***major spoilers to follow***
Far from just another animated distraction for children, The Lego Movie is a genuine work of commercial art. It not only thoroughly distracts the little buggers and makes them want to buy Legos, it teaches them a valuable lesson.
Religious overtones are obvious in and central to the film. Early, though not early enough to cover all themes, the movie tips the audience off to be looking for religious imagery. Lord Business (Will Ferrell), in his room of relics, keeps the Shroud of Band-Ăd, an obvious surrogate for the legendary Shroud of Turin.
Once the audience is cued to look for it, other religious surrogates fall readily into place. The instructions, which Emmet (Chris Pratt) clings to as he would life itself, represent the Bible. The Octan Corporation’s intense media control1 shows the pervasiveness of biblical themes in American culture.
There are two Hell surrogates — one in the melting chamber the police use for torture, another in the infinite abyss below Lord Business’ office.
Everything careens toward the final confrontation, which takes place outside the Lego world between the “The man upstairs” (also Ferrell), who has made all of this, and his son, Finn (Jadon Sand).
They play out the eternal struggle between orthodox and liberal religion. The father wants to smite everything with Krazy Glue so that everyone will stop messing with his stuff. It’s his personal Lego world, he made it, and he’ll be damned if anybody thinks they can better arrange his Legos. The son wants to let the Lego people live their lives freely, building and creating how they please.
The father/Lord Business focuses on control — through the media, through the instructions and through the legal system. He impregnates his subjects with an orthodox, authoritarian philosophy and rules them with an iron fist.
When he realizes he can’t control every detail, he threatens to flood the world with the Kragl (a bottle of Krazy Glue). The worst fate in this movie, equivalent to the divine punishment of God, is to be Krazy Glued in place, never to move, never to express your own thoughts.
The son/Vitruvious2 (Morgan Freeman) and the rest of the master builders defy him with critical thinking and creativity and fight for the inherent worth and dignity of Lego Man. The master builders’ actions are based in empiricism and rationalism — they make decisions based on their own perception and knowledge, not what they’re told.
They and Emmet control the Piece of Resistance, which is the lid for the Krazy Glue. “Piece of resistance” is the literal translation of pièce de résistance, a French phrase that English-speakers have taken for use as an outstanding feature or best part, particularly of a dish. The best part in this movie is the lid they put on God’s wrath.
The main character, Emmet, is a bit of an odd bird, bearing many similarities to both Lucifer and Jesus of Nazareth.3 Like Lucifer, he starts out perfectly obedient to the instructions, but as the movie goes on attempts more and more to use God’s power — rearranging Legos as he sees fit, that is. Like Jesus, he is the one who ultimately spares the masses from God’s fury, in one scene brutally sacrificing himself to save the master builders.
Through Emmet, the audience experiences the evolution from authoritarianism to a kind of secular humanism. In the all-important climax, Emmet argues that the Lego people’s uses for their resources are just as valid as Lord Business’ and that Lord Business’ “it’s mine” argument isn’t sufficient to take away their right to be creative, or build things or move at all.
Emmet — and the audience — learned that simply trusting the instructions gives them an extremely limited perspective and makes them vulnerable. Thinking critically, which the film teaches is important, these instructions can come from a Lego play set, or from parents or even from a pulpit.
This is the real issue Ken Ham and Bill Nye were debating earlier this month. It’s not about what we teach our children as much as how we teach them to think about it — whether a theory based in a very old book that could totally be fiction should be just as valid as empirical evidence collected and vetted over several decades by the smartest men on Earth. Whether kids should put more stock in what they’re told or what they think.
Ken Ham may be the world’s biggest crank when he starts yammering on about “historical science,” but the authoritarianism he espouses — his aggressive desperation to rationalize what The Bible says despite an entire planet (literally) of evidence to the contrary — is a real viewpoint.
We can not teach this philosophy to our children.
In espousing critical thinking and questioning of authority, The Lego Movie takes a stance and cultural significance and timeliness filmmakers can only dream about.4 The movie displays all the dangers of authoritarianism and heralds all the virtues of rationalism with a heaping helping of religious overtones, just as Ham and Nye began a nation-wide discussion on the same topics. If for no other reason, this movie should be remembered for its incredible timing.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and a senior staff writer for the NT Daily. Buff is a shade of orange. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for.
1It is established early that “President” Business controls every song, television program, dairy product and history textbook Emmet has come into contact with, along with every voting booth.
2Vitruvius is named after Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the Roman architect who wrote De Architectura in first century B.C. The manuscript provides much of what we know today about ancient Roman architecture and technology, and inspired Renaissance architects after being rediscovered in 1414.
3Christianity is itself a little odd — Satan is demonized for wanting to be like God, but Jesus is idolized and followed for actually being like God. Is this aspiration Christianity’s greatest sin or its most noble pursuit? Or is it something you just have to be born into, and if you aren’t, you’re completely powerless? This line of thinking is related to modern Satanism, and Emmet and company actually have plenty in common with that religion by the end of the film, most notably the argument that every individual is their own savior and the high emphasis on uniqueness and creativity.
4Though it was released three days after the debate it relates so well to, The Lego Movie has been in production since 2008 and probably had a story hammered out before it was green lit in 2011. This relationship is pure luck.