The Lego Movie: Further Evidence of Will Ferrell's Subversive Genius

The hit film is another win in Mr. Ron Burgundy/Ricky Bobby/President Business's career of mixing oafish slapstick with surprising political messages.
President Business, the Lego Movie villain voiced by Will Ferrell. (Warner Bros.)

Who knew that The Lego Movie would create political controversy? Audiences have embraced the movie to the tune of a $69-million opening weekend. But its plot—in which an oppressed people living under totalitarian rule defeat their evil overlord named “President Business”—has drawn scorn from Fox commentator Charles Payne, who went after the film for “pushing its anti-business message to our kids.” Film critics, who tend to be more liberal, have celebrated the message; Bilge Ebiri of Vulture, for example, lovingly described the film’s climax as a “downright proletarian Lego revolution.”

This reading of the film is a bit amazing, considering the product was designed to promote two corporate interests: Hollywood (in the sense that every studio film is a promotional tool for the industry) and The Lego Group. Of course, the children who watch The Lego Movie are unlikely to pick up on its anti-business ethos, and the film will probably still make them want to buy Legos. Adults on the other hand can chew on the movie’s subversive content and perhaps even use it content to spark meaningful conversations around the dinner table.

This sort of layered narrative is difficult to pull off—not to mention convince a studio to go along with—but maybe Will Ferrell, who voices President Business, had something to do with it. To be fair, I have no idea whether he had input into the script of The Lego Movie or not. But the mere fact that he was cast as the movie’s villain should have been a giveaway as to its ideology. For more than a decade now, Ferrell’s starred in big, dumb films of surprising political complexity, again and again playing the regressive oaf who eventually comes around to progressive ideas.

The seminal example of this is Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, in which Ferrell played a sexist newsman who resists the introduction of a woman into his workplace before eventually learning to be tolerant. Another is Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which lampooned red-state culture (particularly NASCAR fans) as it portrayed its protagonist’s changing attitudes towards his opponent, a gay, French Formula One driver. In the final scene of that film, Ricky Bobby and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Jean Girard smooch publicly—and then Jean goes in for another kiss and Bobby pushes him away. It perfectly encapsulates Ferrell and cowriter Adam McKay’s apparent ethos for political comedy: Push your audience’s boundaries but don’t make them so uncomfortable that they reject your perspective completely.

Ferrell snuck in even more LGBT-friendly vibes in Blades of Glory, using the tropes of a rom-com in his story of two male figure skaters who broke with convention and competed as a couple. (Ferrell played the swaggering, butch partner to the more effeminate Jon Heder). His 2010 hit The Other Guys was a silly buddy comedy set during the 2008 financial collapse; its closing credits featured a series of visual display of facts and figures regarding the financial crisis, the Bernie Madoff scheme, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). And 2012 brought The Campaign, which argued for campaign finance reform through Ferrell’s depiction of a corrupt congressman who makes the world’s first sex video/campaign ad.

Then, of course, there’s his most famous political character: George W. Bush. On Saturday Night Live and later in his Broadway show (for which Ferrell was nominated for a Tony), he mercilessly hammered home the message that Bush was dumb, arrogant, and dangerously out-of-touch; it seemed at times that Ferrell’s goal was to define Bush’s legacy. But perhaps because Bush was so unpopular within his party or maybe just because Ferrell is so darn appealing, his portrayal never seemed particularly mean. Tina Fey is said to have commented that he even made Bush seem likeable. Ferrell insists that this wasn’t the intent, but that speaks to how his political comedy works: His likeability helps the politics go down smooth.

The Lego Movie may be Ferrell’s most successful effort to date. It is shockingly subversive; in addition to its anti-capitalist bent, the script also criticizes conformist culture and pokes fun at several iconic superheroes. Its depiction of Batman (voiced hilariously by Will Arnett) as a sullen, immature jerk is particularly audacious, given the high esteem with which recent Batman films are held. Still, in the movie’s surprising third act, Ferrell and the filmmakers are able to distance themselves from its political subtext by offering a personal underpinning to the entire plot. Spoiler for the rest of this paragraph: The events of the film are revealed to be occurring in the imagination of a boy playing with an intricate Lego village designed by his controlling father. Ferrell plays the father. So the Lord Business character turns out not to be a critique against capitalism, ostensibly. It’s merely an expression of how a lonely child sublimates his feelings towards his businessman father through his choice of play.

And so the film can claim a mantle of non-partisanship, even though the bulk of it suggests otherwise. The audience may leave the theater without politics fresh on its mind, instead remembering how much they laughed. But they still received a dose of ideology. In other words, it is just another classic Will Ferrell movie.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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