Before The Lego Movie arrived in 2014, it seemed like the general feeling about the project was, “Gee, Hollywood must be in pretty sad shape to consider making a movie about Lego blocks, and by the way, how the hell are they gonna do that anyway?” Cut to the actual appearance of the movie, a winning blend of wildly imaginative world-building, gently stated yet genuinely moving themes, visual panache and a never-ending stream of smart, hilarious pop culture in-jokes, and the naysayers — including this one — were silenced and charmed by it all.
Since The Lego Movie was a hit, a sequel was ordered — and not just a sequel, but a franchise. In between the two Lego Movie installments, we’ve had the almost equally brilliant The Lego Batman Movie and the nearly unwatchably tedious The Lego Ninjago Movie (both 2017). Was the steep fall-off in quality and entertainment value from the first two to the third one a red flag?
Perhaps, perhaps not. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part comes with many of the pieces (so to speak) from the first movie still in place: the original’s writing/directing duo, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, have written and produced the film, although they’ve relinquished the directing to Mike Mitchell (Trolls), while the visuals are still supervised by animation director Trisha Gum and the Animal Logic studio. In many ways, The Lego Movie 2 is as witty and fun to watch as its predecessor. But it ultimately labors hard to stretch the central premise and lacks the sheer freshness that this whole thing started off with.
The story opens almost where the first film ended, with the intrusion of Duplo invaders into the hard-won tranquility of the Lego world of Bricksburg. Five years later, Bricksburg has been reduced to rubble and refashioned as the “grittier and cooler” Apocalypseburg. Relentlessly cheery Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) continues to keep up his optimistic demeanor, while his best friend Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) has become an even grimmer freedom fighter against the relentless Duplo onslaught — and begins to resent Emmet for not taking a more pro-active, i.e. grown-up, stance himself.
When Lucy, Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Benny (Charlie Day) are taken hostage by General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) and whisked through space to the Systar System — ruled over by the shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) — Emmet decides it’s time to toughen up and follow in pursuit. He is joined and mentored on his quest by the dashing Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), a “galaxy-defending archaeologist, cowboy and raptor trainer” whose command of a a crew of velociraptors and other characteristics will resonate with viewers familiar with Pratt’s own biggest roles.
The Queen has designs on marrying Batman and bringing their two realms together, with many of the characters from the first film already transplanted to her empire of 11 different planets. Of course, all this is taking place in the real world as the creation of both the now-older Finn (Jadon Sand), who we met in the first movie, and his little sister Bianca (Brooklynn Prince), who has been co-opting her big sibling’s toys and creating universes of her own not directly in line with her brother’s wishes.
Therein lies perhaps the biggest obstacle that The Lego Movie 2 can’t surmount: as we watched the first film and gradually began to wonder how and why this universe existed, the movie’s climactic reveal that it was all taking place on a tabletop tableau constructed by Jadon’s father (Will Ferrell, barely glimpsed this time out) provided a surprising and poignant context to the adventure unfolding within the Lego realm. Since we already know this going into The Lego Movie 2, that unpredictable aspect of the story has been taken away and replaced with a more confusing conceit: we don’t always know from scene to scene who is controlling the toys, Jadon or Bianca (although you can pretty much guess).
With that, and the lack of freshness inherent to any second (or fourth overall) installment in a series, The Lego Movie 2 is not as pure a delight as the original. But it’s also far from a disappointment. Once again the jokes at the expense of Hollywood and pop culture come fast and furious (a second viewing would probably unearth them all). Pratt’s Dangervest is a nice poke at the actor’s own franchise-heavy filmography and a cameo by an up-to-date Aquaman providing a laugh-out-loud moment. The movie’s signature musical number, “Catchy Song,” ultimately proves more irritating than the first film’s “Everything Is Awesome,” but the tune played under the closing credits may prove to be the movie’s enduring classic.
Kids and adults alike will both still enjoy a great deal of The Lego Movie 2, and thankfully Lord, Miller, Mitchell and their vast array of voice and filmmaking talent go a long way toward making sure that they don’t wreck what was so joyful, irreverent and creative about the first film. But there does not seem to be many more places they can take this world of animated, interlocking plastic blocks and figures, and one hopes that unless a truly inspired idea comes along, they won’t just keep snapping on additional pieces just for the sake of it.
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is out in theaters February 8.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye