REVIEW

Building a Cinematic Universe

The year 2014 saw the release of surprise hit “The LEGO Movie.” It was a movie that not only surprised by how much money it made, but also by just how good it was.

Looking back, this should come as no surprise given the people behind it. Phil Lord and Chris Miller have made careers out of writing, producing and directing unexpected projects and making something great of them.

“The LEGO Movie” is perhaps their greatest triumph, managing to make a heartwarming, side-splittingly hilarious film out of the mega popular construction toys without falling into the trappings of simply becoming a feature length ad for the brand.

With the success of “The LEGO Movie,” Warner Bros. Animation decided to capitalize on the success with more LEGO movies. The second installment and first spinoff, “The LEGO Batman Movie,” came out in 2017 to similar, albeit mildly diminished, success as the original, even without Lord and Miller at the helm.

The next film in the franchise “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” was the first theatrical movie based on an original LEGO property, and unfortunately tanked at the box office and suffered from lackluster reception.

So, after five years and two follow-ups with diminishing returns, does “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” revive the franchise? Or is it time to start putting away the toys?

Picking Up the Pieces

“The LEGO Movie 2” picks up directly following the events at the end of the first movie. The LEGO world has been ravaged by the horrible aliens of the planet DUPLO, and for the last five years our heroes—Emmet, Wyldstyle, Batman and the rest—have been living in fear in the wreckage of that world.

When a new threat emerges, Emmet must set out on a new quest to save his friends and learn a valuable lesson.

Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett and the rest of the original cast all return, with new additions Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz and more.

“LEGO 2” is a movie that builds on what made the original so great, continuing the narrative of adolescence and expression through creation. It’s as much about the design of the narrative as it is about the narrative itself. In this way “LEGO 2” is a strange film to navigate, as its themes and narrative flow are relative to a source outside of the presented story set in a world of LEGO toys.

Where the first film mostly used the suggestion of an outside world that dictates and manages the goings-on of the brick world until the end of the film to tie it all together, “The Second Part” incorporates the outside world heavily throughout the film and is essential to the film’s success. 

A Matter of the Mind

“The LEGO Movie 2” lives and dies by its decision to tie the real world events so closely to the events of the film. The first film did a brilliant job of providing just enough of the real world to illuminate the deeper meaning within the film. The story told in the original is rich enough on its own that we could understand what was going on without it, but it still adds to the emotional punch at the end of the film.

A hallmark of Lord and Miller’s style is in their use of meta-narratives to cleverly subvert genre and storytelling pitfalls in a way that both deconstructs and reaffirms the way stories are told.

They are also proficient at dolling out side-splitting laughs right alongside heartfelt messages. This can be seen in their “21 Jump Street” films, as well as last year’s excellent “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

While “The Second Part” does utilize the duality of its meta-narrative in some interesting and meaningful ways, it does not strike this balance nearly as well and frequently feels jumbled and inconsistent in its pacing and tone.

It’s a tricky balancing act, telling two stories in one. In this case there’s a primary story—the one that follows Emmet as he tries to save his friends—and an arch story—the one where a young human boy, Finn (Jadon Sand), is having a hard time getting along and playing with his younger sister.

In essence the primary story serves as a representation of the complicated emotions of Finn’s pubescent mind based on the events going on in the arch story. Unfortunately it’s not always so simple, and we also get the second perspective of Finn’s sister bleeding into what unfolds in the primary story.

In this way the primary story feels very unfocused, and it is frequently hard to determine the consistency of the logic within it. This makes the film somewhat frustrating to follow, and oftentimes I found myself very annoyed at what was being presented to me.

I have to give credit to the film because some of this frustration feels by design, as it is reflective of how Finn feels, and a majority of the film is from his very loaded and emotional perspective. Where I think this hurts the film is in the actual flow and in the questions it brings up regarding the sentience of the LEGO characters in the real world. It is unnecessarily convoluted in the extent it goes to tell its meta-narrative.

Just the Bricks

Complications of the storytelling aside, the film just doesn’t add up to more than its parts. Director Mike Mitchell does a fine job, but Lord and Miller’s touch behind the camera are deeply missed. Their films and scripts are always chock-full of crackling jokes that come fast and often. In “The Second Part,” the jokes fly just as fast but land far less often, frequently due less to the quality of the joke and more to just being out of sync with the moment.

There are also a greater amount of musical numbers, and while the content of the songs are frequently hilarious, some of them could have been edited down. It becomes quite grating for a movie that is by no means a musical to stop at random points for a full two- to three-minute musical number.

That being said, the song that plays at the beginning of the credits is a treasure that you should most certainly sit through the credits to listen to.

While almost all of the cast returns, Emmet, Wyldstyle, Batman and the new characters get most of the spotlight. The other supporting characters get only brief moments to shine and ultimately feel more like wasted callbacks rather than the fully realized characters. Apologies to all of you Benny, Metal Beard and Unikitty fans out there.

On the more positive side, the film does hit on some great themes and is strangely enough the closest thing I’ve seen to a family-friendly version of “Fight Club” in its deconstruction of the male ego as a destructive force.

The film does an excellent job of allowing you to feel along with Finn’s volatile emotions so that when the final point comes, it's as if you experienced it with him.

It’s definitely something that struck me as an older brother to a sister myself, having gone through similar spats throughout my childhood. Perhaps if I had a movie such as this growing up, it would have helped guide me in those times of frustration.

Final Instructions

While “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” isn’t nearly as good as the “The LEGO Movie” or even “The LEGO Batman Movie,” it still serves as a diverting enough story with a meaningful and valuable message for kids and maybe even some adults who haven’t quite learned how to empathize.

As far as family entertainment goes, it's a solid choice at this point in the year, but it’s hardly a must-see-in-theaters kind of movie—which is unfortunate, given the great effort that goes into the wonderful LEGO animation and the evident care put into making a followup as special as the original, even if it doesn’t quite get there.

I’m still optimistic about future LEGO films despite the diminishing returns. The storytellers are clearly interested in using the medium to tell authentic and important commentaries, which is more than I can say for most animated fare.

Rated PG for some rude humor.

Runtime: 1h 47min.

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