Like Children's Toys: Portrayals of Faith in The Lego Movie

Up until its climax, The LEGO Movie follows a team of LEGO people in their attempt to prevent the evil overlord, Lord Business, from freezing the entire world in place with a bottle of Krazy Glue. The LEGO people, led by Emmett, an average construction worker LEGO, appear to have failed; doomsday begins. But then our attention shifts to a young human boy named Finn playing with a plastic LEGO Emmett in his basement, and we realize that we have merely been watching Finn play with LEGOs the entire film. 

More pointedly, Finn has been playing with his father’s LEGOs, disrupting their meticulous placement in separate and thematically appropriate worlds—knights, pirates, etc. Finn’s Father (Will Ferrell), the LEGO world’s controlling, tyrannical creator is furious when he discovers his son’s shenanigans. Lord Business (conveniently, also played by Will Ferrell), with his plans for complete control, turns out to be Finn’s fictional representation of his father. Finn’s imagination also spawns the prophecy of “the Special,” a messianic LEGO prophesied to save the world. Between Lord Business and the Special, the film accomplishes thinly veiled religious commentary, which while cleverly implemented is ultimately disappointing in its simplicity and condescension.

THE LORD IS A JEALOUS AND AVENGING GOD

The LEGOs occasionally refer to a mysterious figure conveniently named “The Man Upstairs.” Of course, this is just Finn’s Father, who created the LEGO world down in his basement, and first appears in the film standing ominously at the top of the stairs. While this is a cute gag, it’s also our first reference point by which we can explore the parallels between Finn’s Father, Lord Business, and Judeo-Christian God—beginning with the film’s retelling of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. 

The Biblical account begins: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” Humanity decides to build a tower that “reaches to the Heavens.” But God objects: “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse the language so they will not understand each other.” So God “scatter[s] them from there all over the earth,” reasserting control. Similarly, LEGO legend recalls a time when “all the people in the universe were once free to travel and mingle, and build whatever they wanted. But President Business was confused by all the chaos. So he erected walls between these worlds and became obsessed with order and perfection.” 

The narratives beg to be read in parallel. We learn in the first sentences that “the whole world” and “all the people in the universe” were unified. We’re next told that they built together. But a powerful figure invades each story and is worried by what he sees—President Business by lack of order, God by what humanity might do unchecked. So they divide up all the people and, through language or through walls, prevent their further cooperation. The film condemns them as control freaks who privilege power and order over societal progress. Through Lord Business and his human analogue “the Man Upstairs”, God is characterized as a stifling force, preventing human expression and unity.

Echoing Lord Business’s doomsday plan to freeze the world with a bottle of Krazy Glue, Finn’s Father tells his son, “Let’s put everything back the way we found it, so I can make everything the way it’s supposed to be—permanently.” The two tyrants’ twisted plans belie the film’s reductive understanding of Christian eschatology, one in which God destroys dissenters and forces the world back under his despotic rule. The film-makers, with their revelatory explanation of Christian theology, are shocked that anyone ever thought this was a good idea!

A SAVIOR IS BORN

The film casts parallels not only between Lord Business/Finn’s Father and God, but between Emmett the Special and Jesus Christ. Emmett’s quite the run-of-the-mill messianic protagonist. The film is fully aware of what a trope he is and leverages that for laughs, generically dubbing him “the Special” and repeatedly referring to him as some variation of “the most talented, most interesting, and most important person in the universe.” In the opening scene of the movie, a blind prophet named Vetruvius does battle with Lord Business. As Vetruvius is defeated, he predicts in verse that one day the “greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times” will “thwart the Kragle and save the realm.” Like Christ, the Special is prophesied long before his coming. But those around Emmett repeatedly assert that he’s an ordinary, un-special construction worker, just as the Gospels recount that people dismissed Jesus as an ordinary carpenter. Additionally, it is emphasized that destroying the Kragle may cause an explosion that would kill the Special, making Emmett, like Christ, a sacrificial savior. 

A few other tidbits key us into the intentionality of this Christian comparison. Upon his capture by Lord Business, we encounter Emmett strapped to a battery with wires emerging from each side, forming a figurative cross. At this point, when it appears that Emmett’s messianic mission has failed, Lord Business’sKragle-carrying fleet spreads out over the world, and he declares: “Don’t worry about the big, black monolith blocking out the sun!” After Christ’s apparent defeat, Luke writes that “the sun’s light failed” and “darkness came over the land.” And like Christ’s disciples, Emmet’s friends lament, believing him lost—but he comes back from the dead with an enlightened message.

WE SHALL BE SAVED FROM THE WRATH OF GOD THROUGH HIM

It would seem contradictory that the film’s supposed Old Testament God is pitted against its Christ figure, disrupting the flow of its Biblical parallels. But I would argue, at risk of overstating how these parallels operate, that the film breaks from the Biblical relationship of Father and Son intentionally. In fact, it argues that the Father of the Old Testament’s anger and selfishness are diametrically opposed to the Son’s vision of salvation from oppression. This is underscored by Finn’s own vision of salvation from his Father’s iron fist. The Heavenly Father, the film asserts, is part of the oppression from which humanity needs saving; Christianity, then, is inconsistent and ultimately unsatisfying.

