It’s 7:30 p.m.–teeth-brushing time. This is one of the best times for important father-son conversations, especially if you’ve just returned home from the Lego Movie.
While applying our spicy-mint toothpaste to his toothbrush, my oldest son (7 yrs) is reminded of the “Kragle,” and asks me, “Papa, was Lord Business really the Dad?”
Not wanting to miss a pedagogical heartbeat, I put the question back to him, “What do you think?” He replies, “I think Lord Business is the dad. I mean, he had the same tie, the same hair, and the same voice.”
Continuing, my son asks, “Papa, do you think there’s a moral to the Lego Movie?” (Before you think this strange, you should know we read and discuss moral tales and fables daily.) Again, I put the question back to him, “I’d love to hear what you think about that. Do you think there was a moral?”
At this point my head was spinning…what’s he going to say? Rules are bad because they stifle creativity? Following directions is tyranny? Would he get something edifying from the film? My son’s reply, though, put a smile on my face: “Oh, yeah. I think it’s saying you can’t just make everyone do exactly what you want all the time. You have to let other people have a say in the game. Otherwise, no one’s going to want to play with you.”
This statement was a profound personal application by my son, who has a sacrosanct lego table of his own in the basement, which he had zealously protected from the creative/destructive impulses of younger siblings. Let’s put in perspective just how big a deal this moral lesson is for the child’s mind. From the child’s perspective, the lego world he or she creates is as “real,” as important, and as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, the Mona Lisa, the Pyramids of Giza, you name it. That lego world is as real and important to the child as my dissertation was to me, as each article I write is to me now, as each class I teach is to me now. They represent the real enactment of one’s creativity and identity. So, when I ask my son, “could you please let your brother play with those?” It’s as if someone had asked me, “Could you let another grad student have a shot at writing that chapter of your dissertation?” Consider the trust and vulnerability required to comply with that request.
Now, you could respond, “it’s just legos, and we need to teach children that certain things are more important than others.” Of course this is true, but in the child’s world, play is possibly the most serious and important activity imaginable. We do violence to the child’s moral psyche if we unfairly trivialize their real contribution to the beauty of the world around them through their play.
Let’s return, though, to the question of the father, the son, and the moral of the movie. With toothpaste tube in hand, I stood confronted face-to-face with my main concern about this film–the father is the villain. My son and I continued with a great conversation about what the father really needed to learn and how that applies to our own life. In the course of that conversation I discovered what is really at stake in the moral formation of the Lego Movie. The Father-son relationship in the film operates at two levels: (1) the concrete level of a real dad and a real son; and (2) the metaphorical level of God and humanity. Let’s look at both.
At the concrete level, the film’s narrative plays out Finn’s (the son’s) conflict with his own father. Finn wants to make a creative contribution to the imagined space of the lego worlds that his father scrupulously builds, protects, and crazy-glues together. Finn deeply appreciates his father’s creativity, in fact, at the film’s climax he calls his father “the Special,” that is, the most awesome, creative, inspiring person ever. The Father, for his part, lives in fear that his son will destroy the order of the lego universe he has created. So set upon its order is the Father that he locks into place toys that were made to be built and taken apart again. His use of crazy glue is made to appear neurotic. (Maybe it is.) This father, in his micromanaging need for control and order, combined with his fear and distrust of his son, is in need of conversion. Conversion finds him, however, when, in the process of taking apart his son’s work, he realizes the intricate beauty of his son’s creations, the great skill his son must possess to make the the models and integrate them into the lego worlds as he has. The father finally discovers “himself,” the Lord Business minifigure. This moment in the mirror reveals the nature of the game his son has been playing. Humbled, the father asks, “Son, if the construction guy were to say something to Lord Business, what would he say?” Finn tells his father that it’s the father’s creativity that has inspired the son to create. Furthermore, he begs the father to put away the Kragle and allow his son to participate in the creative endeavor with him. Deeply moved, the father changes his ways and makes his son a partner in the project of lego world-building and play.
Ultimately, I don’t think the film undermines fatherhood. It is okay to present fathers in need of conversion. There are some scenes where husbands/fathers get a bad rap apart from the whole frame of Finn and his father. For example, the one comedy that plays on everyone’s TV is a scene where a buffoon husband/father asks his wife in a dopey voice,”Honey…where are my paaaannnnnnttts?” We see here the emasculation of men, who not only don’t wear the pants, but they don’t even know where they are. They’ve got to ask their wife. Whether the film thinks this is a good thing or not, I can’t tell. But the buffoonery of a husband is the standard of comedy. This strikes me as a hit against fathers. Regardless of this point and one instance, the film actually reinforces the concrete importance of fathers. Remember, Finn tells his father that it is his father’s amazing creativity that has inspired him to create and play. Finn calls his dad “the Special,” the most awesome person ever. Sons deeply desire to be invited into the creative world and energy of their father. So, for us fathers–whatever we are passionate about, whatever we love, chances are our sons will love it too. The challenge becomes discovering how to trust our sons and initiate them into those loves, those passions, in ways that allow them to make a real, creative contribution. I think the film tells us about how a father leads. A Father leads by passionate commitment to making the world a more beautiful, true, and good place–whether that is through fishing, legos, music, books, one’s job, etc. Children have good aesthetic detection. They will be inspired by the beauty, truth, and goodness we’re passionate about. The awesome, yet dangerous thing is this: once they are inspired, they’ll want to make their own contribution. As fathers we can’t keep them on the sidelines out of fear they’ll mess it up. We have to continue teaching them the virtues and technical skills required to make authentic creative contributions to the world, while all the time inviting their greater participation in the creative endeavor of life.
