A few years back, I saw a production of “Wicked” in Chicago, and while I enjoyed it overall, I complained afterward about what I thought was a pretty obnoxious anti-Ronald Reagan message. I was with a crowd of people, but I was the only one who noticed the slight against the Gipper in the hit musical.
It happens in the first act. Galinda is educating her college roomie Elpheba about the merits of being well-liked. “Think of celebrated heads of state or 'specially great communicators,” Kristen Chenoweth sings on the soundtrack album. “Did they have brains or knowledge? Don't make me laugh! They were popular.”
Now surely I wasn’t the only one to recognize the fact that Ronald Reagan was known as the “Great Communicator” during his time in the Oval Office. His detractors dismissed him as an “amiable dunce,” and decades after he left the White House, here comes Stephen Schwartz writing a nasty dig at a fine man who is not around to defend himself.
Everyone rolled their eyes. The fact was that even if the line was intended as a slight against Reagan, it went by so quickly that most of the audience overlooked it. It certainly wasn’t the focus of the show, and, even for the Reagan fans who saw it with me, this didn’t mar the experience for them in any way.
“You’re reading too much into it, Jim,” one of my friends told me. “Just sit back and enjoy the show.”
I thought about this as I read a number of different complaints from those who saw “The Lego Movie” as an animated communist manifesto. A Fox Business channel host lamented that the movie was “pushing its anti-business message to our kids,” and The Atlantic cited the movie's “anti-capitalist bent.”
Having seen “The Lego Movie,” I viewed that as a pretty shallow way to read the film.
In the film, the ostensible bad guy, Lord Business, uses the veneer of a respectable capitalist, President Business, to curry favor with the masses at large. But — mild spoiler if you’re not sure whether or not the movie has a happy ending — the businessman learns by the end that he doesn’t have to be a bad guy, and he uses the tools of capitalism to fix everything he did before. In addition, the hero succeeds by convincing all the bohemian misfits that sometimes it’s OK to conform and follow directions.
It’s actually a pretty mixed bag with regard to the economic theories on tap.
This isn’t to say that the filmmakers were wholly unaware of its political inferences, or that you can’t extract that message if you’re looking for it. But it’s unlikely that casual viewers would see the movie as didactic in any way. My children didn’t leave the movie thinking that businessmen are the root of all evil. If anything, the importance of family was what came through amid all the silliness and folderol. Also, Batman likes things that are really, really black.
Those are themes I can live with.
But what if the filmmakers really were trying to use “The Lego Movie” to brainwash our kids into hating free markets? Shouldn’t we be concerned?
Well, maybe. But I think kids are smarter than that. They know the difference between a good story and propaganda, and they reject blatant attempts to preach to them instead of entertain them.
“The Lego Movie” was a whole lot of fun. You’re reading too much into it, everyone. Just sit back and enjoy the show.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.