by Andrew Wyatt on Feb 7, 2019

When Warner Animation Group (WAG) announced that it would (to exactly no one’s surprise) return to the glossy plastic well with a sequel to its critical and box-office hit The Lego Movie, it was perhaps inevitable that the result would be less appealing and invigorating than the 2014 original. After all, part of what made the first Lego Movie such a delight was the left-field nature of its aesthetic and comedic success. Five years ago, the very concept seemed like an unintentional satire of Hollywood’s anemic idea factory. A feature-length animated adventure based on a construction toy? Seriously? What might have been a mere 90-minute commercial for the ubiquitous studded bricks turned out to be a visually innovative, relentless cheeky, and genuinely tender pop treatise on the Tao of Play: an appeal for a “middle way” that blends the best aspects of fussy model-building and imaginative chaos. (Of course, corporate synergy being what it is, The Lego Movie was also a 90-minute commercial.)

The 2014 film’s triumph was generally attributed to writer-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; 21 Jump Street), although just as essential was the team at Aussie animation studio Animal Logic – who established the tactile, faux-stop-motion style that instantly distinguished The Lego Movie from the cheapie computer animation of so many direct-to-video Bionicle, Chima, and Ninjago projects. That said, it’s tempting to chalk up the diminishing returns of the 2014 film’s theatrical spinoffs, The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017), to the absence of Miller and Lord’s deft handling, given that the pair stepped back to a producer-only role for those outings.

For the original film’s first full-fledged sequel, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Miller and Lord have returned as co-scripters, although directing duties this time fall to family-animation veteran Mike Mitchell (Shrek Forever After; The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water; Trolls). Mitchell doesn’t have Miller and Lord’s track record in the director’s chair – he also helmed the notoriously risible Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999) – but The Second Part’s failings have less to do with creative shakeups than the lightning-in-a-bottle factor. It would be challenging for any filmmaker to replicate the sense of surprised delight that attended the 2014 film, if only because filmgoers (and Warner executives) have expectations that must be fulfilled. Beyond the sheen of the new, however, The Second Part also lacks the narrative cohesion and propulsion that made the first chapter such breezy fun. For shockingly long stretches, this new Lego Movie is more of an ungainly, plodding jumble than a functional film.

The action picks up almost exactly where the original feature left off, with the Lego city of Bricksburg under attack by the adorable but fearsome Duplo invaders. Guileless plastic everyman Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) attempts to appeal to the Duplo people’s sense of community and compassion, to no avail. Fast-forward through five years of incessant assaults, which have reduced Bricksburg to the despoiled Mad Max-esque wasteland of Apocalypseburg. Everything is decidedly not awesome anymore. (The parallels with the real-world zeitgeist shift from “Yes We Can!” optimism to “This Is Fine” despair are plain but remain studiously un-addressed by the filmmakers.)

Cyber goth Master Builder Lucy a.k.a. Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and the rest of Brickburg’s residents have adjusted to this darker, edgier reality, but Emmet remains as fervently upbeat and clueless as ever. Dreaming of an idyllic existence with his maybe-girlfriend, he constructs a cozy dream house that’s almost immediately reduced to blocky rubble by an arriving spaceship. Said craft is piloted by Gen. Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), a glittery intergalactic warrior from the nefarious Systar System, which appears to be some sort of offshoot or evolution of the Duplo people. Mayhem swiftly absconds with Emmett’s pals – Lucy, the brooding Batman (Will Arnett), spaceship-obsessed Benny (Charlie Day), sweet-and-spicy Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), and cyborg pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) – prompting Emmett to convert his demolished bungalow into a spacecraft to pursue them.

Mayhem brings Lucy and her friends before Systar’s queen, Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), a colorful, shapeshifting conglomeration of bricks who assures them – somewhat ineffectually – that she has the best of intentions. Batman’s fragile ego prompts him to insist that he is the leader of Apocalypseburg, whereupon the queen reveals her scheme to marry him, thus unifying their worlds. While the rest of the companions are distracted by Systar’s catchy pop music and sparkly amusements, Lucy attempts to uncover Watevra’s almost certainly nefarious aims. Meanwhile, Emmet runs into chiseled action hero Rex Dangervest (Pratt again, imitating Kurt Russell imitating John Wayne), a space-hopping cowboy, archeologist, and velociraptor trainer. Emett is taken with Rex’s rugged man-of-action schtick – and his dark, mysterious backstory – and the pair promptly team up to battle the Systar denizens.

The most conspicuous misstep The Second Part makes is how early (and eagerly) is shows its hand. The first Lego Movie uncovered affecting warmth and a gentler stripe of humor by means of a third-act paradigm shift: The epic battles dramatized by the film’s minifigs were revealed as proxies for the real-world conflict between a persnickety adult Lego collector (Will Farrell) and his rules-busting 8-year-old son, Finn (Jadon Sand). In contrast, The Second Part lets the audience in on its “frame plot” almost immediately, revealing through impressionistic but still thuddingly obvious insert shots that its story is rooted in the increasingly shrill skirmishes between now-13-year-old Finn and his 8-year-old younger sister, Bianca (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince). It’s a theoretically fruitful source of pathos – the age- and gender-loaded conflict between siblings is often expressed through possessiveness and territoriality over toys, after all – but The Second Part fumbles the story’s potential by letting the audience in on the secret from the first jump and then harping on it incessantly. There’s little incentive to care about the film’s toy-level plot when the viewer is reminded with almost obnoxious frequency that Watevra’s devious grasping and Emmet’s anxious masculinity are stand-ins for a couple of suburban kids’ squabbles over their objectively enormous and costly Lego collection.

What’s more, The Second Part consistently struggles to construct a sturdy story from its component scenes, most of which play out like the action-adventure equivalent of sketch-comedy routines. In the moment, there’s a diverting and even lively quality to many of these sequences, which tend to be more rooted in character humor and absurdist digressions than in the 2014 original. However, Mitchell, Miller, and Lord are so hellbent on turning every set piece into a self-contained, flop-sweaty joke machine, they neglect the propulsive energy that would have kept the film skipping along. The Second Part makes some concessions to the well-worn conventions of the Hero’s Journey, but it ultimately feels like a half-baked version of a contemporary animated studio feature, with all of the metatextual gags and easy familiarity but no clean lines, narratively speaking. The first Lego Movie adeptly embodied the freewheeling Calvinball chaos of children’s play, but this outing just feels like an adult improv troupe gamely but futilely trying to emulate the same.

There’s still plenty to admire about The Second Part, at least from a technical standpoint, as Animal Logic has impressively refined the style of the first film and its spinoffs over the past five years. The sheer tangibility of the characters and environments is often startling, incorporating as they do unbelievably fine virtual details such as mold lines, scratches, and thumbprints. Although The Second Part necessarily feels like less of a delightful sensory discovery compared to its predecessor, this outing is nonetheless a noticeable iteration of the “Lego Movie house style” into a marvelously shimmery and flamboyant Version 2.0. There’s just enough visual flair to keep animation aficionados smiling while the film plods along through its shapeless plot, jokey cutaways, and Warner Bros.-approved fanfic tomfoolery. While there’s nothing overtly unpleasant about The Second Part – excepting perhaps the uncritical enthusiasm with which it buys into the Lego Group’s own gendered sub-branding – it’s unmistakably a weaker, flimsier, less charming retread of what should have remained a stellar one-off.

Rating: C+