Why Is Sen. Ron Johnson So Afraid of The Lego Movie?

It isn’t the anti-corporate propaganda he thinks it is. 

Business. Lego Movie.
The Lego Movie is so heartwarming that, if you aren’t careful, you’ll miss that it’s an advertisement.

Film still via Warner Bros

What do you call a $60 million film from a multibillion dollar multimedia company that grossed almost half a billion dollars?

If you’re most moviegoers, you call it The Lego Movie, one of the surprise hits of last year. But if you’re Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, you call it anti-business propaganda.

Speaking to members of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Chamber of Congress on Wednesday, Johnson lamented a “cultural attitude” that “government is good and business is bad,” singling out The Lego Movie for its villain, the tyrannical Lord Business, who rules the world and enforces total, regimented conformity through his all-powerful company, the Octan Corporation.

To Johnson, a millionaire who made his fortune in corporate boardrooms, this is evidence of Hollywood and the entertainment industry’s anti-business climate. And in a short post on his Senate website—responding to a story from the Huffington Post on his comments—he defended his take as a “pretty good point,” repeating a portion of his remarks to the Milwaukee crowd. “I actually called a gentleman, it was probably a couple months ago, that was so upset when he took his children to an animated movie, 6- and 7-year-old children, to an animated movie—and guess who the villain was. Evil Mr. Businessperson, OK? So it’s insidious it’s that propaganda starts very early.” He concludes, calling The Lego Movie an “especially egregious slam on business.”

Johnson’s complaint boils down to the name of the villain, but there’s support for the idea that The Lego Movie has anti-business themes. Lord Business controls the film’s world, Bricksburg, with mindless products and a song so catchy it will ruin your life. But his ultimate plan is to freeze the world in place, so that nothing changes and he has complete control. He’s opposed by our heroes, “master builders,” who can create anything they need out of the LEGO bricks around them, and who oppose the stifling conformity of Lord Business with their own creativity. It’s not a complex message—this is a kid’s movie—but it’s a clear one: Corporations want everyone to be the same, and that’s wrong.

And yet, there’s another way to read the film. The problem with Lord Business isn’t that he runs a company or that he sells products; it’s that he’s a monopoly. There are no options, there is no choice—there’s only the Octan Corporation. The heroes are anti-corporation, but pro-capitalism. They want variety and freedom and competition and a world that respects their creativity. In this read of The Lego Movie, our heroes are innovators and disrupters—the Apple Computer facing a Big Brother IBM.

But that’s not all. There’s a final reading, more meta than the others. By the end of the film, you learn that the plot is the imagination of a boy whose father (played by Will Farrell) would rather freeze his Legos in place as official models—held together by super glue—than make them something new and original. “Lord Business” isn’t some attack on corporations, it’s how one boy is trying to understand his dad. The ultimate lesson is that there isn’t a “right” way to play with Legos. Embrace your imagination or follow the box—everything works. It’s so heartwarming that, if you aren’t careful, you’ll miss that it’s an advertisement. And a brilliant one, from savvy executives who turned their products into advertising that droves of consumers paid to see. The text of The Lego Movie might be anti-business, but the film itself is a monument to corporate power and ingenuity.

You don’t have to think hard to see these themes and ideas, you just have to think. And that’s Johnson’s problem. He’s so preoccupied with the specter of anti-business ideology that he can’t see how the film is a celebration of American-style individualism, as well as a clever advertisement. Indeed, if you value free markets, there’s a lot to like in The Lego Movie. (Unless you equate business with monopolistic corporations. In which case, that’s a different argument.) Compare this to other films with prominent corporations: In Robocop or Alien or the Terminator series, business is amoral, reckless, and dangerous to life itself, much less creativity.

To be fair to Sen. Johnson, he’s just channelling the bizarre paranoia of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and other conservative outlets, which see class war and concentration camps in every mild critique of markets and business. It’s one of the great, hilarious quirks of the present era. At the same time that stocks are soaring, trade is flowing, and inequality is off the charts, the richest Americans are terrified that somewhere, someone doesn’t respect them.