The bar for The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part was unexpectedly high. Due to the enormous success, both commercially and artistically, of the first entry in the series, a litany of spin-offs both great (LEGO Batman) and meh (LEGO Ninjago, which absolutely does exist and is not something I made up), and the now-understood rules in this universe, it turned out to be a lot more challenging for writer/producer/former directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller to move this series along naturally while simultaneously matching the tone of its predecessor. I won’t necessarily call the film a home run, as it didn’t 100% capture the magic it was expected to. However, the fact that this movie can work at all, while simultaneously creating what may be the first post-modern children’s film (a sentence I take great joy in writing) is such an impressive achievement, that I can’t help but leave the theater with a massive smile on my face.
It’s been five years since the events of Taco Tuesday. Bricksburg has been overrun by Planet Duplo from the Systar System. Our heroes, including Emmett (Chris Pratt) and his Special Friend Wildstyle/Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), have rebuilt civilization in Apocalypseburg to survive. As Emmett begins having nightmares of the impending “Armamageddon,” and struggles with Lucy’s desire for him to lose some of his optimism, things take a turn for the worse: General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) kidnaps not only Lucy, but all of Emmett’s friends, including Batman (Will Arnett), Benny (Charlie Day), MetalBeard (Nick Offerman), and Princess UniKitty (Alison Brie) to attend the wedding of the Systar Queen, Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Left behind in LEGOLand, Emmett sets out on a mission to save his friends, and along the way teams up with the far-more-heroic Rex Dangervest (also Pratt).
The inherent issue facing The LEGO Movie 2 is that, once you know the twist, it is impossible to put that genie back into the bottle. There’s a reason most films with classic twists don’t have sequels (i.e. The Sixth Sense), or have to branch outwards if they do (i.e. Planet of the Apes): if your world centers around a general conceit withheld until the third act, it is nearly impossible to create three new acts on top of that. At the end of the original LEGO Movie, we learn that the entire universe is an embodiment of the mind of a child playing with LEGOs – therefore, the story is a metaphor for a boy’s relationship with his family, the action is all a combination of hyper-realistic effects (we can see the strings) and good-old ingenuity, and the jokes are designed to appeal to both the super-creative and those with childlike senses of humor. Once you reveal this general conceit, it’s hard to make the jokes land. When you see the spaceship flying while dangled from a string, it’s not just a hilariously dumb joke, you’re already aware that it’s because of real-life hero Finn’s (Jadon Sand) attempts to bring his toys to life. And when you see two rival kingdoms battling it out, and the story getting blurred in the process, it becomes immediately clear the reason why – because two siblings are fighting over their toys. Once you are aware that what you’re watching is a gimmick, a glimpse inside the mind of a 12-year-old, then it is hard to put the lid back on the box. However, with all that said, it is important to note that while the film cannot reclaim that magic of the original, it surprisingly doesn’t struggle. In most cases, when a film faces this grand of an uphill battle, it’s easy to completely crumble under the pressure, like a bunch of LEGOs knocked over by an obnoxious sibling. The LEGO Movie 2 never struggles to remain standing – it only struggles a little, only shining slightly less bright. While I can’t give it an unabashed recommendation like I did the first film, I can announce earnest support for its incredible accomplishment despite the odds.
A major reason that the film manages to stay afloat despite losing its largest asset is because this is the film that fully embraces its mantle as a post-modern masterpiece. By taking the tropes of the traditional action/children’s film narrative and commenting on them, not only as a means of humor but as an actual statement on the story (the mimicking of well-known scenes, tropes, and actors is a part of the imagination of a kid recreating things with his favorite LEGO toys). In this universe, with these rules, it makes sense that Margot Robbie and Jason Momoa will pop up as their DC characters. It makes sense that Batman would be aware of Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, and Adam West. And when it is apparent that a major pop culture touchstone isn’t referenced, it would only make sense to comment on it, as Gandalf famously notes when lamenting the lack of heroes: “All of our heroes are disappearing, and Marvel won’t return our calls, so what can we do?” What’s more, like the best post-modernistic works, The LEGO Movie 2 doesn’t just provide meta-commentary – it fully embraces it. In the character of Rex Dangervest, it would have been easy to just make a passing reference to Pratt’s double role, or his cult of celebrity, but LEGO is smarter than that. Instead, they use Dangervest to satirize Pratt’s everyman nature with the roles he plays, elevating his character into a “Galaxy Defending, Dinosaur Wrangling, Cowboy Archeologist Baseball Player who possesses chiseled features originally hidden underneath layers of baby fat” (references to, in order, Pratt’s roles in Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic Wrold, Magnificent Seven, his rumored Indiana Jones movie, Moneyball, and his now-famous weight loss). Similarly, the film spoofs the nature of the musical, as portions of this film take place not just in the head of protagonist Finn, but in the head of his sister B (Brooklynn Prince, which is an excellent get). This is not a new concept – lots of films that want to spoof child films throw in a couple musical numbers to pastiche the format. However, none of them go this hard in making their pastiche a musical. Hell, most musicals don’t try this hard to be a musical. This is the essence of post-modernism: to take your satire so seriously, it’s almost not satire anymore. However, what The LEGO Movie 2 does most – and best – of all with its post-modernistic take is providing a heart to its irreverency. It’s easy to be cynical; it’s another thing entirely to approach deconstruction with flat-out optimism. Because the reason Lord and Miller wish to deconstruct this genre – and the reason they want to deconstruct any genre – is that they want to find out why they are popular. By placing the film inside the imagination of a 12-year-old boy, the nonsensical plot twists mirror the creativity that goes into playing with LEGOs as a kid. By using the story to explore the dysfunctions and love between different kinds of people, the film explores how LEGOs and childlike wonder can mend the bonds between father and son, brother and sister, and mother and child. And by adding a villainous twist to the mix that I won’t spoil here, it explores how we can be our own worst enemy and affect our relationships with family and friends. The Lego Movie 2 is the rare film that can double as a children’s film and the perfect introduction to a “Post-Modernism 101” college course.
