perfection, which must be kept that way by a generous application of super glue (which works out hilariously in one of the major plot devices). The son is of the Master Builder stripe. He sees all the potential fun and crazy ideas he can bring to life in his father’s world. But in watching the film we arrive at two realizations: the son can only create within what the father has already made, and the father realizes that the son has taken his world and made it even more amazing through his imagination, and relents on his drive for totalitarian perfection.

What we come to realize in watching the film is that we need both of these things in the world. We need the boring stability of the everyday, the organized structure of the plan. We need the wild, think-outside-the-box creativity of the charismatic individual. These things are not opposed to each other, but are designed to work in harmony The structure provides context for the artist, and the artist provides fresh meaning and perspective for the structure.

With the advent of this Father-Child relationship in the film, I would also dare say that we are approaching an analogy to the relationship of the divine and the human, the Creator and the creature. Jeffrey Overstreet has already made some fine points about this in his review. I will only add that in thinking more about the film, these two quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis came to mind:

“We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”)

“An author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” (C.S. Lewis)

For a film about a kid’s toy, The Lego Movie has some pretty deep things to say about our work in making the world. But considering the pure power of creativity offered to a child’s mind through a gleaming box of building blocks, that’s pretty appropriate after all.