I recently took my two oldest sons (see the blog’s background picture) to their first ever movie in a theater. They are 7 and 5 yrs old. As a reward for working real hard on a Saturday in their grandparent’s yard, we went to see The Lego Movie. Having read multiple positive reviews, I remained in trepidation as I took a seat and planted my feet on the sticky theater floor.
Part of my anxiety was rooted in my knowledge that narratives are deeply morally formative, and I wasn’t sure whether this film would offer the kind of formation I wanted my children receiving. This is doubly important because my children so rarely watch film media. I knew this film would stick immediately and almost indelibly in their minds (they love legos). We all know that story-telling is among the best ways to teach a child character. The children learn through narrative what a good character looks like, what a villain is like, what courage is, etc. If I tell my son, “you need to be more generous!” the command falls on deaf ears, unless his mind has a story that has generated an intuitive sense for what generosity looks like.
My anxiety was not immediately eased when the opening scene satirized Emmet. The humor lies in his mindless following of the rules, which are in many ways ordered toward his good and society’s good but result in a kind of hollow, saccharine happiness experienced by the characters, who sing the same song all day and all night—“Everything is awesome!” (We sing this song all day and all night now also. Thanks Legos.) They watch the same TV show every day, etc. They live a life of content, happy order. But the film wants to suggest that this order is ultimately death-dealing and unfulfilling. “Oh, no,” I thought. Is this going to be another facile film about “finding oneself by breaking all the rules?” Is this another spiritual-but-not-religious movie? Is this another film saying rules are constraining efforts to create social conformity while libertinism anarchy is good?
Praying quickly for patience and charity, to see the true, good, and beautiful wherever it might be found in this film, I watched on. As I predicted, the film juxtaposed the happy but shallow rule-follower to the dark but deep rule-breaker and master-builder “Wildstyle.” As time went on, however, the film starts becoming philosophically self-aware and rich. For example, when Emmet, Wildstyle, Batman, and arrive in Cloud Cuckoo Land there is a telling dialogue. Uni-Kitty tells a baffled Emmet about the lack of order in this topsy-turvy land: “Well, we have no rules here. There is no government, no bedtimes, no baby-sitters, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind.” Wildstyle under her breath says, “You just said no like a thousand times.” Uni-kitty, continues, “and there’s no consistency.” Whoa, was that a critique of radical moral relativism I just heard? Wow. At this point the film starts looking up.
I discovered two things about the film: (1) it’s honest ambivalence about the positive and negative elements of the various philosophical worldviews taken by the characters. A rule of order can lead to human flourishing, but a rule of empty, arbitrary order extended at the cost of personal participation in the generation of that order is death-dealing. (2) The film shows us an example of human dignity consonant with Catholic understanding of that term.
Let’s see how both of these play out. The film is honest about the woes that accompany a radically individualist worldview, and in being honest about these woes, the film discovers human dignity. Consider Wildstyle, dark, rule-breaking masterbuilder intent on becoming “the special,” complete with dyed hair matrix-like fighting skills. Vitruvius reveals that Wildstyle has changed her name countless times owing to a lack of self-confidence. She is a masterbuilder, yes, but her masterwork of construction is herself. She thought she could make herself “the Special” if she found the piece of resistance (cap to the Krazy Glue). Her obsession with being different masks her lack of identity and uncertainty in her dignity. Her constant reminders to herself and Emmet that “I have a boyfriend…and it’s super-serious” constitute a psychological pep-talk, a vain effort at self-esteem boosting. This is the cost of radical individualism, the never-ending and often vain quest at identity self-construction without instruction. Being special is all on me! I see this in so many students. They want to be different, but they are so busy looking at how everyone else is being different that they end up following a standard script of what “being different” looks like. With Wildstyle, they struggle with the existential question: Where does identity come from? Is it created or given, built or received? Now, Catholic theology tends toward “both/and” answers, but I think the weight of the both/and lies ultimately on our identity being “given” and “received” rather than selfmade. For one, Mary, the primary non-divine example of Christian virtue, is the one who perfectly receives God’s will in her life with her own perfect fiat, “behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” Even Christ, in John’s Gospel, tells us that he can do nothing except what he sees the father doing. His works are received from the father. His death, too, is received as God’s will. Christ reveals his acceptance of God’s providence for him during his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. Adam and Eve, for their part, bring sin into the world through their own attempt at identity construction. Eve thinks, “heh, I guess I would like to make myself like God.” Whoops! Oh, the woes that have followed since that fateful decision. Adam and Eve’s dignity was that God had made them to be in fellowship with himself, each other, and creation. They rejected that identity when they attempted to be like God.
The Lego Movie shows the audience the same truth. Humanity cannot bear the weight of having to create its own identity. The prideful Wildstyle only comes to confidence and fulfillment in the movie when she trusts Emmet enough to return to and accept her given name, Lucy. (I hope this name choice was intentional, as Lucy come from Lux/Lucis, which means “light.”) The humble Emmet, on the other hand, having no ability to make himself special, is made special by circumstances (falling down a hole and getting stuck on the “piece of resistance) and the care of persons (Lucy telling him he is special). Wildstyle discovers that Emmet actually desires to know the truth about her rather than one of the many identities she’s constructed for herself to make herself feel special. Emmet shows Lucy she’s special because he wants to know what’s ordinary about her. This gives Lucy the confidence to own the truth about herself and flourish in joy as the film climaxes and resolves.
Through this interaction between Wildstyle and Emmet, the film introduces the audience to the Catholic social principle of the dignity of the human person, a classic both/and doctrine. The dignity of the person is at once a status given by God (in light of our having been created in God’s image, destined for fellowship with him, and redeemed by his blood) and a goal to be reached (in light of the fact that we so often act below our own dignity and treat others in ways that countermand their own dignity). Status–Emmet realizes he HAS dignity (given to him extrinsically by Wildstyle and Vitruvius’s confidence in him). Goal–Emmet must LIVE UP TO that dignity. When he finally owns the dignity given to him, his eyes are opened. He can “see everything,” become truly creative, and make the gift of his own life for the sake of his friends. What’s neat about the film is that it accomplishes this pedagogical end without my two sons realizing that it ever happened. Kudos to Legos.
The next installment of this series will consider “conversion” in the film, violence in the film, Emmet as Christological??, and the true center of my anxiety about the film…..the father is the bad guy!!! Perhaps there’s something here. We’ll see next time.