It’s Not a Toy: Existentialism in The Lego Movie


by Ella Jean

Note:  This article will spoil the entire plot of The Lego Movie, as well as some of L’imaginaire by Jean-Paul Sartre.

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

For a movie based on a kid’s toy, The Lego Movie quite profoundly comments on the free will of the individual, but Lego “is not a toy,” says a line in the the film. “It’s a highly sophisticated interlocking grid system.”

Lego’s purpose as a highly sophisticated device is as strong as the purpose it serves to study existentialism, and both purposes are more significant than one would expect.

The loveable protagonist, Emmet, is from the city.  He lives rigorously following the instructions society provides, including how to treat others and what to buy.  His world is a utopia of conformity.  He works as a construction worker for Octan, a Big Brother-like company that makes radio and television among other goods and services.  The city and Octan are overseen by the same leader: President Business.

Unlike most other utopia/dystopia tales, the protagonist’s uniqueness does not come from his detachment from conformity, but rather from his extreme conformity.  Emmet is so conformist he has no friends; he is simple and forgettable.  Greatness is thrust upon him as he becomes “the special”, a prophecy’s hero said to bring down societal structure.  At first he doesn’t understand why his structured society needs change, but being the instruction-follower he is, he goes along with the prophecy without protest.

The way that Emmet’s conformity isolates him poses a big question about the meaning of individuality. Is his loneliness due to him being the only one who conforms absolutely, or is it because there are different ways of absolutely conforming to societal constructs?

“It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.”

 – Sören Kierkegaard

Along comes Wild Style, Emmet’s character foil and femme fatale.  Everything about her, from her name to her pink and blue hair, is non-conformist.  It is fair to call this period “Emmet’s Enlightenment”.

Comparably, enlightenment in the existentialist world happened in the late 19th century.  Philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche started questioning reality and existence, bringing on a whole new way of thinking that resonated for centuries.  Their thoughts have led others to extrapolate on their concepts, not least being E. F. Schumacher, who once said:  “Many people love in themselves what they hate in others.”

While Wild Style is non-conformist to President Business’s plans for dominance, it can be said that she follows the prophecy in the same religious nature.  Opposites often attract, but it could equally be Emmet and Wild Style’s parallelism that draws them closer.

A concept that’s been gaining recent Internet attention lately, sonder, is well expressed by the cinematography in The Lego Movie.  “Sonder” is a recently made-up noun to express “the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as [one’s] own”.  This is a feeling many people have experienced, but there is no all-encompassing, existing synonym for.  Being a new word created by the Internet, many cannot accept the use of “sonder”.  It is almost certain that Lego character 1980’s Spaceman would have a problem with it.  Personally, I find it awesome.  If you will allow us for a moment to pretend that “sonder” is a real word, as it helps to accurately describe the feeling many shots in The Lego Movie elicit.

Through meticulous attention to detail, these shots can only be fully absorbed through re-play.  (I saw this movie twice and still can’t say I know what was happening on a balcony in the left hand corner of one scene).  Some might say it made the film too visually busy, but I would argue there are well-chosen times and places for its Martin Handford-like artistry.

Sonder is created because the animators added details as complex as life itself.  Like walking through a busy crowd, it’s both overwhelming and belittling to watch.  Sonder plays as essential a role in this movie’s cinematography as it does in existentialism.  One cannot feel precious or individual when we think about how every one of our little human plights are completely relatable.

Finally, this film goes beyond discussing purpose merely in a society, but purpose in the infinite expanse of reality.  Expertly foreshadowed throughout the film, the climax takes us into the human world where we see that a child has been playing with the Lego world the entire time.

The lines between fantasy and reality are still blurred as Emmet becomes mostly immobile outside his world, but still has his own thoughts and free will.  This one detail is where the movie’s fantasy construct could have it completely fall apart, or make The Lego Movie one of the most profound discussions of existentialism since Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.

What if Emmet’s physical immobility is not just an unexplained plot hole, but represents our limit to understanding human existence?  The most that Emmet can do to move is, with greatly concentrated effort, knock himself off a table.  This act of breakthrough could represent the breakthroughs of genius had by great philosophers.

With each quote, like those included herein, existentialists perform breakthroughs as significant to the universe as a tiny Lego man twitching on a table would be to us.

It makes one wonder: Is there a God that controls us like tiny yellow men and women?  Are there multiple Gods that fight like siblings in disagreement, with contradictory intentions?  Are we being manipulated or merely manipulating each other?  Should we feel more responsibility for the way we abide by the assemblage of our society?

At its core, existentialism is about defining one’s own path through reality empirically, disregarding doctrine.  It’s about building one’s reality.  If Nietzsche is right and “God is dead” then our reality is completely reliant on our own choices, but what makes that any harder than playing with Lego?  Funny how the toys and games we invent are often just our chance to play God.

The Lego Movie makes one want to play more, create more and celebrate individuality, yet it does so not through morals, but through questions.  Plus, putting aside all the dark parts of existentialism (we are all alone, life is pointless, the inevitability of human existence) this is a fun movie!

Even if it is just a toy, there is no better device to explain existentialism than Lego.

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