Freedom to Grieve

Protecting grief from "closure," consumerism, politics, and other cultural distortions

Grief and Violence in The Lego Movie (Spoiler Alert)

Why you should think twice about taking your kids to see The Lego Movie.

He is angry towards his father. Expressing his anger, the boy imagines and then acts out violent attacks: beheadings, explosions, shootings, and pushing people off a cliff. And in the end, he gets what he wants—and wins the girl too.

Am I referring to the life of a boy who recently shot people at a movie theater, school, or mall? No, I am describing the main character from The Lego Movie.

Yes, the ending softens the story. Yes, I realize the figures are not real. Yes, I know children's minds are active. But let’s go deeper with the themes of this movie.

If a child had written that story in school, there is a good chance he would be suspended. (I’m not arguing a suspension would be right. In fact, I think that is the wrong way to approach youth who are displaying tendencies towards violence.) My point, though, is that we question the active imagination of violence in some situations but not in others. For our entertainment, we often welcome violent scripts and encourage children to watch them again and again.

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Is violence the only way to tell the story in The Lego Movie? (Spoiler alert here.) What is the premise of the story? A boy is frustrated with his dad because he will not let him play with the Lego toys freely. This is a story of hurt, frustration, and grief. The boy grieves the distance between him and his dad. He grieves not having the freedom to play the way that feels right to him. He grieves that his dad does not understand. The lesson we learn from the movie comes after over 90 minutes of intense and violent attacks all played out with Lego toys. The attacks are from the boy’s imagination (written by adult men), which is obviously depicted as overflowing with violence and anger. 

I’m not against Legos. My girls love to play with Legos, and I believe they can be wonderful for imagination and creative play. This is one of the arguments in the movie. And it is obviously not just The Lego Movie that exploits themes of violence for our entertainment. (Or pokes fun at consumerism as a way to sell toys, but that is a different post.)

I am not arguing that movies and video games (or violent Lego play) cause our school shootings. However, they do give scripts for how to handle anger and grief.

Boys and men are told again and again in our culture that they shouldn’t cry. They should not show fear. They should not grieve (or at least very little). In our culture, we allow men to freely express one main emotion: Anger. In many ways, we support the expression of anger through aggression in sports, movies, video games, play, and intimate relationships.

Most boys and men do not go around shooting and assaulting others. Even for men who do not choose violence, they have to endure the culture that tells them not to be sad or afraid. The fortunate ones have role models in their lives who show them non-violent ways to express grief and frustration.

In the end of the movie, the dad learns to listen to his son. That is great. I love that part. But in spite of that short moment, it is the 90 minutes of violence that linger. For some bothered by the violence, the ending may redeem the movie. For me, it leaves a lot of questions.

Is violence the only way we can keep people's attention that long? Are there not other ways of telling stories about grief, frustration and anger that do not take explosions, shootings, and beheadings? And what about those children (or adults) who do not have anyone at the end of their imaginary violent play to help them release anger?

There is a lot of pain, anger, and grief in the world. We need to learn how to give people freedom to grieve in ways that does not bring harm to others. I would like to see a version of The Lego Movie that had five minutes of a kid tearing down a Lego set out of frustration and 90 minutes of a parent learning how to help the child through listening and spending time together building a less violent Lego (and real) world. Would anyone else watch that movie? I fear that too many people will say no.

Nancy Berns, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Drake University and the author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.

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