The Lego Movie and the Power of Play

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Spoiler Alert: the last act and a couple of surprise cameos are discussed.

The Lego Movie surprised me. The clever story with deep themes, the amazing sense of comedy and some of the smartest and funniest cultural jokes of recent years made it a continual delight to watch. Yet the element that continues to impress me, the one I come back to time and time again is how effective the film is as a demonstration of the power of play.

Play is loose, unstructured, often unshackled from the rules of reality, built out of unbridled imagination and creativity. The Lego Movie captures this spirit of play superbly. The film not only builds its narrative around it but also distances itself from being a product placement for Lego sets. Yes, there are lots of pre-established properties in the film, but instead of using them to promote existing Lego products, it captures a spirit of play.

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One of the great ways it does this is by having characters from different intellectual properties and universes interact. Batman (Will Arnett) features heavily into the story and we get cameos from characters like Gandalf, Han Solo, Shaq, Abraham Lincoln and more. This gets to the heart of one of the delights of the power of play: a world in which one can have characters from different universes come together.

And the film has a great opportunity to use this to promote existing Lego sets for these characters but it doesn’t. Batman doesn’t use the actual sets that Lego sells for him, a lot of the different lego universes that they visit are built from scratch, imagined as their own worlds instead of relying on existing themes Lego has that fit those worlds. There’s a world called Middle Zealand, which easily could have just been The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings sets culled together. Instead, it’s the filmmakers own handcrafted high-fantasy universe.

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Yes, there are The Lego Movie Lego sets, however, they promote the spirit of play by having two different possible versions of the same sets of legos player can build. This promotes an idea expressed by current Lego Vice President for global licensing and entertainment Jill Wilfert: “One of the great messages of the movie is that everybody can be creative and that there’s no wrong way to build with Lego. For us, that’s a really important message.”

Therefore, the film does a great job of actually capturing the spirit of playing Legos. Sure, those first few hours with a set will probably be marveling over how well the recommended construction looks, but tearing it apart, throwing in several sets together, and building something unique is a constant source of joy that makes playing with Legos a powerful and infinite tool of expression and play.

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As characters in the film face problems, they’re called upon to build things from the environment around them, cull from pieces made to resemble a set, strict order of what is supposed to be and make something unique. This becomes a great way to break out of that mold of rigid order and functionality into a world of creative potential. It feels akin to the sculpts who take everyday items and cull them into works of art.

This form of play is also reinforced through the story. The protagonist of the story, Emmet Brickowoski (Chris Pratt) lives in a world governed by following the instructions. This not only applies to how they build things, but also to how they live their lives. Emmet follows a strict order of steps every day, but it fails to give his life meaning and fulfillment. Once he’s caught up in a larger world of resistence against this movement of fixed order, he must break away from following the instructions and learn to improvise through play.

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This idea is further reinforced through a last act twist where we discover that everything we’ve witnesses is the machinations of a young boy who is playing this story out in the midst of his Dad’s immaculately detailed model of a Lego city, one that is supposed to be completely ordered and controlled, where creativity is stifled and oppressed.

The film becomes a convicting, powerful reminder of the kind of ruthless control adults can oppress the world with. The Lego Movie asks us to embrace the messiness of the world through play, the unstructured activity, the culling of things that shouldn’t coexist into a world of joy. Most adults want an order and structure to their lives, one that stifles and ruins the spirit of play, which the film exhibits as a joyless, sad existence. It’s a film that reminds us that it’s never too late to revisit the pleasures of play.

Other Great Thoughts:

The Lego Movie is the Ultimate Parenting Story
Jeffrey Overstreet examines The LEGO MOVIE’s connection to Tolkien’s Middle Earth

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2 Responses to The Lego Movie and the Power of Play

  1. I agree with your general take on the film. It didn’t resonate with me as a film as much as it seems to have resonated with you though. The thematic content ended up being what I liked most about the film, and the uneven humor is what held the film back.

    • James Blake Ewing says:

      The humor seems to missed for some people. I thought it was the funniest thing I had seen in years, but it has a particular brand of pop-culture humor that I love which certainly isn’t for everyone.

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