Follow the Instructions

Follow the Instructions

Emmett lives in a world where, in the words of his favourite song, ‘everything is awesome’. Each morning he wakes up smiling, eats breakfast, showers, cleans his teeth and travels to work, exchanging cheery greetings with his neighbours on the way. He and his co-workers sing as they go about their work, and socialise together in the evenings. There are instruction manuals guiding their every steps, and all seems perfect.

Except that President Business, who runs their world, isn’t happy with the creativity his people exhibit. He has a dastardly plan to unleash a secret weapon on the world and freeze it forever in perfection.

Emmett – ordinary, unremarkable, unmemorable Emmett – finds himself caught up in a bid to foil this evil plan aided (or perhaps ‘harangued’ would be a better word), by a girl called WyldStyle, an ancient prophet/Gandalf-style figure and Batman.

And so the Lego Movie begins.

It’s a creative, fast-moving and very colourful kids’ adventure story, of the type designed to appeal just as much to adults. Lots of the jokes would, I’m sure, go over the average child’s head – the friends are going to defeat the baddie using the ‘piece of resistance’, for instance, and one of his evil machines is called ‘the micro-manager’, which forces disobedient or creative people into the perfect position, for President Business to freeze them there – but that’s OK, it gives them new things to discover on repeat viewings as they grow older. Somehow, though, for me, the movie just didn’t quite fire on all cylinders.

I think part of the reason for that is there was just so much crammed in there. Every scene has loads of stuff going on, with richly detailed Lego scenery, and no-less-detailed plot twists developing through the action and dialogue. It seemed like every great idea anyone on the team had ever had had been included, whether that added to the overall shape of the movie or not. The adventure takes the friends to the Old West, to ‘Middle Zealand’ and to the middle of the ocean. Batman and various other superheroes turn up, as do various characters from Lord of the Rings (arguing about the pronunciation of ‘Dumbledore’), some basketball stars, and Abraham Lincoln – all for no adequately explored reason. At one point the heroes need a hyperdrive (or some other suitably space-shippy item, it was all moving so fast I missed it), and the space ship from Star Wars miraculously appeared… All very fun and creative, but it sort of started feeling like an advert for Lego’s amazing range, rather than Lego being used as a medium through which to tell a story. There’s something for everyone – but that means there are 7 billion things crammed into a 100-minute film. Which is a lot to take in.

My bigger concern, though, was with the worldview/message of the film.

The message, for most of the movie, is this: The ‘man upstairs’ has issued instructions, not just for how to build things, but for how to live your life, and he gets angry if people don’t follow the instructions. The people who do follow the instructions are portrayed as brainless morons; perfectly pleasant, but not in the same league as the superheroes. The cool people, the ones who are going to save the world, are creative thinkers who reject the instructions and go their own way.

Now, as someone who believes there is an all-powerful being who gave instructions for how to live in order that life would work as it should, and who has seen this belief mocked and ridiculed, and people who hold to it characterised, in movies and the media, as brainless morons – albeit perhaps perfectly pleasant ones – this kind of message raises red flags to me. It feeds into (or is born out of) the American distrust of Big Government and the idea that some powerful, evil dictator might want to micro-manage your life – and even if the life he then gives you is good and happy, the fact of the process by which it is achieved negates any possible good in the outcome, but I think it’s worth being alert to the wider spiritual level at which this operates.

To be fair, the results of extreme freedom of choice are demonstrated in a fluffy, pastel-coloured world called ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ where there are “No rules, no bed time, no baby sitters, no negativity and,” when someone points out that’s an awful lot of uses of the word ‘no’ for a place with no negativity, “no consistency.” If everyone does purely what is right in his or her own eyes all the time, you won’t have a happy, harmonious land, you’ll have chaos and anarchy.

[Slight spoiler alert]

Interestingly, after the typical ‘Look inside yourself to find the thing that makes you special’-type of message, the solution is found in following instructions and working as a team (two of the highest values espoused by President Business) after all. However, one of the characters explains that the lesson President Business should learn is that allowing his people to exercise their own creativity means they will take what he has created and make something new [and by implication better and more exciting] out of it. Relaxing the rules allows for creative expression and for improvement to the world we have been given.

To frame these reflections more positively, I think the Lego Movie gives Christians an opportunity to engage with a common misconception of God – he is not like President Business. Yes, he has given instructions that allow us and our world to flourish, but he isn’t afraid of creativity; in fact he positively encourages it. We are meant to take the world we’ve been given and cultivate it. We’re meant to paint pictures and plant gardens and write novels and sing songs. We’re supposed to explore far-flung places, learn from people of other cultures, share ideas and come up with new ones.

Thinking for yourself is not contrary to God’s plan and desire, but part of it. Creativity is not the opposite of following the instructions, but a vital part of it. When we get the two working together, everything really is awesome!

Picture Credit: Lego: Lincoln Speech by edwicks_toybox (Creative Commons)

6 Comments On This Topic
  1. Iain
    on Feb 24th at 12:47 pm

    Interesting! I saw it on Saturday with my daughter and had a very different reaction. Ask most 40-something parents about Lego and they’ll say ‘Lego today is all kits with instructions; in my day you just had a tub of lego and used your imagination.’ I thought, rather strikingly, they were tackling that criticism head on in the film. Lord Business is what the Lego company has become, the rebels are the children using Lego as it was originally intended. Lego sales will go up, certainly, and children will be driven back to their lego – but making things, and stories, from their own imagination rather than just following the instructions on specific kits.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Feb 24th at 1:16 pm

      Interesting. I too am 40-something and only remember my brother having kits with detailed instructions, whereas I just wanted to build (rather unimaginative) houses. I could see that his creations were more impressive – although it drove me crazy that you couldn’t actually for the Lego men inside the spaceships; they had to perch on top, or maybe one could go in the special driving seat, but then where were all his friends and his stuff?
      I think from this we learn that I have always had a tendency towards over-thinking things!
      I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Iain
    on Feb 24th at 1:36 pm

    Or perhaps we learn that two people who overthink things can overthink them in quite different ways!

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Feb 24th at 1:39 pm

      🙂 Maybe!

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Feb 24th at 11:00 pm

      PS Thanks for posting the link on your blog. 🙂

      • Iain
        on Feb 25th at 12:22 pm

        A pleasure! Who knows how long it would have taken me to get round to noting down my thoughts if I hadn’t been prompted by yours? Thanks.


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