It’s safe to say that expectations for the original Lego Movie from 2014 were not terribly high. What appeared to be just another corporate-funded blockbuster animated film based on a popular toy franchise turned out to be…well, exactly that, but also a surprisingly sharp, witty, satirical and sweet deconstruction of those toys, their place in pop culture and the imagination of youth. With brilliant animation, a hyperkinetic script and excellent voice-over work, The Lego Movie made bank, won awards and set expectations for the franchise high. Maybe a bit TOO high, as its first direct sequel makes repeatedly clear.
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (very clever) begins five years after the events of the first film, which ended on a cliffhanger that saw aliens from the planet Duplo invade the town of Bricksburg. Since then, things have gone from awesome to apocalypse, as the invasion has laid waste to the town and hardened the hearts of the citizens. All that is, except Emmett (Chris Pratt), who’s still his chipper, unfailingly-optimistic self, much to the chagrin of his brooding, war-weathered, sort-of girlfriend Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). A new twist emerges when General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) of the Systar system arrives, kidnaps Wyldstyle and several of Bricksburg’s other named and celebrity-voiced heroes, and delivers them to the shape-shifting alien queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Emmett sets out to rescue them, eventually getting help from the super-hyper-ultra-macho Rex Dangervest (also Pratt).
If that sounds to you like ripe material for another metatextual satire of action films, Lego marketing, and tie-in culture, you’d be right. If that sounds to you like a pile of cliches in search of a narrative, you’d also be right. I believe that’s called a win-win situation.
There’s just something off about The Lego Movie 2: Here We Go Again that’s obvious from the opening scenes. The energy just isn’t sparking the way it did the first time around. The jokes aren’t as fast, they don’t land as hard, and there’s a strange sparseness to the film’s overall aura. Part of that might be the fact that writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller aren’t in the director’s chairs this time around, having turned over the reins to Mike Mitchell, the man who helped give us Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and one of the unwanted sequels to Alvin and the Chipmunks. There’s a distinct, uncaring hand-off vibe that the film never really shakes.
And even Lord and Miller don’t seem to be totally up to repeating their success. While they clearly have a handle on the world they’ve created, little of the dialogue rises to the level of the previous film. It’s more obvious, simpler and painfully straightforward, often to a degree that approaches unintentional parody. Like the first, its mission is to deliver a moral in a hip, edgy-yet-family-friendly way–this time about the importance of collaboration and communication. But where the first film only occasionally got heavy-handed and preachy, here obvious moral is obvious. The balance of heart and humor just doesn’t work well, the script wildly see-sawing between the two instead of equalizing itself out.
The film doesn’t always go the distance, but that sometimes works in its favor. Post-invasion Bricksburg, with its walled citadels and tricked-out battle vehicles, is clearly a riff on Mad Max: Fury Road, but one that doesn’t overplay its hand. The fact that a Lego version of the Doof Warrior never shows up is both disappointing and refreshing in equal measures. It’s a sequence that adults would appreciate for its references while kids can still get behind, because it mimics a lot of the stellar beats from that film’s thrilling desert chase sequences. That might not stop some adults from wishing they’d have pushed the parody just a little bit more or gone more left field with it, but it’s solid, effective and never violates the MPAA ratings criteria for a PG rating. And, after all, isn’t that what’s most important?
The action sequences are where the film really shines, and it’s clear that a lot of hard work went in to storyboarding and executing them to their fullest potential. To be certain, a lot of care went into the making of this film in general, which means that even when it doesn’t quite work, it’s merely tedious and not outright awful. Even if the narrative elements aren’t coming together, it’s easy to get lost in the visual palette, the stop-motion-inspired animation, and the creative energy inherent in Lego blocks.
The voice over work isn’t quite as winning as the first time around, though, even if nobody does a truly bad job. It’s mostly that not everybody can elevate the painfully flat, thin script in meaningful ways. Chris Pratt puts twice the work in, even if he sounds like he’s coasting through Emmett’s part. He does a great job of differentiating Emmett and Rex though, and he’s clearly having way more fun as Mr. Dangervest, who as a galaxy-saving cowboy raptor-trainer with permanent stubble is a highly-enjoyable riff on Pratt’s entire cinematic career. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to filming that Andy Dwyer x Peter Quill fan fiction you love so much.
Pratt has excellent chemistry with himself, but his rapport with Elizabeth Banks seems to have waned in the years between films. While it’s common for voice-over roles to be recorded solo, it really sounds like Pratt and Banks are recording from different continents entirely. Banks does a much better job on her own, however, perfectly capturing Wyldstyle’s attitude and self-aware angst. The rest of the cast has some completely reliable ringers, like Will Arnett’s always-welcome growly Batman, and both Tiffany Haddish and Stephanie Beatriz make great, complex antagonists for our mini-fig heroes. Haddish especially seems to really get into her role, and Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi was custom made for her voice and humor.
The longer the film goes on, though, the more it begins to fall apart, as if it were being built without any plans, bricks being placed on top of bricks with abandon and a distracting degree of randomness. The final act especially devolves into a total mess, with the film abandoning virtually all of its internal logic and consistency to do whatever the hell it wants because Lego, that’s why. While that does actually work on a metatextual level, because how many times do kids at play just make things up as they go along, it completely fails as a cinematic narrative. Considering how deftly the first one navigated that same dichotomy, it’s unbelievably frustrating.
Like an expert Lego builder, The Lego Movie 2: Beyond Thunderbrick works best when it logically builds upon the foundation of its ancestor. The best example is the film’s best musical interlude, an infectious dance/pop ditty called simply “Catchy Song.” Like the original’s “Everything Is Awesome,” it’s intended as a kind of shiny, happy propaganda, but whereas “Everything” was an established, accepted part of Bricksburg life, “Catchy” is a weaponized form of glittery, musical brainwashing spun by the Systar system’s resident vampire/DJ/spa owner. (It makes sense and is only slightly offensive in context. Sort of.)
And that song is catchy as hell, much more memorable than a fair portion of the film surrounding it. It’s one of the few times that the new movie recreates that near-perfect blend of high satire and pop entertainment from the first one. Like that film, this one clearly has something to say, and what it has to say is valid, but it has a major problem making us care about the message. It means well, and that helps a lot, but in the end it just seems too much like a marketing ploy to sell new Lego playsets to nostalgia-hungry shoppers at Target. And we have enough of that already.
But hey, it could always be a lot worse. That Trolls movie is a still a thing that exists, after all.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+