This accusation of inconsistency becomes apparent when we examine the “evil” that the Special has come to defeat. It is not hedonism, unrest, or disobedience that the film takes issue with, but rather the restriction of human freedom. Lord Business becomes the antagonist by prioritizing order and control over progress, creativity, and joy. Like Christians did to their heretics so well for so many years, Lord Business “captured and tortured” master builders, the LEGO artists and forward thinkers who dared to try change anything, all to gratify his obsession with order. This gets at the root of the parallel between Lord Business and God: what the film thinks we need to be saved from is not sin, but the archaic, despotic God that we think loves us.

THE STONE THAT THE BUILDERS REJECTED...

But the solution of a salvific figure is also subject to critique. From the film’s perspective, Christianity is mistaken to place its hope in a single supernatural messiah. Instead, it calls us all to utilize our (naturalistic) “specialness” to achieve progress. As Lord Business is freezing the LEGO world in place, the “resurrected” Emmett implores him:

You don’t have to be the bad guy. You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things, because you are the special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up. But it’s also true! It’s about all of us. Right now, it’s about you. And you still can change everything.

“And so is everyone.” The film acknowledges that there isn’t some “most extraordinary person in the universe” come to save the world; but humans, working together, can still save themselves. “Look at all these things that people built!” Emmett tells Lord Business, in a nod to Babel. “You might see it as a mess...what I see is people inspired by each other. And you. People taking what you made, and making something new out of it!” This is a pathetic, patronizing attempt at consoling Christians whose entire worldview is being ceremoniously thrown in the garbage. The film wants Christians, supposed ideological conservatives in a world of progress, to recognize that the change around them is simply the next step for humanity. 

Belief in a supernatural savior, rather than human potential, is ridiculed through the film’s depiction of messianic prophecy. The world is to be saved by “the greatest, most important, most interesting person of all times. All of this is true,” Vetruvius prophesies, “because it rhymes.” The blind prophet literally leads the blind—and we believe him because he’s a good poet. Of course, by the end of the film, when Emmett and the master builders appear defeated, Vetruvius admits that he made the prophecy up. He tells Emmett he knew that anyone who found the Kragle’s cap could be the special, because all one needs to be special is to believe in one’s self. “But how can I just decide to believe that I’m special when I’m not?” “Because the world depends on it!” The LEGOs believe Emmett is their messiah out of desperation, a certain desire and strength of will, rather than objective reasoning. Some New Testament scholars make a similar argument: the disciples so wanted Jesus to be the messiah that they simultaneously hallucinated his resurrection. In reality, the film tells us, the messiah was never resurrected; he was just a guy who had some good ideas about throwing off the yoke of oppression, and who a bunch of wishful thinkers—like children playing with toys—decided to see as supernaturally “special.”

The structure of the film’s frame story also utilizes the concept of distorting reality through the lens of faith. Finn, when imagining the LEGOs as alive, throws them through a cardboard tube on which he has scrawled “magic portal.” He views reality through this constructed lens and sees the imaginary. Similarly, Vetruvius tells Emmett, “All you have to do is to believe. Then, you will see everything.” This is the film’s broadest critique of religion: that people of faith look at the world through a spiritual lens, falsely believing that everything they see is divinely “meaningful.” 

Is anything meaningful, then? It depends on how you define meaning. We spend most of the film seeing Emmett as a sentient, self-determining LEGO, a living entity. It turns out, however, that he’s an inanimate piece of plastic whose entire reality is in the hands of a child. And as a piece of plastic, he can’t move, he can’t speak, he can’t save the world. But just as Finn’s Father is about to glue the LEGOs in place, we see Emmett barely manage to wiggle off the end of a table. This catches Finn’s attention and inspires him to implore his dad one last time to let the LEGOs be. Despite his revealed unimportance, Emmett’s small act is still a catalyst for progress, and the film wants us to see this as meaningful. While humans lack true metaphysical significance, each of us can contribute to the larger story of humanity.

Emmett’s fulfillment in the absence of meaning is characteristic of the film’s atheistic humanism. The LEGO Movie has full certitude (or perhaps we should say faith) that we will be better off when we get rid of our damn superstition. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with making an atheist movie. But there is something innately condescending about pointing and laughing at beliefs you think are childish and absurd without providing truly thoughtful critique. The LEGO Movie instead distorts my religious convictions to the point of making them nearly unrecognizable. This is not to say that religion can’t impede progress and creativity; clearly it can and often does. But to reduce all of Christendom to blind warmongers with Stockholm Syndrome towards their captor God is simply dishonest reductionism. I’m no “culture war” hawk—I think the idea of a culture war is ridiculous—but The LEGO Movie does its best to fire a few shots. For a film that promotes ideological progress, The LEGO Movie does a pretty crappy job of fostering constructive dialogue.

Posted on October 2, 2015 .