On the Nonessential Beauty of Legos
The general consensus on The Lego Movie seems to be that it shouldn’t be as good as it is. A better way to put this might be that it shouldn’t be good in the way that it is.
There is nothing hidden about its pleasures. It doesn’t somehow succeed in spite of being a product-placement film (in some accidental or self-parodic way). Its success depends fully on the product being placed. In fact, the product is the place, literally and thematically. It does exactly what a feature-length commercial should do: it sells its brand as a way of life.
On the one hand, this is a wet dream of franchising and ancillaries. It naturally extends the Lego brand’s licensing of properties (like the Marvel universe) and its video game series. There is an awkwardly-titled The Lego Movie Videogame, and a sequel to the film is already in the works. One can imagine The Lego Videogame Movie; The Lego Movie Videogame Movie; and on and on. All this would be fully in the spirit of Legos themselves, placing units together into ever-more complex and unpredictable relations.
On the other hand, the movie’s very ability to sell a way of life sets it along a sensory and conceptual life of its own. Because the film uses Legos to be about something more than just Legos, that “something more” has its own contours. To describe what the film does requires more than just admiring its cleverness or expressing surprise or claiming that it’s subversive.
To start with the film’s most obvious pleasure: in the same way that Felix the Cat can turn a question mark above his head into a ladder, Lego heroine Wyldstyle can turn a closed alley into a motorcycle and Emmet can use his own neckless head for a rotating wheel axle. As in traditional cartoons, everything is made from the same stuff. Essence is appearance. Anything that looks like a plane can fly like a plane.
This only makes sense when the materiality of the Lego pieces themselves is emphasized. While computer-animated films have typically tried to give their characters weight to aid moments of high drama, The Lego Movie routinely makes such moments ridiculous. Death is a joke: a severed head can keep talking for minutes on end, and we only know it’s dead when its eyes quick-change from dots to x’s. Eroticism is neutered: Lego figures can’t express affection with more than “holding” their weird clawlike hands. The worst fate to suffer in this world is to be immobile, frozen in place with “the Kragle.”
Historically, the plasmatic pleasures of cartoons have been constructed around the line. Line guarantees form, and cartoon lines metamorphose to suggest different forms. But instead of this, Legos base their transformations around blocks of color. In this way, the Lego world feels tactile and effortless to move through at the same time. (This has major consequences, as I’ll detail later.)
The old cartoon trope of self-figuration is on display too. Showing the hand of the animator has served to emphasize the animator’s own life-giving power (as in Winsor McCay’s work) or the unruliness of a character once it’s been created (as in the Fleischer Out of the Inkwell series). The Lego Movie shows the hand of its (diegetic) creator to emphasize both of these ideas, but with a twist. Instead of going for comedic effect or illusory wonder, these reflexive moments form a second-order narrative that contains the film’s dramatic core.
Toward the film’s end, what we thought was a battle between the Master Builders and Lord Business’s Kragle weapon is revealed to be a conflict in a family basement/playroom/mancave, between a boy’s desire to build new things with his father’s sets and the father’s desire to glue the sets in place. The conflict is between the grown-up’s tendency toward fixity and the child’s creative powers.
It’s worth expanding on just what kind of creative powers are being valued here. Legos themselves originated as part of a postwar explosion of attention to children’s creativity. The idea of the child as innately creative is as old as Romanticism. But after World War II–thanks to the baby boom, an expanding consumer culture, and Cold War anxieties–a new kind of creative child was forged. This new child was a model of autonomy and a freethinking agent of democracy. He (this kind of child was almost always imagined as male) could produce innovations to assure a nation’s economic superiority. Most importantly, his natural creativity had to be nourished, through arts programs and educational toys. With Crayola crayons, Legos, the Eames Office’s House of Cards, and other products, creativity could be consumable. Moreover, like consumption itself, creativity was a civic duty.
As Amy Ogata has noted, the sheer emptiness of the idea of “creativity” has made it extremely durable as a commodity and a solution to social problems. The shift in power from manufacturing economies to information economies has even prompted theorizations of a rising “creative class.” Most notably, Richard Florida has been arguing for over a decade that this new class of creatives (software developers, architects, musicians, etc.) is the primary engine of economic growth in a post-industrial society. Moreover, this “post-materialist” class is said to be motivated not by wealth but by personal fulfillment. Creatives seek individual freedoms and rich experiences. They are magic beans who create collective wealth without seeking individual wealth.
