Study Guide

Theodor Adorno Files

Everything Is/Is Not Awesome: The Dialectics of The LEGO Movie

By Theodor W. Adorno, Culture Critic of Critical Theorist Weekly

The film industry is clearly toying with me. With The LEGO Movie, it has mass produced a frantic motion picture, based on frantically manufactured and marketed toys, that critically satirizes identity thinking and other social ills the plague the culture industry's system of mass production.

The LEGO Movie is the most Adorno-esque movie ever made. This is nothing short of astounding, given that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made a movie obviously designed to sell itself, sell LEGO toys, and sell other movie-related merchandise. Talk about working through contradictions.

Despite the efforts of ideologically-minded movie critics, The LEGO Movie doesn't fit nicely into any ideological camp. It's much too dialectical for such easy categorization.

Take the villain, Lord Business. His business is perpetuating the culture industry in a way that suits his own desires. He wants everything nice and orderly: no mixing up pieces, no combining different LEGO worlds (like the knight world and the cowboy world). Everything must have its proper place and stay there.

To accomplish this, Lord Business uses the power of his presidency, but he also uses the ideology of the market. He has convinced the population that their happiness comes from watching the same TV show and buying the same "overpriced" coffee. These people follow along not only because Lord Business has a police force hanging around to execute his rule, but also because they want to follow. They enjoy the "culture" that Lord Business has mass-produced and sold them. Pop music tells them that everything is awesome, and they believe it.

LEGOs actually function this way in the real world. You buy a set of them and follow the instructions. The sets are made to be constructed according to the instructions; they're not meant to be mixed and combined with other sets. You can ignore the instructions, but because of the way sets are designed these days, the results often have a chaotic look, as if the pieces don't belong together. Like Lord Business, the LEGO company encourages conformity. So the LEGO company is actually like the bad guy in The LEGO Movie.

Is your head spinning yet?

Conformity, too, is treated dialectically in the movie. When the heroic master builders try to escape the minions of Lord Business through their own individual creativities, their efforts work against them. They have to work together—they have to conform to a master plan—before they can escape. Conformity to the instructions is sometimes necessary.

Despite obvious references to social realities, The LEGO Movie maintains its autonomy by refraining from putting up direct messages about the real world. The film doesn't tell you to follow instructions or not to follow instructions. It doesn't tell you that big business is good or that big business is bad. It doesn't even tell you to go buy more LEGO sets (though you probably will).

I suppose it's possible that I've been duped. Perhaps The LEGO Movie is pure corporate propaganda disguised as social criticism. Could be, but I don't think so. On the contrary, what makes The LEGO Movie so awesome is that it's social criticism disguised as a mass-produced commodity. It appeals to the sensibilities of the ticket-buyers while existing in opposition to the filmmaking industry, its prevailing ideology, and its exchange-based rationality. I hope it will prove to be a Trojan horse in the culture industry.

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