The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
It’s practically ancient history when it comes to the modern-day tilt-a-whirl of tent poll franchises, but it’s still a bit surprising to me how much of a revelation The Lego Movie of five years ago turned out to be. I remember watching the trailer for it and thinking it had the potential to be a disaster, more Emoji Movie than what it became, but then it was the year of “Everything Is Awesome” and a stream of imaginative animation that served as a very heartfelt love letter to those little plastic blocks. The years since have seen two big screen spin-offs of the sub-genre, that I both kinda liked without being blown away, but I have to admit that my expectations for The Second Part were, if not quite sky-high, pretty far up. So, is the next instalment of Emmett and co’s adventures a decent edition to the canon or is it a case of, as one of the songs of the production goes “Everything’s Not Awesome”?
Five years on from their liberations of Bricksburg, Emmett (Chris Pratt), Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and their assorted friends – Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Bire), Benny (Charle Day) among others – now live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with everything happy and colourful instantly destroyed by alien Duplos from the Systar System. When Lucy and his friends are kidnapped by shape-shifting Duplo queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), Emmett embarks on a journey to save them, with the help of edgy hero Rex Dangerfest.
It would only stand to reason that The Lego Movie would be hard to top, and The Second Part can’t credibly claim to do that. While it has plenty going for it, too much can only be adequately described as “More of the same” for it to be considered at that level, and where The Lego Movie was a true stand-out of the genre, The Second Part thus becomes something inherently forgettable.
The truth is that in so many ways The Second Part is re-treading things, be they jokes or a general hero’s journey narrative, played for laughs in its straightforwardness in the first one, but now just par for the course. It’s no surprise that Rex Dangervest and his spaceship crewed by raptors steals the show, along with Watevra, because they are the new elements: Lucy, Unikitty, Benny and the Pirate Captain are all just doing the same thing they were doing before, only now with less time to do it in. Will Arnett’s Batman, naturally, gets far more attention, and the warped love plot between him and Watevra actually is rather good, but even I have to admit that, three movies into his version of the character, Arnett is starting to grate just a little bit.
One of the key things that really struck me about The Second Part was how so much of its running time, especially the first two thirds or so, seem dedicated to a strange quasi-criticism of the elements that made the first one so memorable. The infectiously happy tone and colour scheme of the first is replaced by the obviously Mad Max-inspired location of “Apocalypseburg”, where the inhabitants are all various shades of miserable, and look back on the good ‘ol days with distant disdain, Lucy wants Emmett to drop the effervescent act and grow up a little bit, and our main character seems to be suffering a bit of arrested development. Emmett himself is frequently upstaged by Dangervest, a newer, cooler, edgier hero with a dark backstory he doesn’t mind dropping. And our apparent villain uses mindless pop music, of a kind that sounds a lot like “Everything Is Awesome”, as a brainwashing tool.
It got to the extent that I was beginning to wonder if the writing/directing crew had changed wholesale, but it does all come right in the end, at least to an extent. Having run the gauntlet of casting aspersions on the tone and themes of The Lego Movie, the final message of The Second Part is a simple, but not unwelcome, treatise on how it’s OK to be happy, to like shiny things and yes, mindless pop synth, because being serious all the time is, well, not awesome. If The Second Part can say anything, it’s that it invites the viewer to contemplate how dull that edgier Lego world would be, before confirming that it’s better for things to remain “Unbelievable, super cool, outrageous and amazing, phenomenal, fantastic, so incredible (woo hoo)”. That’s a bit more palatable than the overblown looks at how childlike innocence inevitably turns to adolescent cynicism, in a way that feels like it’s going for the same thing that Toy Story did, just much more badly. If The Second Part really wanted to do something intelligent, they would have hit down harder on themes of gender dynamics, with the film going places in an early scene where a stuttering Lucy has to explain just why Emmett is the leader, and can’t really come up with anything, only to become mostly subordinate (again).
The wit and cocksure attitude of The Lego Movie is replicated here, not continued. The nods and references to pop culture overwhelm everything, to the point that the film actually skews towards adults. Every actor who had ever played Batman gets namedropped, Pratt’s filmography gets a going over (hence the raptors) there at digs at the absence of Marvel characters (they aren’t returning calls, with the Justice League taking the superhero slots; a Jason Mamoa voiced Aquaman even says “My man!”), Bruce Willis turns up in an air vent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows up as a bridesmaid, the credits sequence features a song about how great it is stick through the credits, on and on it goes, funny in that split-second moment, but becoming increasingly insufferable in the memory. The outcome is more Shrek (director Mike Mitchell helmed the regrettable fourth addition to that franchise) than anything else, and all of the lantern hanging, when characters flat out state the themes of the movie in language only a thirty year old would understand, points to a production team that have lost sight of the actual whim and whimsy that is supposed to be present.
The key flaw of the first one, the radically unnecessary inclusion of a live-action framing device, is extended here, despite the obvious unavailability of Will Ferrell for anything other than VA. His two kids bicker and fight over the Lego kingdom of their father, and this forms the basis for the actual plot of the movie, and it is all so superfluous, repeating the general themes and message of the actual plot in a manner that even a child may find a bit much. Even with Maya Rudolph appearing in a few great scenes, turning a simple step onto a stray Lego piece into a surprisingly excellent recurring joke, it just drags the whole thing down with cloying sentimentality.
Visually, as I have said before, the franchise has lost some of its lustre. The manic energy and vibrancy that made the coming together of all these Lego parts in The Lego Movie has become tired, little more than animated Michael Bay-esque noise and confusion, with only new ideas, like the shape-shifting Watevra, really popping the way you would expect. With such limitations comes inevitable noticing of how little originality is actually in some things, with The Second Part lifting so much from other sources, running the gauntlet of “inspiration” from George Miller to Trey Parker and Matt Stone (one late fight scene visual joke is taken directly from Team America: World Police).
Where The Second Part does get things largely right is the music, which remains as creative as it was before. Emmett opens things with a Garfunkel and Oats rendition of “Everything Is Awesome” while blissfully strolling through Apocalypseburg; Hadish’s apparent villain insists she is nothing to worry about in the hilarious “Not Evil”, cementing her as a likely “Darth Nefarious“; later, she and Arnett have an unlikely romantic duet about the perils and advantages of dating “Gotham City Guys”; “Catchy Song” both mocks and pays tribute to mindless peppy synth filled pop music; and a combination of Beck, Robyn and the Lonely Island play us out with the suitably optimistic “Super Cool”, a sort of happy follow-on to “Everything Is Awesome”.
It’s been a turbulent time for the creative team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who stuck to writing here, lettting Mitchell fill in the director’s chair, between their highly publicised axing from Solo: A Star Wars Story and their subsequent work on the very well-received Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse (and the upcoming adaptation of Andy Weir’s Artemis), so a little bit of a lax result here might be understandable. But in a larger sense, I can’t help but think that we have come to the end of the road, at least insofar as I can stomach more of these. The animation style has become stale four films in, and the idea well is getting shallower. Do we really need a third Lego Movie, or more spin-offs? We don’t, though that isn’t going to stop them from coming and coming.
All you can do is refuse to play the game yourself anymore, and that’s probably what I will end up doing. The franchise will keep going without me, crazy randomness keeping things at least somewhat fresh, and has reached the point of being largely bulletproof critically. You will find much to enjoy here, but sadly from a “Shut off your brain perspective” and not from anything truly worthwhile. Sadly, everything is, indeed, not awesome, and this does not get a strong recommendation.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).