Regardless of how accurate Florida’s claims are (and they’ve been widely criticized), their promise is intoxicating. We get all the satisfaction of Romanticist individuality, with none of the guilt of worrying about others. If the boy playing with Legos is the image of the creative individual as yet untouched by the demands of work, the resolution of The Lego Movie‘s first-order narrative–a society full of newly-empowered individuals who build whatever they want–offers an image of creative (and hence non-alienated) labor for everyone.
In other words: for those of us who grew up (or are still growing up) under the values of creativity, the film’s brightly-colored bricks speak to some of our most deeply-held fantasies about our private selves. We feel more authentically like ourselves when we’re being creative. Producing novelty is a cultural imperative: it’s essential for the citizenry to keep up with the competition. This imperative is, in turn, felt as the most personal kind of personal freedom. We ask for it, we are satisfied with nothing other than it, we make lifestyle decisions in accordance with it. When a Lego character makes a part of his world anew, one feels a thrill of that aspiration to freedom. (To paraphrase Eisenstein on Disney: we watch cartoons because we long to be free.) When everyone in the Lego world starts doing it, the aspiration becomes baldly utopian.
The movie puts these pleasures–creativity as private unruliness and creativity as a matter of civic health–in parallel. It’s necessary that the boy’s house be a 1950s middle-class suburban anachronism, and that the father (aka Lord Business) have some quaintly outdated ideas about business; “creative” rhetoric has been at home in management culture since the 1960s. If the cartoons of Hollywood’s studio era held up plasmatic creativity as a primitive and disruptive force against the very conditions of Fordist labor that produced them, Legos on film crystallize an image of constructive, collaborative creativity in the form of the flexible no-collar worker and the freelance agency. The film’s own look was handled by Animal Logic, a visual effects and animation firm whose services are hired out on a project-by-project basis. In this kind of arrangement, creativity is not an act of resistance but a survival skill.
One can view this mixture of creative pleasures, most obviously, in one of two ways. To be cynical about it: the film is a symptom of a colonization and commodification of our very capacity of imagination (in which case my creativity is not my own at all). To be recuperative about it: the film makes use of the pleasures of creativity as a kind of training for navigating a world in which creativity has become necessary for economic and psychic survival (in which case my creativity is all I have). The first option, to my mind, isn’t very helpful. It seems to reify some ahistorical, virginal concept of imagination that is corrupted as soon as it touches outside influence or becomes directed toward anything beyond itself. The second option strikes me as tautological. It isn’t clear how any film that adheres to some cultural norm wouldn’t, almost by definition, teach us something about how to navigate within that norm. The first sacrifices use for critique; the second defines itself entirely by use, making critique impossible. Instead of moving from the film’s pleasures to its value (or lack thereof), then, it seems to me more productive to dive further into its pleasures. This means tabling narrative coherence and taking seriously the fact that the film is simply fun to look at. It’s sleek and dazzlingly colorful.
The Lego palette tends toward bold and primary hues. One can contrast colors with Legos, but cannot mix them. Because of this, the question of color is as basic as the blocks themselves. Blocks come in varying forms, with which one can work toward a larger form. Color is irreducible. One must work around it.
Without the subtlety of flesh tones, and with neutrals like brown and grey residing on the same level as any other hue, color runs rampant. The trademark bright yellow of caucasian skin is in almost every shot. The orange of Emmet’s construction suit hardly fades in intensity when we see it in long shot. Even the ocean never loses its uniformity of deep blue.
The West has long been suspicious of the powers of color. Kant famously claimed that beauty inheres in form and that color only adds charm. Goethe wrote that “savage natives, uneducated people, and children have great predilection for vivid colors.” Color is typically thought to be a transient, nonessential feature of the world (it’s the prime example of a secondary property). Moreover, it has a strange power of its own to attract and seduce a beholder.
These powers offer a clue as to why exactly The Lego Movie has been viewed with some puzzlement. It’s hardly a criticism to call the film product placement or crass commercialism, since just about every mainstream film satisfies these criteria. The problem seems to be that critics expected sufficient distance to call it those things, and the film doesn’t let that happen. It’s proven, by and large, too charming to resist. It fits the minor pleasures described by Rosalind Galt as pretty. To be pretty, according to Galt, is to either be too composed to be beautiful (i.e., formalist rather than organic or spontaneous) or to possess a kind of nonessential beauty. Color, not surprisingly, is Galt’s first example of “pretty” aesthetics.
To be seduced by a film that is made almost entirely with Legos and that baldly celebrates the commercialized pleasures of Legos is, in part, to be overwhelmed with the nonessential beauty of a world made of blocks of color. This kind of world has an arresting and sensuous purity. If color has been historically opposed to line and form, a Lego world betrays a dream of the senses to give form to the formless, to touch a property that by definition can never be felt. (This is a further oddity of color. Even though it’s often claimed to evoke haptic or tactile sensations, color as such remains hauntingly insubstantial.)
