The LEGO Movie ended by blowing up its universe so completely that the biggest challenge faced by its (two!) 2017 spinoffs was finding something, anything to make those stories feel like they were worth telling. They had mixed success, neither fully managed to overcome the hurdle. It seemed that the LEGO movie brand had decided to survive on the more easily replicable parts of their progenitor’s success; the poppy aesthetic, the quick-fire comedy, the gonzo mashup sensibility.
Turns out, if you copy only the surface level elements, you don’t get very deep movies. The LEGO Movie’s twist was that the entire plot is the fabrication of a child trying to rationalise their relationship with an overly assertive father, and suddenly a story thematically about creativity and the nature of play was literalised. The sequel? It leans into that even harder.
The movie knows that we know, but can’t let the characters in on the truth. So, it structures itself as a puzzle. We know that what we’re seeing is a distorted perspective of reality, and the film teases us — strange incongruities, unexplained elements, inviting us to piece together an understanding of events as we go this time. I don’t think I have seen a film recently that is so transparently a discourse, its characters living embodiments of ideology, arguing between each other on the correct way to live.
Following on from the closing moments of the original movie, the town of Bricksburg has been destroyed when its creator’s younger sister is invited to play. It has since been remodelled into the grimdark land of Apocalypseburg. When a sinister envoy from the Systar system kidnaps most of the cast, amid prophetic dreams of a universe ending calamity, Chris Pratt’s Emmet sets out to rescue them before time runs out.
That’s maybe the first ten minutes of the film. It’s pacey, and while it slows down later for some musical numbers (an addition which I’m in love with) there’s not a moment where it stands still. New to the cast is Tiffany Haddish as Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi, a sentient pile of lego bricks that can reform itself at will. The look of these movies has always been gorgeous, but her movements — seemingly inspired by the geometric animation of Michel Gondry’s music video for Fell in Love with a Girl — are irresistible. Plus Haddish is a fucking fantastic vocal talent and she gets the best songs. You could not ask for better care for a character whose machinations almost single handedly drive the plot, she could have been so underserved.
Joining Emmet, as he tries to rescue his friends, is Rex (also played by Pratt). It doesn’t feel like The LEGO Movie came out before Guardians, but it did. Sure Pratt had been flexing his chops in bit parts — Moneyball, Zero Dark Thirty, Her — but he was still the Parks and Rec. guy. He wasn’t the movie star Chris Pratt that Rex is parodying as a gunslinging, raptor training, space captain. Film disappointingly shies away from making a Passengers joke, though given how forgotten that movie was, I’d probably be the only one laughing.
It’s a fun bit, though kinda muddles what the story’s going for — especially as we get deeper into the weeds of the plot. Are the filmmakers mournful that we’re not getting as much funny Chris Pratt as we used to? Is it a critique of the blockbuster machine, that all his current bankable roles can be reduced to a single guy without losing too much? And because what we’re seeing is a fantasy in the mind of a child, could it also be condemning how the masculine identity of the ‘hero’ is being conveyed to impressionable audiences?
They’re big questions for a funny joke, but to its credit the film actively invites them. I was thinking while watching this about how play was portrayed in Toy Story, frivolous, fun but ultimately meaningless. While the toys agree that their one true purpose is to be played with, it cannot be a reciprocal act. In fact, play itself can be wrong, it can be violent, perverse even and, even when depicted as wholesome, usually utterly meaningless.
This franchise is a reclamation of the concept. These models are not animated when their owners leave, it is play itself which imbues them with meaning and purpose. In doing so it invites us into the debates at its foundation. Constructive vs. Destructive play. The nature of play as a form of collaborative storytelling.
If the first film is a heart a masculine narrative, as a father and son relationship drama kinda should be, this one is shaped by interaction with the feminine. Will Ferrell’s father character doesn’t even appear, and the lego figure he voices swiftly departs before the plot even has a chance to begin. I’ll say that he’s unfairly humanised far more than the mother character ever is; though — while I won’t spoil who plays her here — the actor they got is perfection and does a LOT with the little on the page.
Far more insight is given to the sister character. I’m not sure that the young actor, Brooklynn Prince, has any lines of consequence, but the film is so laser focused on the internality of her imagined universe we start to get a portrait of this person. Stephanie Beatriz as General Mayhem is the last new addition to the cast and is the nearest thing that she’s got to an in universe mouthpiece and, like everything, the way they choose to develop the character is charming — even if she could do with a little more.
It’s not as good a film as the original, honestly few are. Yet the original caught minds by being something unexpected. New in a way that we hadn’t seen before. It’s four years later now, and there’s not the same strike-of-lighting revolutionary energy anymore. It’s absolutely fine, it’s real good, but I think it signifies that maybe the LEGO franchise should think about calling it a day. It peaked too early and I’m honestly skeptical that it has too many stories left to tell.
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is currently screening in UK cinemas.