I took my 9- and 5-year-old daughters to see The LEGO Movie on the second day it was out, and all three of us loved it. It is a true family film, one that can be enjoyed by different age groups at different levels — kids will love the humor, the action, that song they won’t stop singing once they get home, and, hey, it’s LEGO, while their parents will appreciate all the references to the kits and playsets of their childhoods, the inside jokes (ones that stick in my mind include the bearded fantasy wizard confusion, needy Green Lantern, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson playing parodies of their archetypal screen personas, and, of course, Batman and his song), and the amazingly detailed art and animation. It is also more subversive and heartwarming than you’d expect an hour-and-a-half-long corporate toy commercial could ever be.
Because whatever else it is, you have to admit that a movie based on a beloved corporate-owned toy line, complete with marketing that includes brand new toys based on the self-same movie, is a self-referential marketing vehicle meant to sell more toys. How some people <cough, Fox News> can think that a movie based on a product for sale by a large company designed to sell more of said product, all while raking in money and making box-office records, is anti-business boggles the mind.
The thing is, though, it’s not a straightforward commercial. This is a canny one, aimed at the hearts, minds, and wallets of a parental generation that remembers creating anything and everything out of big, themeless containers of mixed bricks while at the same time navigating contemporary store shelves stocked with very specific, themed, story-lined, art-directed, gendered products while shopping for their kids. And trying to have it both ways, the LEGO Powers That Be seem to be saying, yes, keep buying all these product lines we’re making (even, ironically, follow-the-instructions playsets of the film’s anarchic mishmashed Cloud Cuckoo Land), but don’t forget that feeling of crossing boundaries, ignoring instructions, and creating new things that you had when you were a kid with your first box of LEGO bricks — and more important, don’t forget to foster that same feeling in your own kids now.
These are the lessons I left the theater with last Saturday, holding my daughters’ hands as they sang “Everything is AWESOME!!!” all the way home, the lessons that underscore the needed reminder that, as much as any household chore that has to get done, playing with my girls is something that needs to happen daily, too:
Mix and match.
Throw out the rules and instructions (at least for now, as structure, and learning how to deal with it, does have its place).
Stop freaking out about the condition of your NIB collectibles or perfectly-constructed-by-the-book models and give your kids a copy they can play with, get dirty, experiment with, even break.
Share your enthusiasms, but let them lead.
Don’t take over.
Help them learn how to manage frustration, how to try again or try something different, how to be open to making mistakes and learning from them (sometimes even learning that they weren’t really mistakes to begin with).
Let the joy on their faces be contagious as they build things they, and you, have never seen before.
Then do it all over again.