I may not be a Master Builder. I may not have a lot of experience fighting or leading or coming up with plans. Or having ideas in general. In fact, I’m not all that smart. And I’m not what you’d call the creative type. Plus, generally unskilled. Also scared and cowardly. I know what you’re thinking: “He is the least qualified person in the world to lead us!” And you are right.
I can’t be the only one who relates very well to Emmet’s speech.
For the whole maybe half-dozen of you who haven’t seen it, in The LEGO Movie, the protagonist LEGO Minifig, a construction worker named Emmet, literally falls smack into one of those prototypical genre-crossing movie plots. There’s a thing that the antagonist is going to use for something nefarious, the protagonist has another thing that can stop the first thing, and the plot revolves around getting his thing onto the other thing (phrasing). There’s even a prophecy, a rhyming one at that, which tells of the destined hero saving the day by being skilled, imaginative, brave, powerful, smart, and I think there’s something in there about them smelling good, too.
The twist is this: Emmet is none of those things.
He freely admits this, in a speech given to a room full of ‘Master Builders’, franchise characters in Minifig forms who can change whatever they want about the world around them. Their only limits are their imaginations. Emmet, on the other hand, is a stickler for instructions. He’s a construction worker; he follows blueprints. When there is no blueprint, he gets lost. And while he may be friendly and a bit of a goofball, his relative incompetence becomes a pretty major hindrance when he stumbles upon the thing from the prophecy.
A protagonist in a story like this tends to be described as an “everyman”, a perfectly average and decidedly unremarkable individual to whom extraordinary things happen. We are meant to relate to this character, to place ourselves comfortably in their shoes. Emmet does this well by owning up to truths some of us avoid facing: we’re not perfect. We’re failures. I for one have lost count of the times I’ve come up short when facing various situations or challenges. Despite living in mortal quaking fear of letting down the people I care about, I have done just that, on more than one occasion. How can I be a master of anything if I can’t even be a decent programmer, or a consistent writer, or a reliable and honest friend? There’s no reason the wonderful people I love should give me the time of day, considering how spectacularly I can fuck things up. I can’t deny the truth: I’m going to screw up. I’m going to disappoint. I’m going to fail.
Swamp Creature: Is this supposed to make us feel better?!
Emmet: There was about to be a but…
Gandalf: You’re a butt!
“Well, you were right about him being a ding-dong.”
But I’m going to try not to fail anyway.
The hidden strength and power in Emmet, and The LEGO Movie in particular, has nothing to do with prophecies (Vitruvius made it up, anyway) or special magical items (actual mundane things given hilarious verbal spins) or astonishing powers (although I do wish I could put spaceships together as fast as Benny does). It’s sheer willpower. It’s determination. It’s stubborn, downright thick-headed devotion to simply doing the best he can with what he’s got. Sure, Emmet gets scared. He messes things up. He gets played for a sucker and lets people down.
That doesn’t stop him from doing everything he can to make things right.
That’s what makes a Master Builder. That’s what makes a person more than the sum of their failures. We cheer for Emmet because, in a way, it’s cheering for ourselves. When good writers give us good protagonists, they don’t give us perfect paragons of virtue or strength or power. They give us people. And people are flawed, thoroughly and terribly and irrevocably and beautifully flawed. I’m flawed. You’re flawed. All of us are flawed. But our flaws are not just negative attributes to be ticked off as grounds for denial on some worthiness test. Our flaws give us strength. Our flaws allow us opportunities to overcome them. Our flaws make us better people, in whatever pursuit we follow in our lives.
Emmet has no special training, no inborn power, no secret item that allows him to overcome his flaws. He just commits himself to being better than he was. He makes plenty of mistakes, and bad things happen, but that doesn’t curtail his motivation. He carries on the best way he knows how, and in the end, he doesn’t need a prophecy to prove to himself, to his friends, and to us that anybody, no matter how ordinary or average or unskilled or cowardly or butt-like they might be, can do the same.
I may not be all that smart. I may have trouble with motivation and focus. I may admonish myself to a worrying degree. I will continue to fear the disappointment and anger of the people I love. And I may find myself wondering if the wounds I have suffered, and more importantly, those I have inflicted on others, will ever truly heal.
But I cannot and will not allow those things to prevent me from getting up, dusting myself off, and doing my utmost not to fail. To make amends. To create new worlds. To rebuild bridges even in the wake of fires. To bring people to life. To be, in the context of all of the above, a Master Builder.
And if I can do it, what’s stopping you from doing the same?