Editor’s Note: This piece took first place for The Larry L. Stewart Prize For Critical Essay On Entertainment. Thanks to everyone who entered this year!
Like many people, I imagine, I spent most of The Lego Movie thinking I had it all figured out. This was a self-aware love letter to a great toy line that proudly waved its age-old banners of “be creative” and “everyone is a special individual.” Then, of course, came the third-act twist that the whole scenario of ragtag-band-saving-the-world is actually being played out by a boy named Finn in a basement with his dad’s Legos. The dad comes down, tells Finn off for messing up his perfect, super-glued diorama, and the revelation comes that the Lego villain Lord Business (and his obsession with order) has been an allegory for the father this whole time.
But do the father and son represent a further allegory? It’s easy to see Emmet, the everyman-Lego-turned-Chosen-One-who-gets-to-hang-out-with-Batman, as a sort of power-fantasy self-insert character for a child defying a strict parent. But it wasn’t until the final confrontation between Emmet and Lord Business, paralleled by Finn’s reconciliation with his dad, that I recognized a similar relationship being played out: that of creators and their fans.
One of the great pop culture debates of the past few decades has been the validity (and legality) of fanworks: creative endeavors undertaken by fans in which they make their own material based on someone else’s intellectual property. Is it art? Is it legal? Should it be allowed? There have been many creators over the years who have denounced fanfiction written about their worlds and characters: calling it “lesser” and “derivative,” being highly protective of their own material, or saying that fanwork sullies or otherwise lessens the value and credibility of their original work. George R.R. Martin, for instance, has stated that:
Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.
My characters are my children…I don’t want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children. I’m sure that’s true, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the affection, but still…No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me.
I still believe the best defense of fanworks is that people who make them are, in fact, the original work’s best fans. They spent their time, energy, and in the cases of things like cosplay and fan films, money on projects that are purely labors of love. Of course, anyone can create a story with their favorite worlds and characters with a little imagination. But what’s one of the biggest providers of physical components to help children get started on these adventures for themselves? Lego. When they put out a playset of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Batman, you name it, they’re handing beloved universes over to new minds to let them go wild with them.
When the dad looks down a second time at his son’s work, with an intrigued “did you make this?”, he begins to see it more as a new creation instead of vandalism. Finn wasn’t destroying his dad’s hard work, he was using it as the basis for something creative and new. If we continue with the parallel that Emmet and Lord Business are Finn and his father, respectively, then Emmet’s last speech that talks Lord Business down is not a statement of resistance, but of respect. “You are the most talented, most interesting, most extraordinary person in the universe.” And I’m sure that’s something that any fan would love to say to the people who made their favorite books or movies or TV shows or video games.
In this final scene, The Lego Movie may very well be appealing not just to the creativity of children and fans everywhere but also to the original creators themselves, particularly those who frown upon fanworks. It’s saying “look how much you inspire people. Look how much they love your creations and want to create more.” As a creator myself, I’ve experienced that sad-but-proud feeling of giving your content to the fans who will take it and make it their own. I’ve seen completely new ideas spring from it, things I would have never thought of or things that weren’t what I had planned but were still so much better. I do still understand Martin’s attitude of characters being children that you don’t want anyone else to spoil, but I also understand that feeling of someone else, especially someone who looks up to you, really liking a thing you made.
Was Finn rude for playing with his dad’s stuff without permission? Maybe. Was the dad being greedy by not letting his son touch things that were meant to be played with? Maybe. Did it all work out when they compromised and played together? Yes. Sometimes you just need to let the kids play with your toys.