The LEGO movie

I went on Fox Business’ “Varney & Co.” to discuss “The LEGO Movie” on Monday.  Unfortunately, there was a problem with the studio I was set to broadcast from, so I had to settle for phoning into the show.  You can see the segment here.

What gets a movie about toy blocks onto Fox Business?  Well, for starters, it made a gigantic amount of money – almost $150 million in two weeks.  It thrashed all comers at the box office on its second weekend, which happened to be Valentine’s Day.  I think it’s safe to say the audience has expanded beyond kids and their parents, as well it should, because this is a very funny movie.  It’s a sharper satire of modern life than many films written for adults.  I can’t remember a serious Hollywood comedy that delivered such a high chuckle-per-minute ratio.  It’s even funnier if you glance around the theater and take note of all the parents enjoying jokes they know are flying right over their heads of their children.

When I first heard of this project, I had the common reaction: Great, a two-hour toy commercial.  I’m sure it’s serving that purpose, although it’s probably early to draw any conclusions from toy sales data.  I’m surprised there weren’t toy store coupons on display at the exit from the theater.  That seems like a missed opportunity.  (Did you know LEGO almost went out of business a decade ago?  Things have been going much better lately.)

The people who made “The LEGO Movie” did a much better job than they really needed to, finding a sweet spot for entertaining the whole family, with a sly understanding that Mom and Dad have fond memories of these toys.  They also took the extra step of crafting a thoughtful, and I would dare say subversive, story that takes advantage of a world in which everything can be torn apart and rebuilt.  It’s a celebration of individuality, creativity, hard work… and, yes, capitalism.  “The LEGO Movie” delivers body blows to cronyism, top-down command economics, the political-media complex (“Where are my pants?”) and those who assert the power to judge the ambitions of others.

Now, first and foremost, this is a fun family movie that machine-guns jokes at the screen.  It’s not preachy or didactic, especially compared to most other children’s entertainment.  If those towering box-office numbers bring us a sequel, I fully expect it to contain jokes at the expense of people who took the first movie too seriously… and I’ll be right there having a belly laugh about it.  However, it’s always worth paying some critical attention to anything that achieves such pop-culture success, especially when children are the target audience.

And especially when the superficial trappings of the film are such a head-fake.  The villain, “President Business,” is an evil CEO type who lives in a huge office tower (comically convenient to a hellish abyss, where he threatens to throw those who displease him) and bears at least a passing resemblance to Mitt Romney.  (More to the point, he’s meant to look like comedian Will Ferrell, who provides his voice.)  Upon catching sight of this guy in the trailers, liberals across the land applauded robotically and praised the movie for delivering an anti-business diatribe to children.  They should have known better, because even if that’s what “The LEGO Movie” actually did, it would still be a rather pointed post-modern joke to deliver an anti-capitalist lecture in the midst of a toy commercial from a billion-dollar company.  It also wouldn’t be the first time someone made big bucks by selling socialists the message they want to hear.  Right, Michael Moore?

But that’s not what we have here, and there is no way for anyone who actually sees “The LEGO Movie” to interpret it as such.  It’s a withering indictment of crony capitalism, the fusion of coercive government power and Big Business, as the villain’s name rather obviously implies.  He wouldn’t be much of a threat if he was just Mr. Business, selling his products to voluntary consumers and recruiting voluntary support from investors.  The “President” part is what makes him a menace, and that’s actually not even his true name: he starts out as “Lord Business” and changes it when he realizes people are more willing to go along with a “President.”  Yes, these little plastic blocks have some sharp satirical edges.

There’s more about his origin that puts all this in context, but it would spoil the plot to discuss it.  Let’s say that we have a villain who is very determined to impose his micro-managed vision of orderly society on his people, because he truly believes he knows what is best for everyone.  He doesn’t wipe out their creativity – he appropriates it and puts it to his own use.  He has a horde of robot servants called “micromanagers.”  He buys the public off with goodies, specifically tacos.  His campaign slogan, appearing on iconic posters all over the city, is “Because I Said So.”  Doesn’t that sound familiar!

Individual creativity is celebrated by the heroes, but the movie goes to great lengths to explain that it’s ambition that really matters: the marriage of creativity and hard work, not merely imagining but building, mastering the rules before breaking them, cooperating instead of commanding.  It is made hilariously clear that idle daydreams, creativity without effort, and happy thoughts are not good enough.  Rarely has mindless insistence on the power of positive thinking been satirized more ruthlessly, and amusingly.  There’s also a lot of ribbing directed at the cookie-cutter “prophecy of the chosen one” trope so common in big-budget Hollywood adventure films these days, which becomes a pointed lesson about the dangers of waiting around for a savior.

If “The LEGO Movie” makes for an unlikely polemic, that’s what makes it so charming.  There are ideas worthy of discussing with the kids, and they go deeper than anyone would expect from a toy movie… although wasn’t that also true of the previous reigning champion of toy movies?