However, at the end of the day, The Lego Movie 2 is a funny, gorgeous, creative film. This series has also been great at blending the silly with the sublime, managing to shift from a perfectly executed Scientology reference in one scene and a joke about Radiohead in another to portraying action sequences with LEGOs dangled from strings and characters yelling “Pew” as they fire weapons. Sometimes the humor is combined – a character getting hit with a Batarang and telling Batman “You missed me!” is pretty dumb on the surface, but also ties into the themes of recreating the way siblings play together. Other times the jokes seem directly written for me – at the lowest point of the film, a false “The End” sequence starts up, which is the perfect joke for a cynic like yours truly. And occasionally, the jokes are just plain morbid, in the best possible ways – what other children’s movie would have Abraham Lincoln (voiced logically by Will Forte) declare that he can’t do something because “[He] has theatre tickets tonight?” Oh, and while Lord and Miller are the only credited writers, and original scribe Raphael Bob-Waksberg (of BoJack Horseman fame) is no longer a credited writer, I refuse to believe his influence doesn’t remain prevalent. You can deny his involvement all you want, but you cannot deny the existence of Banarnar, a Banana Peel voiced by Ben Schwartz whose defining feature is not being able to walk places without falling down. That’s just good comedy. However, while I’ve always known the LEGO Movie series has been well written, one thing it never gets enough credit for is how truly stunning the animation is. So much work and detail goes into not only creating impressive and imaginative worlds, but worlds created entirely out of LEGOs. That means the animators have to design each and every piece in order to make this film work, and they take the time to do so. From a truly impressive sequence recreating the 2001: A Space Odysey Stargate with LEGOs to the character design on Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, the animation on this film is, quite simply, exquisite. Technically speaking, this is an absolutely stunning film, all around.
In terms of the vocal cast, its hard to really break down, due to the ever-shifting cameo nature of this ensemble. In terms of the leads, Elizabeth Banks really walks away with this one, adding more nuance and dimensionality to her character, while Pratt enjoys the opportunity to play both ends of his personality – the likable man-child and the muscular ultra-bro. My personal favorite, however, is Tiffany Haddish, who is really taking the world by storm after her breakout in Girls Trip. She is clearly enjoying every role she takes, and as Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, she takes special joy in creating a funny, entertaining character who ALSO SINGS! DID YOU KNOW HADDISH COULD SING?!? BECAUSE I DIDN’T! Ahem, I digress. In terms of returning cast members from the first movie, I will say I wish there had been a bit more Batman, but I understand that they just gave him an entire spin-off, and too much could be overkill. Still, hearing Will Arnett’s terrific voicework in any capacity is a win, so I’m ok. I was also excited by the work of Charlie Day and Alison Brie, who have the ability to make any character shine, and especially their highly-energized characters here. Meanwhile, in terms of the new characters from Planet Systar, I’m particularly fond of Ben Schwartz, Richard Ayoade (who should be in everything), and especially Stephanie Beatriz, whose voice I didn’t even recognize until the end credits. And while I won’t spoil every cameo, I’ll say that Ralph Fiennes, Jason Momoa, and a certain 80s megastar have my favorite bit parts. Finally, I want to give credit to Jadon Sand and Brooklynn Prince (who proves she wasn’t a one-trick pony with The Florida Project) for capturing a realistic family, alongside their parents, whom I won’t spoil here, as that’s a fun little reveal.
The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is a worthy sequel to one of the greatest films of the decade. It has imagination and creativity to spare, and it remains thoroughly entertaining throughout. It captures the pure joy and ingenuity involved in playing with LEGOs, and it does so in a wholly unique way. And while it faces all the challenges involved in creating a sequel built off a twist, its utilization of post-modernist storytelling helps keep things moving in a fresh and enjoyable manner. It’s a great film for parents and children alike, and should be enjoyed for years to come.
*Ed. Note: I am well aware that the proper term for a group of LEGO toys is “LEGO pieces,” as LEGO is a brand name. I refuse to do so because I love causing trouble and pissing off the purists. Sue me.