Why Do All the LEGO Movies Have Daddy Issues?

Will Ferrell in The Lego Movie

The LEGO Movie wowed critics back in 2014 with its clever stop-motion-mimicking animation, visually dazzling design scheme and insightful satire of summer-blockbuster "hero's journey" cliches; but the biggest surprise of all was the slowly-emerging twist that the entire story had actually been taking place in a sprawling LEGO display in a basement somewhere in the "real" world (and/or the imagination of the small boy playing with it). Even then, the film had one more surprise within the twist itself: poignancy. It's ultimately revealed that the main characters' quest (to stop the evil President Business from freezing the LEGO Universe solid) was a dramatization of the boy's frustrated relationship with his father (Will Ferrell) - who crazy-glues his LEGO together and forbids anyone else from playing with them.

It was a particularly masterful twist, serving as both a reinforcement of the LEGO brand-identity as a creativity-focused family toy, and also as a legitimately moving emotional denouement once Ferrell's unnamed dad character finally takes notice of his son's potent creativity and realizes who "President Business" is supposed to be. Granted, the film's storytelling and visual panache were probably strong enough that it still would've been a hit otherwise, but hitting even those who didn't have some kind of nostalgic connection to the famous toy brand square in "the feels" absolutely helped elevate The LEGO Movie from box office hit to full-blown cultural phenomenon. Given that sort of success, it's not entirely surprising that four follow-ups (and counting!) were greenlit in its immediate aftermath.

The first of those follow-ups (only one of which has been slated as a direct sequel), The LEGO Batman Movie, aimed to repeat a version of that multi-layered surprise depth on its own end. The main plot involved a scheme by The Joker to import an army of LEGO villains from other Warner Bros.-owned properties to conquer Gotham City, while the emotional core of the narrative centered on Will Arnett's Batman (who affects a brutal parody of the post-1980s "dark loner" version of the character) learning that he needs family in his life after all - chiefly by being a better surrogate father to his adopted son Robin.

Looking for ideological "patterns" and recurring themes is one of the main obvious ways in which audiences looking to form a deeper understanding of art and entertainment do so. It's the basis of most schools of art-critique, most relevantly the "auteur model" that represents the standard of film criticism ever since it was first suggested in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema over a half-century ago: Recurring visual motifs, stylistic choices and narrative themes form the basis of a filmmaker's "signature" across multiple seemingly-unrelated works. It also happens to be how most people generally process information through extrapolation and deductive reasoning - look for how often something happens in order to intuit how likely it is to happen again, and follow the patterns to determined their source.

Where that model potentially breaks down, however, is that there are more hands steering the filmmaking process than ever. The LEGO films deliberately affect a small, hand-made stylistic aesthetic and quirky sense of humor, but they're nonetheless multi-million dollar studio investments. They "star" characters drawn from popular licensed brands reimagined through a design-scheme that is itself the "brand" of the world's most powerful toy company (worth over $14.6 billion). While it's possible that one or two highly-placed voices in the development of the LEGO film franchise has some specific familial concerns that can't help but manifest in the work - it's also not that likely.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie arrived in theaters last week, and it's a first for the franchise in that it represents the LEGO Movie formula of using the comedy inherent in characters being self-aware that they and their universe exist as interchangeable plastic bricks, but otherwise treading by now familiar ground. There's another unsure-of-himself hero, another quest to stop a LEGO city from being destroyed by sinister forces, another magical macguffin that's (hilariously) revealed to be a common item somehow imported from the "real world" and - yes - another main narrative through-line that's ultimately all about a boy struggling with Bad Dad Problems.

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