The Lego Movie is the Ultimate Parenting Story


Joshua Gans
Feb 9, 2014 · 8 min read

Yes, there really are spoilers. This is one of those movies like ‘The Crying Game’ or ‘The Sixth Sense’ that you can’t properly talk about or appreciate unless you have seen it. So if you haven’t, stop here, and come back when you have. And if you aren’t going to see the movie, don’t bother reading more as this discussion is not going to make sense.

Now that we are on the same page you are probably wondering why I have called the Lego Movie, “the Ultimate Parenting Story.” For all but the last 15 minutes, it was a Lego-themed, Toy Story like adventure. Of course, the last 15 minutes turned it into a real-world story with the Lego amination seemingly a backdrop. That, however, would be to examine the movie’s trees without considering the forest.

Before going on, every single review that I have seen — virtually all of them lauding the Lego Movie as a brilliant feature — have completely failed to understand that it is the ultimate parenting story. Indeed, they barely mention parenting at all. This I put down to them trying not to reveal spoilers but having listened to Slate’s ‘Spoiler Review’ by Dana Stevens and David Haglund I have come to suspect that the reviewers may well have completely missed the point. Stevens and Haglund actually believed that the movie overplayed an ‘anti-business’ stand that they thought was a bit much. In actuality, it never presented an ‘anti-business’ stand at all. Instead, they were confused by the naming of the chief villian as ‘Lord Business’ as some sort of characture of evil businesses (perhaps even the Lego company itself). Instead, the word ‘business’ is a child’s definition meaning ‘it’s all business and no fun.’ That is, it is the embodiment of the ‘rule-maker’ being evil and overly focussed. It has nothing to do with capitalism.

[On that note, I was amazed at how little the Lego company has put in to promoting this movie. Yes, there are some new sets but that is it. There is no app and before the movie no Lego ads. Instead, in our theatre that space was left to Hasbro who promoted their Lego copying products in several slots. Given that no one was rushing out of the theatre before the movie, I suspect that those were the least effective advertisements ever.]

Back to my main point: My claim is that Lego Movie is about a central parenting tension that pervades all families — well, at least, it is about a central ‘First World’ parenting issue — the tension between rules and discretion with respect to our children. More importantly, it steps away from the traditional genre with respect to that tension. There is no ‘I’m a teenager and can help if you will just release the shackles’ vs ‘You have to understand that I’m trying to protect you’ thing. There is no ‘I’m stuck in a house where no one gets my brilliance’ vs ‘You may be brilliant in some areas but I know other stuff that’s important’ story. There is no ‘I’d like more attention from my parents but they are too busy to notice’ vs ‘I’m having a hard time here and trying my best so we should go for quality rather than quantity’ tension. It is fundamentally generic which means that The Lego Movie has a formidable challenge in getting it across.

The approach the Lego Movie’s writers and directors ultimately choose is to present to us a story written by a child. Before coming to the movie, I had expected it to be a fantasy about what a child might write if they had access to a ton of Lego. Hence, the trailers that focussed on the unfamiliar, yet natural interactions between characters from alternative franchises. However, right from the first minute, it was clear that Lego itself was going to play a key role. The characters in this story were following Lego instruction sheets as if they were gospel and, of course, they are totally fine and very happy with that singing the same song “Everything is Awesome” over and over again. The song itself is the sort of song a child might make up until you listen a little more carefully to its clear rationale for the rule-following status quo.

Then the movie follows a predictable line if it is going to be about Lego — that is how the writers suck you in. For adults in the audience we can now see where this is going: the central character who is the least interesting Lego character and also made out to be a complete pawn suppressing the clear loneliness in his life is going to be disrupted by an underground movement devoted to using Lego to create new things — the so-called Master Builders. And then we expect the tyranny of the rules to be over-thrown and the world and everyone in it, including Emmett the builder, to be more interesting and fundamentally happy.

For the next hour, we parents can comfortably sit, knowing that the movie is going in safe territory and expecting being able to encourage our kids to be more creative at the end of it. Throughout the process, the movie is great. The child-like plot is peppered with adult pop cultural references and a love triangle between Emmett, Lucy (named other things at that point) and Batman. So we are all happy.