This concrete struggle between a real father and a real son, however, also carries an extended metaphor, about which I am less hopeful. The metaphorical level pits God (the Father) against the son (Finn). How can I make this claim? Throughout the film, the characters of Vitruvius and Wyldstyle (as well as the other master builders) manifest a kind of religion (or at least a spirituality) around “The Man Upstairs.” From the context in the film, the term clearly refers to the Father, i.e., God, a divine, unseen, omnipotent, omniscient being existing beyond their world. At one point, Vitruvius, Wyldstyle, and Emmet take a trip into Emmet’s mind. Inside they discover cavernous emptiness. During their journey through Emmet’s mind, the image of a human hand appears. Vitruvius and Wyldstyle are shocked, because no one has ever seen “The Man Upstairs.” They hypothesize that Emmet’s mind has been kept so empty for the purpose of making room for the great vision of “The Man Upstairs.” They take it as evidence that he might in fact be, “the Special” after all.
This is all interesting, but the metaphor has troubling consequences. If God is equated with the Father, and if the Father is an over-controlling, micromanaging, fear-motivated tyrant, then we have a serious theological problem. We essentially have the film making a re-presentation of the serpent’s argument to Eve in the garden. The serpent causes Eve to doubt whether God’s rule is worth following. The serpent causes Eve to doubt whether it’s good to live within God’s order or to create her own order/disorder. The serpent causes Eve to doubt that God has her best interest at heart. The serpent causes Eve to consider that God might just be an over-controlling rule-making tyrant who doesn’t want her to “be like God,” that is, doesn’t want her to participate in the creative knowledge of good and evil. Just as the Father in the film is afraid of letting his son actively participate in the creative endeavor of the lego-world, so the serpent suggests that God is afraid of Eve gaining the power of knowing good and evil, of being able to participate in the determining (i.e. deciding) of what is good and what is evil.
The moral implications are large. If God is the Father, then God is so obsessed with order that he crazy-glues our lives into immovable shape (i.e. natural law = crazy-glued, instruction following existence). He creates rules to make us happy, but just as Emmet’s happiness was empty, so will ours be if we follow God’s instructions / rules. Those who follow the divinely created instructions made by the one who (according to the film) always has his eye on you, are blind to what makes us special…rule-breaking creativity! The order created for us is boring and not good enough. To be truly happy we must break free of its order-obsessed shackles. In a certain sense, we could say the film is a statement against natural law ethics and God as natural law giver. Ultimately, God needs a conversion. “The Man Upstairs” needs to realize that we’ll all have a lot more fun if we, his creatures, get a creative say in what’s right, wrong, and what truly fulfills human persons. God should lead us by inspiring us to create rather than by constraining us to his rigid, crazy-glued moral order.
Whoa! Am I being cynical here? Maybe. If so, here’s a more positive reading of the film’s theology.
The eyes of charity would probably see that the film makes a confused, Freudian conflation of the human father and God as a projection of that father. From a charitable Christian standpoint, I think the theological gold that remains when we melt out the admixtures is this: God invites us to participate in his creative act, but as creatures. God is the just and perfect law-maker, the creator of natural law, for example. But he created it for the same reason poets create poetic forms (e.g., the sonnet). The poetic form is not a prison cell but a skeleton that invites the author to fashion flesh, sinew, organ systems, and finally a skin around it. (Thanks for this insight Fr. Gilsdorf.) This is the beauty of God’s natural law. As the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et spes has it (when speaking of marriage), we participate as interpreters of God’s plan of love rather than as authors of that plan. Our gift of reason allows us to see the beauty and goodness of the divine ordering of things and contribute to the beautiful working out of that order in the world. With every act of love we make, every service of sacrifice rendered, every act of openness to life, we are given “a say in the game” as my son put it.God isn’t the one in need of conversion. We are. We need to see that our dignity lies not in breaking the rules but cooperating in the divine wisdom of God’s moral order in ever new, ever ancient ways.
Once again, “Thank you Legos.”
There’s so much more to say about this film–gender roles, violence, anger. Depending on the response I’ll do a third post or move on to greener pastures. Thanks for any comments!