This is a distinctly modern, manufactured dream. As Joshua Yumibe has noted, an additional strike against color in the age of mass culture has been its cloying artificiality. Such a world of color in Legos is only possible with molded plastic, and The Lego Movie makes its colors touchable by imitating those shiny surfaces. Digital postproduction work is often criticized for feeling too cleaned-up, and the most alluring examples of computer animation–computer images at their most tactile–typically embrace otherworldly or antiseptic surfaces (the rubbery skins in Toy Story, the castle in Frozen).
Legos look and feel like warm weightless ice. We can press against them; yet their forms aren’t fixed. They can behave like a solid and a fluid at the same time. More precisely: because Lego bricks are solid and interchangeable, they can be as malleable as fluids. The giveaway here, again, is the Lego ocean, at once optically vast and haptically close. It is all surface, perfectly opaque and even rigid; yet it flows and ripples.
This is to say that the film’s pleasures of cartooniness and creativity are caught between two desires: something like a colorist’s desire for formlessness and something like a logical positivist’s desire to break the world down into basic units and build it back up, a desire to remake the world endlessly in one’s own image without losing one’s material grounding.
These pleasures may be useless, or, worse, nonessential. Useless things have an autonomy, a for-their-own-sake-ness which proves useful for aesthetics (particularly modernism). Something that is useless is still essentially something; something that is nonessential is not essentially anything. That colors and plastics are not essentially anything is the crux of the charges often leveled against them. It is also the primary basis of our fascination with them. They gleam with sensuous indistinctness. They are pretty to play with.
- On self-figuration and the animator’s life-giving power, see Donald Crafton, Before Mickey. Scott Bukatman’s The Poetics of Slumberland explores the potential unruliness of cartoon creations as “disobedient machines” turning against their creators. [↩]
- I’m glossing here arguments made by Amy Ogata in Designing the Creative Child, chapters 1 and 2. [↩]
- These ideas are first given book-length shape in Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class. The subsequent literature on this book is voluminous, including further work by Florida, responses to him, and responses to the responses. [↩]
- Florida’s claims have been criticized, variously, as vague correlations (rather than robust causal relations), as politically insidious (promoting gentrification), and as traveling snake-oil salesmanship (Florida’s Creative Class Group consults with governments desperate for image cleanup, favoring low-cost life-style promotion programs). Jamie Peck covers these criticisms in “Struggling with the Creative Class,”International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29.4 (2005). As Peck notes, the sheer proliferation of criticisms leveled against these claims is indicative of just how popular and appealing they are. [↩]
- In a recent study of national “life satisfaction” levels, Charlotta Mellander, Richard Florida, and Jason Rentfrow conclude that “national difference in life satisfaction should be understood not only in terms of income but also in terms of post-industrial structures and values. Indeed, education and creative class work structures both contribute to national levels of life satisfaction in high-income nations,” in “The Creative Class, Post-Industrialism, and the Happiness of Nations,” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society (2012). [↩]
- Jim McGuigan writes more on the paradox of freedom and responsibility in “‘creatives’ who nowadays have to manage themselves guilefully from one temporary project to another,” especially in the entertainment industry, in “Creative Labor, Cultural Work, and Individualisation,” International Journal of Cultural Policy 16.3 (2010). Julie Turnock has explored similar conditions in the contemporary visual effects industry, in “‘I Thought You Brought Us Together to Save the World”: The Contemporary International Special Effects Business,” at the Magic of Special Effects conference in Montreal, November 6-10, 2013. [↩]
- I’m glossing here histories on the marginalization of color in Rosalind Galt’s Pretty, Brian Price’s “Color, the Formless, and Cinematic Eros,” and Joshua Yumibe’s Moving Color, all of which rely in turn on Jacqueline Lichtenstein’s The Eloquence of Color and David Batchelor’s Chromophobia. [↩]
- Galt’s inventory of qualities usually described as pretty–”colorful, carefully composed, balanced, richly textured, or ornamental” (11)–breaks down into two basic types. “Colorful,” “richly textured,” and “ornamental” refer to something in excess of what is necessary, an uncontrolled and nonessential kind of beauty. “Carefully composed” and “balanced” mean more or less the opposite: a sense that the image is too tightly constructed. [↩]
- Yumibe cites new commercial dyes as partly responsible for the interest in and suspicion of color in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, in Moving Color, chapter 1. [↩]
- Jeffrey Meikle covers these charges in American Plastic, chapter 9–charges which, I’m suggesting here, are similar to those leveled against color. [↩]