But there are wrinkles. If you had read a review, you knew some plot twist was coming. And we saw what that was going to be: this story was being played out by a child in the real-world. There were ‘relics’, which were no Lego objects, as part of the story. Some pieces were broken. And Emmett is able to see what was clearly a hand. OK, we smart adults knew what was coming and the children would think that was cool. It should all reinforce the theme of creativity. But then I wondered, “what kid has that much Lego?”

So it finally happens that Emmett falls into the real world and we see a kid playing in a basement with a massive Lego world. Before anyone has a chance to think that this kid is spoilt, his father comes lumbering down the stairs and we see that it is Will Ferrell, the voice of Lord Business, and now there was silence in the theatre. The boy playing with Lego was playing with his father’s Lego and the whole plot of his story was not about the Lego corporation but about the relationship between this father and his son. This whole scene just got really real.

I said the theatre was quiet at this point. It wasn’t. My two eldest children were laughing hysterically. While for everyone else the revelation had been “it’s his dad” for my children it was “it’s dad” and they knew it was only going to get better for them. You see, I’m not quite the dad in the movie but I have got into Lego in a big way. I have been collecting Star Wars lego for years and have many models around the house that are ‘off limits.’ No one has given me the real estate of a basement (not yet anyway: I am planning that when some children are shipped off to college) but at the very least, I want that.

This is exemplified by my son’s reaction following the movie:

I envy those children who can’t relate to this movie.

And on Facebook and elsewhere, my parent friends who had seen the movie were laughing at me too. “I know someone like that” as if to say “this movie is about the children of one of those strange parents.”

Now I have to admit, when you see that and you are like me you take a good look at your choices. Were my kids really suffering? Did I not let them in enough? As it turned out, I did. They don’t want for Lego or other things. They have plenty to play with. And they get to make many of the sets that are on display. In fact, we all do, their mother included.

So it is tempting for many to think about the movie being about some ‘special’ parenting issue for some ‘special’ parents. This is especially the case with a narrative that suggests everyone is special in some way. However, let’s talk business here — and I mean the capitalist kind — do you really think they would make a movie of this magnitude to send a message to the parents who are also adult fans of Lego? What proportion of the population are they? Nothing percent I’d reckon. That leaves us with the impression it is about the movie writer’s own special childhood. But even then, that is surely incorrect.

Consider, instead, a broader approach. From a child’s point of view, being up against the rules and not being able to play or do what you want is the central fact of their existence. For the most part, they understand what the rules are for — there was no mystery why that unnamed kid’s father stopped him from playing with his Lego — and on many occasions, they like the rules. But many times a day, they hit those constraints and sometimes they break them and wonder why the world has to be so rule-based.

The untold struggle in much of what we do today as parents is that precise struggle. We need rules so that we don’t have to make decisions all the time and so that everyone can work together and not in conflict. Emmett actually has to teach the Master Builders that value of that at some point. But there are times when the rules are put in place but they need adjustment. In the movie, it turns out that the boy would like to play with Lego which is no surprise to the father and does not at all convince him to change the rules. Indeed, he is proposing to ‘double down’ and glue his pieces together.

Instead, the piece de resistance (notice what I did there) to the father is when he sees his son’s creations objectively and sees how they are both imaginative, well constructed, took a ton of time and gave life to his otherwise lifeless, instruction following, buildings. When he sees his son as being able to contribute, he changes his mind. The walls come down at that point.

The message here is unmistakable: it is OK to set rules in the name of efficiency even if that trade-off’s a child’s happiness at the moment but it is not OK if those rules are hindering a child’s development because ultimately that this the goal of parenting. How often do our rules stifle alternative solutions to problems that are better for everyone? How often is it the case that a child has a voice that should be heard but in our rush to keep things together we miss that voice?

The Lego Movie, when you really think about it, is about all parents and I suspect that is not lost on most children seeing the movie. The problem is, and perhaps this is where the Lego Movie may actually fail, is that the Lego construction may actually have shrouded the central message in too much subtlety.

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Skoll Chair in Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. and

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