Political readings of ‘The Lego Movie’

As I return from my annual break on the sun-kissed shores of Cornwall, I worry that I have almost singularly failed to think about learning, teaching or any other aspect of my work. Moreover, by foregoing the opportunity to attend UACES’ annual conference in Cork I’ve also missed out on some great L&T papers that I could have discussed here. I’ve even missed out on the whole #APSAonFire thing (which sounded wild, BTW).

Of course I have Lego in my office. Don’t you?

But have no fear, but I now realise that you while can take the senior lecturer out of the university, you can’t take the etc., etc.

One of the joys of spending more time with the kids over the summer has been the excuse to watch more family-oriented movies (when the sun isn’t kissing the shores, obviously), and this year’s big hit chez nous has been the Lego Movie. It’s got jokes, 1980s references, double-decker couches and – as I remarked the first time I watched it – a great representation of fascism and challenges to authoritarian rule.

So, in the spirit of my Game of Thrones post, here are some further thoughts on how you might use the Lego Movie in the classroom to stimulate discussion. And yes, that is something I’m seriously considering doing.

First Reading: Power

The easiest way into the politics of the Lego Movie is its depiction of unlimited power. Lord Business is ‘ruler of the world’ and the whole movie concerns his plot to make everything conform to his ideal (spoiler: he fails). Through his co-option of the police (with their arbitrary justice), any nominal competitive electoral system (there are voting machines (which he makes) and he’s President), the media (which is awesome (a good discussion here)) and the economy (everyone seems to work for his Octan corporation), Business is able to shape and control society through all three of Lukes’ faces of power: imposing preferences (e.g. the Micromanagers), controlling agendas (Taco Tuesday) and shaping desires (the instructions).

Moreover, Business highlights the fragility of authoritarian rule, which is strongly personalised and brittle, and so unable to adapt and change (rather literally in this case, given his plot). This echoes the argument of Runciman in The Confidence Trap (which was part of my summer reading and certainly worth a go), namely that while democracies are sub-optimal, they at least have no sense of when to fail completely and so can bounce back from threats.

There is also an implicit sense that the penetration of power is rather thin. Emmet, the hero of the (Lego) piece [you see what I did there? Ha!], is portrayed as being utterly compliant at the start of the film, but Bad Cop is incredulous that he, Emmet, thinks Business is a ‘great guy’. This suggests that the wider social compact is more tenuous than it immediately appears: certainly, when the revolution comes, it takes very little indeed to make it happen (‘you don’t know me, but I’m on TV, so you can trust me’ is the key line here). Plenty of room here for a discussion about how much people actually pay to their political lives.

Second Reading: The Liberal Ideal?

As the film progresses, we discover that Bricksburg – Emmet’s home – is merely one of many ‘worlds‘. Wyldstyle explains (‘Proper name. Placename. Backstory’) that originally the Lego world was one, until Business got confused about the pieces getting mixed up, so divided them up, to make each one a more pure (my word) place.

While this doesn’t lead to conflict between worlds, it does speak to the benefits of free exchange in stimulating creativity (cf. La-La Land) and reducing tension: consider the volume of resources put into policing the boundaries and chasing down the Master Builders.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you might want to get into notions of social homogenisation and conformity (‘get rid of anything weird-looking’), but this really goes to the edge of what could be grounded in the film itself.

Third Reading: Meta, meta, META!

The core message of the film is that we should not be bound by the instructions, but rather need to believe in ourselves and our ideas. That means not ‘buying over-priced coffee’ or being told what to do more generally. And yet, the film is itself a commercial product, that you are invited to consume, together with various Lego kits from the film.

I leave you to work out how you have a discussion about whether the explicit message is compromised by the manner of its delivery.


So there you go: everything is politics, as they don’t say. Would love to hear your views on this, if only to reassure me that I’m not the only one who does this with kids films.