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Friday, April 21, 2017

April 21, 2017: Animating History: The Lego Movie and Consumerism

[On April 17th, 1937, Daffy Duck made his debut, in the Warner Brothers cartoon “Porky’s Duck Hunt.” In honor of that foul-tempered feathered friend, this week I’ll AmericanStudy five animated histories. Share your thoughts on them, on Daffy, or on animation or cartoons of any kind for a weekend post that’s sure to draw a crowd!]
On consumerism, childhood, and contradiction. [Some SPOILERS for The Lego Movie follow.]
I’m sure there was some golden age when children’s cartoons weren’t directly tied into toys and other consumer products—but not so by my childhood, when I could play with my He-Man or G.I. Joe or Transformers figures while watching their TV shows and movies, when my younger sister could do the same with her My Little Ponies or Care Bears, and when one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons featured the exploits of a line of candy bears one could eat while watching their adventures (although that act of borderline cannibalism did always feel wrong to this young AmericanStudier). Indeed, in all of those cases (I believe) the toys or products preceded the animated shows and films, making the cultural works entirely inseparable from (if not simply a merchandising arm of) the consumer products. Which is to say, such synergies have been central to the experiences of American childhood for at least a few decades (and didn’t turn me into some sort of capitalist automaton, at least not to my knowledge).
On the other hand, even within that long history The Lego Movie (2014) could be seen as representing a new level of consumer culture. I refuse either to capitalize lego or to put the trademark symbol after it, but both are part of the film’s title, revealing just how fully the movie is a product of, well, a product. I was in a Lego Store with my boys before the film’s release, and even then a substantial percentage of the products for sale were direct movie tie-ins; I know from experience (what can I say, I spend a lot of time in toy stores) that the merchandising only ramped up in the weeks, months, and years since. Given that the film’s ultimate themes include both an emphasis on imaginative play that refuses to “follow directions” and a direct critique of corporate culture and conformity (in the form of the film’s villain, Lord Business), such consumer connections seem hugely ironic and even hypocritical, a position at the heart of Anthony Lane’s pointed review of the film in The New Yorker.
I take that point, but would push back on it to a degree as well. After all, a great deal of childhood, now as ever, is defined precisely by contradictions: between dependence and independence, safety and adventure, rules and fun, and, yes, consumerist conformity and imaginative inspiration. Which is to say, the presence of such contradictions in a film, as in any area of life, does not necessarily reflect hypocrisy so much as simply inevitable reality. The Lego Movie is a two-hour sales pitch; it’s also an imaginative, engaging, and effective story. My boys saw it and wanted to own some of the Lego products it includes; they also came out talking about its themes, about why it was important for the protagonists (both lego and human, although I won’t spoil it further than that) to break from the tyranny of conformity and Business and find their own path. I can’t say for sure which end of those spectrums was or is more influential, no more than I can say if my boys’ video game playing is more meaningful to their young lives or future development than our nightly chapter book reading. It’s all part of the childhood and cultural mix, and The Lego Movie is both a troubling and a thoughtful contribution to that mix as well.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other animation or cartoon thoughts you’d share?

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