In a sense, my 9 year old wrote the screenplay for The Lego Movie. Not the actual script, of course. Nicolas is in grade 4, and is still working on his cursive. But the main theme of this brilliant film emerges out of his practice, out of his daily life, out of the normal way he plays.
I first noticed it just before Christmas. Nicolas decided to make a nativity scene on his Lego table. He has enjoyed the Brick Testament, so I was looking forward to the project. In the end he produced a monstrosity of mixed worlds, a mosaic of universes crowded around a Lego manger. Attending the promised child were Lego construction workers, various kinds of animals from every toy universe imaginable, action figure pirates, medieval knights in full colours on horseback, and at least one Star Wars figurine with light sabre in hand. If he was a little younger, no doubt Thomas the Tank Engine would have circled the Christ child with his manically happy grin.
When his masterpiece was complete, I stared in amazement. How could he mix all these worlds? There is a droid standing next to a McDonald’s toy? What has Batman to do with Lego City? What has Medieval Europe to do with the Intergalactic Star Fleet? Rebels indeed.
It wasn’t until I took Nicolas to The Lego Movie that it all came together for me. He has been desperate to see this film, and was crushed when it was sold out on Saturday. We got tickets for Sunday, and by the time the opening credits rolled, he was fixed on the screen. In just a few days since its release, the movie has become a schoolyard legend. Without seeing the trailer, Nicolas spoke the punch lines in time with the animated heroes on the giant screen. It was then I realized it:
If you haven’t seen the film, that probably doesn’t make sense. President Business is the bureaucratic bad guy, a suit-wearing super-villain who goes insane when people mess with the pristine order of Lego kits. He wants all Lego to be super neat, precisely as set out in the instruction booklet, placed meticulously in its own world. For President Business, it is an abomination that Lego City should mix with Middle Earth or Ninjago Lego. And he declares war on the “Master Builders,” a group of Lego misfits that find their inner creativity by using the Lego to build anything they can imagine.
It is a deadly mix, and a monstrous melange of alternate worlds. The Master Builders include figures like an incredibly annoying Green Lantern, Batman with an identity crisis, Morgan Freeman as a creepy blind prophet, a flying Abraham Lincoln, a bipolar Liam Neeson, a weird unicorn kitty unikitty, and that freelancing Spaceman Lego figurine from the 80s, complete with cracked helmet. And as one of the characters say in the “Behind the Bricks” featurette, the “cool part is, all these different Lego worlds come together.”
I don’t think that’s cool. Which is why I am Lord Business.
I like worlds to be neat, tidy, and in their own place. I mean, imagine if aliens invaded Avonlea and convinced Anne of Green Gables to run for Darth Vader’s position in the Empire after he wimped out. Or imagine if our friendly neighbourhood Spiderman rescued Aslan from the White Witch’s grasp, or Peter Rabbit spoke to Frodo while he slept fitfully. It would be a mess, and people should stay in their own worlds. I mean, come on!
But you must see what I mean, right? Universes should stay where they belong. The first rule of creating a speculative world is that it has to be tight, consistent, a universe that obeys laws the author prescribes. As J.K. Rowling said, “the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.” All the details “bubbled up” in her imagination largely intact and she created a tight world where magic folk live on the threshold of the Muggle world. This is how a world should be built.
The Lego Movie breaks all those rules. And that’s the point—that’s the plotline, actually. The movie emerges out of the imagination of a child playing with Lego, so it is full of alternate universes crashing together. The beauty of the film is in its deconstruction of all the rules of world-building. It’s what makes it a brilliant film.
So, will President Business be won over in the end? I’ll leave it to the reader to find out. But in watching my son, I have learned a great deal about how worlds work. I still don’t think that universes should leak—they should still follow an inner logic, streambeds that allow the story to flow through to the end of its course. But I wonder how much we could learn as writers in watching children play. Who knows? This might be the next frontier in world building.