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GOP Sen. Ron Johnson: The Lego Movie’s 100 minutes of product placement is “anti-business"

Why exactly does Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) hate The Lego Movie?
Why exactly does Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) hate The Lego Movie?
Warner Bros.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has decided to take aim at an unusual foe: an animated kids' movie.

It started with an interview published Thursday on WisPolitics.com:

[Johnson] lamented what he called a "cultural attitude" that "government is good and business is bad," giving as an example the animated "LEGO" movie, in which the villain is called "Lord Business."

"That's done for a reason," Johnson said. "They're starting that propaganda, and it's insidious."

The Huffington Post picked up the story, to which Johnson responded with a blog post and numerous tweets.

If you want to know why Johnson thinks The Lego Movie is anti-business — and why I think he's wrong to interpret the film in this way — I can tell you.

But I'm going to have to spoil The Lego Movie, so go watch it first, because it's really good.

Why is Johnson so mad at The Lego Movie?

In a sense, he's already told you. The villain of the film is named Lord Business (called President Business when he's at work). Voiced by Will Ferrell, the character has an evil plan to make sure no one in the movie's Lego world expresses his or her creativity.

Is it a little weird to criticize a movie that began its life as product placement for being anti-business? To be sure. But the film's themes back up Johnson, at least a little bit.

As you might expect, these Lego people can reconstruct their environment in various expressive ways, because everything is made out of blocks. (Sorry, Lego fans. Interlocking bricks.)

Lord Business, however, knows, deep down, that in a post-scarcity economy where anybody can construct anything they need out of the raw materials that surround them, there's really no need for capitalism. So he sells to the world a kind of enforced conformity, complete with the catchiest song you will hear today. (Seriously, do not click on the below video if you are susceptible to earworms.)

The battle of the film, then, is between the forces of originality, as represented by the film's heroes, and conformity, as represented by Lord Business. It's also between the idea that you should use your Legos to build whatever you want and the idea that you should use them to only build what's pictured on the box and in the instructions (though the film is quick to assure you that if you want to follow the instructions, that's cool, too, so long as everybody gets to play with Legos like they want).

Ah, I get it. Johnson is mad that the film suggests that corporations = conformity, when, really, all personal expression is merely a copy of something we've seen someone else do and, therefore, true originality is a lie?

I mean, maybe!

But mostly he seems to be upset that the character's name is Lord Business. He quotes, often, a March 2015 Wall Street Journal essay on this topic by Doug Haugh.

Writes Haugh (using the very thinnest of news pegs):

The Lego Movie didn’t win an Academy Award last weekend, nor was it even nominated for best animated feature, but its half-billion-dollar box-office success means that its impact has already been accounted for. Tens of millions of children have been influenced by the evil exploits of its villain, President Business. The movie that did win the Oscar in the animated-feature category: Big Hero 6, which centers in part on a sinister technology company.

...

As the president of the energy company Mansfield, and the father of 6- and 7-year-old children, both of whom love animated movies, I have found that these characterizations hit me particularly hard. They prompt my children to view me not as the leader I’m supposed to be, but as a movie-villain incarnate.

To be sure, there are anti-capitalist themes present in The Lego Movie, if you want to go looking for them; it's a movie about a corporation that wants to force everybody to act exactly the same way because it's better for the company's bottom line. That's not exactly hard-hitting satire, but it's subversive enough for a kids' movie.

Ron Johnson Matt Wilson/Getty Images

Sen. Ron Johnson. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In his blog post, Johnson mentions several reviews by critics that point out the film's many subversions, like this one in the Atlantic or this one in the Boston Globe. So it's not as if he and Haugh are alone with this one (though, to be honest, it's not immediately clear Johnson has seen this movie from the way he's talking about it).

But I also think — as a professional "gets paid to think about movies" person (whose profession served as the villain of another animated kids' classic) — that Johnson and Haugh are going about this all wrong. In fact, that second paragraph I quoted from Haugh is very telling, to be honest.

Okay, I'm going to spoil The Lego Movie now.

Why do you think they're missing the point?

There's a very specific, plot-derived reason for Lord Business to be an evil businessman. Within the world of The Lego Movie, everything that happens in the movie's plot is being imagined by a young boy. In the film's third-act, its hero manages to leave his Lego world and travel to our "real" one, where he witnesses that the battle with Lord Business in Lego reality mirrors the tensions between the boy and his father.

That father is played by Will Ferrell — as a workaday, businessman stiff who gets most of his pleasure from building elaborate Lego worlds in his basement. He doesn't allow his children to touch said Lego worlds, and he has a plan to eventually use Krazy Glue to hold everything together forever.

Thus, Lord Business is an attempt by a young boy to understand what motivates and drives his father, and to understand why his father won't let the kid play with his amazingly detailed Lego worlds.

Look back at the second paragraph I quoted by Haugh. The tension he relates there — my children will think I'm a monster! — is one familiar to almost any working parent who fears there's never enough time to split between satisfying one's career ambitions and being a good parent to a child. The character arc of the father in The Lego Movie (and, by extension, Lord Business) is literally about that very tension, and it's resolved when the dad realizes that spending time with his children is all that matters to being a good parent, even if that means his Lego cities get wrecked and rebuilt.

So The Lego Movie isn't anti-business, except in the most incredibly basic of senses. No, it's pro-working parent, in an incredibly generous, surprisingly deep sense. The Lego Movie isn't trying to tell Haugh's kids their dad is a monster for being a businessman. It's trying to tell them how wonderful it is that he would take them to the movies in the first place.