11 February 2014

What is Creativity?

Photo credit: thelegomovie.com
My ENGL 1010 students have to complete an activity in which they read two definitions of "creativity" and discuss which one they like better. One posits that creativity is "being free to express yourself in a way that is unique to you, not having to conform to certain rules and guidelines" (qtd. in Ramage, Bean, and Johnson, The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing, Brief 6th Edition, 154). The other gives several contradictory definitions (creativity = making something yourself vs. something that's derivative is not creative) before arriving at a synthesis: "Creativity, therefore, is a process.... The less experienced tend to allow for less originality, while the more experienced demand real originality to classify something a 'creation'" (155). Students usually find the second stronger and more interesting because it provides a more nuanced definition of creativity.

All this went through my mind while watching The LEGO Movie with my family last weekend. Though full of laughs and certainly a good time, it quickly unveiled loftier ambitions than I had expected. For most moviegoers and critics, it succeeded; for me, those ambitions were a risk that didn't pan out. I was expecting the people behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), which I loved, to suspend my awareness of reality through over-the-top goofiness. Instead, the movie's insistence on facing reality made its over-the-top goofiness something only my kids could truly enjoy...as if that's what it wanted. As if to say, "This kind of fun is not for you."

To illustrate my point I'll have to move into spoiler territory.

In retrospect, Meatballs is also about a son's emotional reunion with his father, which despite being more present in the plot, is somehow less intrusive. In The LEGO Movie, the father and son that show up only in the end are jarring for several reasons, and probably all of them are intentional:
  1. The movie is animated until that point, where Will Ferrell the voice actor becomes Will Ferrell the live actor. It reminded me of the ending to The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, although that series does at least have a tradition of mixing animation and live action. Either way, it's somewhat of a pet peeve for me.
  2. It "goes meta," revealing that the LEGO world and story we've been watching is merely the product of a little boy's imagination as he plays with his dad's extensive LEGO collection. Despite being a familiar and cliched fantasy device ala "it was all a dream," everyone seems to love this plot twist.
  3. It suggests that the father's way of creating with LEGO is wrong.
I got some digs in on those first two points but it's the third one I want to talk about. Like my students' creativity exercise above, the movie gives us several definitions of creativity: First, we see that the main character Emmet is not creative or special because he's completely average and derives everything he does from the world around him. Next, we learn that Wyldstyle and the Master Builders are creative because they rebel and build crazy things from their own imaginations. Then -- in what I found to be a very redemptive moment -- Emmet turns out to be special by dint of not being special, with his adherence to rules and instructions making him a natural leader. In other words, there are different definitions of creativity, similar to the synthesis above.

Then there's that moment of metafiction, where Will Ferrell's live-action dad character is portrayed as villainous not because he is forcing his version of creativity on others, like Will Ferrell's other character Lord Business was, but because he has a different version of creativity and wants to preserve it. Sure, Emmet tells Lord Business that he's special, too, but that's more like the straw that broke the bad guy's back than a sincere reversal of his role. The label "bad guy" is too stuck at this point for the "special" concession to remove it. The damage is done.

I do have to admit that I had trouble giving my kids my LEGO sets a while back, and it still drives me crazy that they have mixed-and-matched the pieces to the point of no return. So maybe I'm biased. That said, I don't completely sympathize with the dad character or his need to apply Krazy Glue to everything. I get that his obsession with LEGO is meant to be funny and ironic. But isn't it also ironic that the company criticizing him for how he plays with a toy (or that he plays with it at all) is the same company that makes that toy?

This disingenuous overtone is hard to miss. The movie is full of very kitschy parodies of reality, from the catchy song "Everything is Awesome" to the popular sitcom "Where Are My Pants?" Because these are funny on the face of it, it's too bad they're also poking fun at the kind of people doing the laughing. The message that popular music and television rots your brain and ruins creativity is already ironic (as is any popular complaint against popular media), but this becomes an outright oxymoron when presented as a 100-minute commercial for an already very popular product! I think Christopher Orr of The Atlantic said it best: "its message is that we should do as Lego says, not as Lego does."

Orr's review, like most critics', is positive in spite of that quibble. I think mine would have been, too, if not for that funny feeling that the movie was making fun of me. I laughed out loud many times, always turning to see the happy looks on my kids' faces. Lines like "Come with me if you want to not die" (which I'll be quoting forever) represented the kind of creativity I was looking for: quirky and different without trying too hard. Unfortunately, these moments were in the minority, and the "bigger picture," so-to-speak, was much less original than I'd hoped:

  • Male protagonist who goes from zero to hero.
  • Female supporting character who wants to be the hero but can't be. (I was reminded of Olivia Wilde's character from Tron: Legacy while watching the movie, but someone on a discussion board pointed out that Wyldstyle is even more similar to Astrid from How to Train Your Dragon.)
  • Obligatory romance between the two.
  • Frequent topical references and pop culture icons. (I'd actually hoped LEGO Batman's role would be limited to that seen in the trailers. I'd had my fill of him in the LEGO Batman video games and movie.)
  • Archetypal hero's journey, including the call to action, the wise mentor, death and rebirth.
Honestly, most of these probably wouldn't have bothered me if not for that self-important overtone about creativity and who defines it. I'm a huge fan of the hero's journey (see video at right) and enjoy tracking comparisons. I never expected Wyldstyle to be the protagonist, and I laughed when her backstory was drowned out by Emmet's dull-witted infatuation. Unlike the movie, I believe creativity can also mean building on existing designs. But when that movie -- or maybe just its reputation -- celebrates its creativity, it's hard not to perceive that as an invitation to closer scrutiny.

It doesn't bother me that other viewers find their definition of creativity validated by this film. What does bother me is that that definition is the only one the film wants to validate, even when it runs contrary to its own brand. It's mocking bandwagoners -- its primary audience! Maybe all this means is that they're better at laughing at themselves than I am. Touché.

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