Spoiler Alert: The Lego Movie

The story starts off predictably enough for a grandiose adventure: a wizard, a prophecy, an unwitting hero.  Emmet is just a model construction worker, living his city life to the tee by following every rule in the book.  He is manically happy just to be doing it right: greeting his alarm clock with a smile, doing some calisthenics, watching his favorite sitcom before heading out for an overpriced coffee and a fulfilling day on the job.  He feels like he has friends, that he’s part of something.  Then a mysterious woman who’s obviously not playing by the rules leads him to fall down an archaeological rabbit hole and end up with a mysterious plastic piece stuck to his back.  The woman tells him he has found the “piece of resistance” and is the hero of prophecy.  And like Neo in The Matrix, Emmet begins to realize he’s been living a lie.

The putative villain in the film is Lord Business, head of the Octan corporation.  In real life, Fox News, though generally not known for its perceptiveness, accused The Lego Movie of pushing an anti-capitalist agenda and making Lord Business look like Mitt Romney.  To be fair, there is certain capitalist critique in the film: the Octan corporation not only employs Emmet but makes and sells his coffee, produces his television show, and constantly plays his favorite song on the radio.  They also manufacture voting machines, which may explain why Lord Business is president of the world.  To be fair, Lord Business’s plan to perfect everything to his liking and then glue it in place forever does reflect a certain degree of conservatism.  But never mind that The Lego Movie endlessly promotes the toys of a company that made nearly $1 billion in profits in 2012; the real reason the film is not anti-business is because Lord Business does not end up a villain.

Nor does Emmet end up a hero—until he realizes he was never entitled to be one.  The wizard from the beginning of the film admits he made up the whole prophecy, just so someday someone might believe in him or herself.  To help foil Lord Business’s superglue spree, the people of the city are inspired to believe in themselves as well, and they take to the sky in a hodgepodge of jury-rigged vehicles to fight the robotic micromanagers determined to pose everyone perfectly.  The message of the film changes: from there shall be a hero, to anyone can be a hero, to everyone can be a hero.  Emmet even offers heroism to Lord Business, saying that he has a choice, that he can change.  For exposing both prophecy and villainy as BS, The Lego Movie gets an A+ in the moral-of-the-story department.

Of course, there’s a twist: Emmet and his world are the projected fantasies of a real boy, who personifies his real father as Lord Business.  When Emmet tumbles out of his animated world onto a live-action concrete floor, he’s no longer able to move.  He finds himself in a basement where the boy has spent the day messing with his father’s meticulously constructed collection, ignoring signs to keep his hands off.  The lighting is somehow reminiscent of a twenty-five-year-old print ad, and for a moment you get the unsettling feeling that you just spent twelve dollars to watch a 100 minute commercial.  But then in walks Will Ferrell.  As the boy’s father, a mature collector and block aficionado, Ferrell’s plan to glue everything in place is real.  But the inventiveness of his son inspires him to change his mind.

The film represents something of a full circle for Lego, which prior to 1999 issued sets mostly based on its own generic intellectual properties: cities, castles, pirate ships, the wild west.  But then they started licensing Batman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and other blockbuster film franchises.  The popularity of Legos soared, to the point where they now have a film franchise of their own.  It helps a lot that characters like Batman, Superman, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Milhouse (from The Simpsons), a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and a Millennium Falcon‘s worth of Star Wars characters can drop in for cameos, along with half-forgotten real-life luminaries likes Shakespeare and Shaquille O’Neal.  If I have any criticism of the film, it’s that Shaq is one of the few diverse figures in a sea of yellow faces.  There’s also Morgan Freeman providing the voice of the wizard, and a Native American in a headdress, whose unprovoked toss of a tomahawk in the general direction of the good guys is all the more troubling for its tired half-heartedness.

But in the end, The Lego Movie wins because it is consistently, deliriously funny, because it is intelligent and has a heart, and because if you can catch even half of what’s happening in the plasticky mise-en-scène you will see things you have never seen before. The film is visually astounding, looking like a vast stop-motion fantasia even though it’s really computer animated.  Everything from fire to water to steam is depicted as frenetically rearranged Lego blocks, and the fluidity that emerges from the static forms is a revelation.

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Social Democracy could Save the Planet

What are the benefits of keeping capitalism on a tight leash?  Yes, the best established company can make the most money, but when profit becomes the only merit, it tends to come at someone else’s expense.  These are called externalized costs, like pollution from industrial projects that damages ecosystems and/or requires costly public cleanup.

On The Pump Handle, Kim Krisberg has another example of an externalized cost: fast food chains billing taxpayers to take care of their employees.  Living on minimum wage, “half of the families of full-time workers participate in public assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” Krisberg continues, “public dollars are basically subsidizing fast food profits — the 10 largest U.S. fast food companies cost taxpayers about $3.8 billion every year in public assistance for their workers.”  Most of the expenses saved by the companies end up lining the pockets of a few elite entities and stockholders.

Public welfare programs, including those that compensate for the avarice of CEO culture, obviously contribute to our national debt.  So does spending on making sure we have the power to kill everyone else on earth.  So does imprisoning people for drug offenses for which they would be better (and more cheaply) sent to rehab.  So does public education and national land administration.  So would a wall between U.S. and Mexico.

Yes, the fact that the costs of health care will soon be managed by the federal government means that our budgets and our debts will get bigger.  But this is only a short term perspective.  The long term financial incentive of national healthcare is eliminating waste and wasteful spending.  In other words, saving money.  Not just for the government but for we the taxpayers, who won’t have to pay an artificial price for every product and service received in a hospital—a price waged against the costs of emergency service, bills unpaid by the un- or under-insured, and steep discounts for insurance companies.  With a shift in medical care toward public health priorities, we will be motivated to save money rather than award more of it to our elites.

In short, we waste money when we punish what we could more cheaply reform, when we try to heal what we would be better off to prevent or reverse (e.g. heart disease), when we marshal a hypervigilant military to protect us from our enemies while allowing will-be mass murderers to buy automatic rifles as they please.  We waste money when we gamble, and we let bankers gamble with all the money we have.  In a culture that venerates wealth above all else, we look the other way as wasteful economic activity and lax regulation only serve to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor.  If any of us were truly conservative, we would want to protect or gain what we know is good: clean air and water, a healthy global ecosystem, a happy, well-nourished, stable populace.  We would want to save for the future and in doing so reduce our carbon footprint.  We would make our business less busy, and we would walk every day for hours.

Income inequality in America has skyrocketed in the last fifty years.  Our wealthiest citizens and corporations have had a profound influence on our leadership in Washington, D.C. and they have defined tax and business codes in their interest so they can make more and more money.  If someone’s business is to make art, then let them charge whatever they want.  But if their business is to ensure life and liberty for the American people, then they are known as the government, and they have a responsibility to be fiscally conservative.

Especially as global population explodes, our freedom must stop at the freedom to make needless profits by burning needless amounts of energy.  Otherwise we will cook the planet, and revolt.