The Lego Movie 2 Plays the Hits

When it premiered five years ago, The Lego Movie was almost startlingly great. Early February is and was a graveyard for movies. It absolutely made sense that something superficial-looking enough to be called “The Lego Movie” would be left there for dead. But The Lego Movie wasn’t a dud, or even watchable nonsense. It was a masterpiece of entertainment, a story about the value of play and the joys of unfettered imagination. Writers-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller had spent a decade honing their ability to tell stories to children, and it paid off. Warner Bros. and Lego immediately moved to commercialize the fuck out of it.

In 2017, The Lego Batman Movie rolled out to modest praise, followed by The Lego Ninjago movie seven months later, to even more modest praise. There’s a spin-off TV series that premiered in 2018. The Lego Movie 2 came out on top of five years of oversaturation and hype. Could it live up to the magic of the original?

No. But goddamn does it try.

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The first movie ends on a joke cliffhanger. Late in the runtime, we learn that the story we’re watching is a game being played by a young boy, something the Lego characters are only dimly aware of. He’s told by his dad (Will Ferrell) to play with his younger sister. The movie ends with her Duplo creations invading the carefully crafted Lego world the characters live in.

The Lego Movie 2 picks up from exactly that moment. The Lego city of Bricksburg is destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt over and over again as the two siblings fight. After a skip forward, narrated by Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), we find the characters living in a gritty, dystopian wasteland that owes a little bit to Planet of the Apes and a whole lot more to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Lucy, who was thrill-seeker in the first movie, has shifted closer to being an edgelord. She practices brooding from atop their new ramshackle city. In the valley below, Emmet (Pratt) – a cheerful nobody whose greatest individual accomplishment in the first movie was designing a double-decker couch – has built a brightly colored house for the two of them. Lucy patiently reminds him that they’re supposed to be more angsty, and that, counter to the first movie’s unstoppable pop theme, everything is no longer awesome.

“Everything Is Awesome” haunts The Lego Movie 2, a stale reminder of what happens if you catch lightning in a bottle and leave it there too long. In The Lego Movie, “Everything Is Awesome” debuts early, and is arguably the moment the uninitiated realize that that film has no intention of letting go of their senses. Here, it can’t help but feel hollow, existing only to remind you that the movie you’re watching is the sequel to a movie you didn’t expect to love.

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This hollowness is the defining feature of the disappointing first act, in which the first film’s characters are reduced to moving between scenes and saying old catchphrases. Notable, too, are the absences. Morgan Freeman, accused of sexual misconduct last year, played a comically generic wise elder who is now completely gone from the narrative. (Technically, he died in the events of the first movie, but he appeared at the end as a glow-in-the-dark ghost.) Liam Neeson played a literally-two-faced policeman named Good Cop/Bad Cop; here, Good Cop/Bad Cop appears onscreen for perhaps two seconds of a single shot, exactly long enough to remind you that Neeson arguably self-destructed earlier this week.

All in all, The Lego Movie 2 staggers under the load of franchise expectations, which require that everything no longer be awesome, because otherwise there isn’t a story to tell. (It’s cynically amusing that, as far as I can tell, there’s no acknowledgment The Lego Ninjago Movie at all.)

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The saving grace comes from a fresh infusion of characters and plot. Queen Whatevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) arrives from the hostile Duplo world (which is now, confusingly, a Lego/Duplo mix). Whatevra is a shape-shifting mass of bricks who promises the refugees of Bricksburg their hearts’ desires, and woos the standoffish Batman (Will Arnett). Her stated goal is peace, although the ominous song she sings about it fails to convince Lucy.

After Whatevra and her lietenant, General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), kidnap Emmet’s friends, he begins a desperate search to get them back. Unlikely help arrives in the form of Rex Dangervest (Pratt again). Rex is a pastiche of Pratt’s action roles, with a voice that can only be described as Pratt doing Kurt Russell doing John Wayne. Emmet is predictably awed by Rex, but the admiration is mutual. They bro up for a recovery mission into “the Sis-Star System,” where Emmet’s friends are being held.

Freed from the weight of plot setup, the second act breathes easier, finding time for wonderfully surreal jokes. Rex flies a fist-shaped spaceship crewed by velociraptors, Whatevra tricks Batman into liking her via song, and the big pop hit this time around is literally titled “Catchy Song.” “Catchy Song” was written by Jon Lajoie, who first came to prominence on YouTube for writing shit like this:

In the end, The Lego Movie 2 can’t quite deliver on the original, which threw everything and the kitchen sink at you with the promise it would somehow all make sense at the end. It might have been a mistake to force a movie about toys to grow up. At times, the story acknowledges this, even as it struggles to justify the effort. The end result is funny and fun, and sometimes moving. But it lacks the seemingly effortless grace of the original.

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