The Lego Movie might look like a brightly coloured action-adventure film based on a plastic Danish construction toy. And it is. But it’s also the dramatisation of a debate about the relationship between art and reality which has been part of Western culture since at least Plato and Aristotle. This debate can be crystallised in the question of how we should understand the term ‘mimesis’. The Greek word mimêsis, as used in Aristotle’s Poetics for instance, has commonly been translated as ‘imitation’ or ‘representation’ (terms which already have subtly different meanings). Aristotle claims that ‘imitation [mimêsis] comes naturally to human beings from childhood […] as does the universal pleasure in imitations’, which would make the artistic recreation of reality one of the most fundamental human activities. Playing with Lego for example, might seem to be evidence of the truth of this claim.
Mimesis as imitation is where The Lego Movie begins, as Emmet, the hero, follows precise instructions on how to start his day and how to behave towards other people. More significantly, as far as mimesis is concerned, he follows instructions telling him exactly how to build Lego buildings, as part of an army of Lego construction workers. This is mimesis as imitation, and it seems to be pleasurable, as Aristotle suggests, since Emmet and his co-workers repeatedly sing their favourite song: ‘Everything is Awesome’ (a song which, incidentally, is also a satire on the subject of enjoyment, on which see this).
Mimesis requires something else, however, which we usually describe as ‘expression’, ‘originality’ or ‘creativity’. Even Aristotle suggests that ‘the function of the poet is not to say what has happened, but to say the kind of thing that would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity’. This means that what he or she creates is to some extent new. Sir Philip Sidney, writing in the late sixteenth century, puts this more forcefully: ‘the poet […] lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite anew’.This is the second form of mimesis which we encounter in The Lego Movie, in the form of the ‘Master Builders’: specially gifted characters such as Wyldstyle, Batman and Vitruvius (named for the Roman architect who wrote De Architectura) who are able to create Lego models without instructions, using only their imaginations. This is the version of mimesis which has been particularly influential in the West since Romanticism gave us the concept of poetry as a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’.It seems to offer an escape from mere repetition and conformity to pre-determined patterns. This is not quite the case in The Lego Movie, however, as the Master Builders still recognise a higher, God-like power: that of ‘The Man Upstairs’, the human creator of the Lego universe they inhabit.
Jacques Derrida has suggested that the whole tradition of mimesis has been tied to just such a belief in a truth preceding representation. According to him this takes two main forms, the first of which sees mimesis as a kind of ‘unveiling’ or alêthia, to use the Greek term. This is the sense of mimesis described by Sidney, and expressed by the Master Builders. It is art which claims to unveil, or to present the truth of the artist’s inner self in the moment of creation. The second form of mimesis is imitation, the re-presenting something that already exists. This is where Emmet begins the film. In either case, though, ‘mimêsis has to follow the process of truth. The presence of the present is its norm, its order, its law’.The Lego Movie enacts the debate between these two interpretations of mimesis, coming down firmly on the side of alêthia — indeed, the film contains its own ‘unveiling’ when it is revealed that its world is the creation of a human. Yet the film never moves beyond the idea that art is somehow the expression of truth. When the Master Builders look at the Lego around them, they see codes designating the different types of blocks, indicating a deeper order which allows their imagination to operate freely. For Derrida, it is this sense of original truth which art must do away with in order to step outside the shadow of philosophy.