Apollonian and Dionysian Artistic Impulses in The Lego Movie
In The Birth of Tragedy, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche discusses two artistic impulses: the Apollonian (named for Apollo, the god of the sun) and the Dionysian (named for Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry). The Apollonian impulse is one toward rational order, stasis, and restraint. The Dionysian impulse, conversely, is one toward instinctual drive, movement, and the dissolution of boundaries. For Nietzsche, the impulses have their origins in natural states: dreams for the Apollonian, and intoxication for the Dionysian. Nietzsche’s purpose in applying the impulses to artistic creation is to demonstrate how they came together (despite their natural tendency to oppose each other) to create what he considered the greatest art form: the Attic tragedy of Ancient Greece, represented by the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. In these plays, the abstract Dionysian music of the chorus is balanced by the structured Apollonian dialogue of the dramatis personæ.
Though Nietzsche would later abandon this dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in his own writings, it persists in discussions regarding philosophies of art. Interestingly enough, The Lego Movie (written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller) is a clever and entertaining illustration of these dueling artistic impulses in practice. Through the film’s primary conflict, we can see not only what happens when the two impulses work in opposition to each other, but we can also see what happens when they work together.
In The Lego Movie, the Apollonian art impulse is embodied in Lord Business (Will Ferrell). His vision for the Lego world is one of strict order and formed boundaries. Indeed, he wants no intermingling between the disparate realms. For example, the pirate Legos should never intermingle with the space Legos, and so on. Furthermore, Lord Business demands that all Lego people follow strict instructions on how to live and build. He even demands that anything “weird” be reported or destroyed.
According to Nietzsche, the Apollonian art impulse is that of a sculptor, and to be sure, Lord Business’s nefarious plot is to freeze all of the Lego pieces in place using the “Kragle” (which is actually a tube of Krazy Glue). Thus, Business’s plan for the Lego universe is for it to exist in stasis, just as the instructions demand.
When we first meet the film’s protagonist, Emmett (Chris Pratt), he is all too happy to follow Business’s model for life in Bricksburg (an Apollonian Utopia of order and symmetry). He even has instructions for his morning routine (which include instructions on breathing). He certainly has no desire to think outside the box, to go beyond the strict Apollonian boundaries set by Lord Business.
This changes when he meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a young woman seeking the “piece of resistance” to stop the Kragle. All of a sudden, Emmett is introduced to a new mode of creation, one not based on reason and instructions but on instinct and imagination. Wyldstyle, in the way she can assemble random pieces into useful tools or vehicles on the fly, introduces Emmett to the Dionysian artistic impulse. (Her very name is even Dionysian.) Completely forgoing the Apollonian emphasis on boundaries, Wyldstyle takes Emmett beyond Bricksburg to other Lego realms, including one based on the Wild West and one that is the apotheosis of the Dionysian spirit: Cloud Cuckoo Land. This, to borrow a phrase from another film, is a land of “pure imagination.” Emmett is told that there are no rules and restrictions in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Anything goes. Indeed, this is where he meets Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), an unlikely cat-unicorn hybrid.
In Cloud Cuckoo Land, Emmett also meets the Master Builders, who have formed a resistance against Lord Business. However, Emmett sees that they are too disorganized to accomplish much of anything. They are reluctant to follow Emmett’s example (they see him as completely uncreative, one who is too reliant on order and instructions), but he eventually teaches them that some instruction can be useful. He helps them organize a plan to infiltrate Lord Business’s tower. He balances their Dionysian spirit with some Apollonian reason and forethought. Similarly, during an earlier escape, Emmett is urged to create something to keep his group’s vehicle from imminent disaster. He struggles at first, not having instructions handy, but the wise Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) tells him to trust his instincts. He does so, quickly attaching a wheel to his head and saving his team. In this example, Emmett’s overwhelmingly Apollonian spirit is enlivened with a breath of the Dionysian.
The Dionysian spirit, according to Nietzsche, is best understood through music, movement, and change. This is why the Master Builders, Dionysian spirits all, have come together to stop the Kragle, which will freeze them in place. However, it is toward the end of the film that we truly understand how the Dionysian spirit relates to Legos (plastic toys that at first glance are an Apollonian sculptor’s tools). When Emmett falls into a strange abyss, we are taken out of the animated world of the film. We see that the entire story has been happening within the mind of a child who is actively playing with the Legos. Then, we meet his father, played by Will Ferrell (the voice of Lord Business), and we see the struggle between the Apollonian the Dionysian even more clearly. The father chastises his son for playing with the Legos. They are his sculptures, and he wants to preserve them in Krazy Glue, based solely on the instructions. However, he eventually sees the value in his son’s seemingly chaotic and anarchic creations; he begins to see that Legos are not just an Apollonian sculptor’s tools. They are also tools for imaginative, unrestricted Dionysian play. Yes, this is how plastic blocks can be invigorated with the Dionysian spirit—through the act of play. This gives them movement, narrative, and the ability to change.
As the father and son reach a reconciliation, so too do Emmett and Lord Business. The film is not necessarily trying to say that the Apollonian impulse is bad. It is simply trying to show that neither impulse should be favored at the expense of the other. Both the Apollonian and Dionysian artistic impulses have value. And perhaps, as Nietzsche suggests in The Birth of Tragedy, it is when the impulses work together that the best art is formed.
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