With every installment released in the LEGO film franchise, it’s beginning to become crystal-clear just how much of a miracle the original Lego Movie really was. Perhaps some of that was merely the element of surprise, given how strongly the original film worked to conceal its metatextual live-action twist with incredible animation, a blisteringly fast-paced plot, and goofy humor meant to endear it across age groups, but I’m much more willing to be that it was how smartly it rendered its themes about “specialness,” childhood creativity and play in a moving and occasionally quite lovely fashion. To say it rose above the specter of its advertising-heavy origins is an understatement, and that through-line of exceeded expectations continued through the Lego Batman Movie, which offered up solid criticisms of the Caped Crusader’s on-screen adventures amidst all of the fun and, though lacking some of the pathos of the original film, it perhaps had even better animation than its predecessor. But that was followed by an ill-advised Ninjago movie which, despite having the most adorable on-screen kaiju in recent history, flopped critically and underperformed at the box office.
So, when The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part was announced a few years back, some had hoped for a return to form, given that this was a mainline entry in the franchise. After all, it featured the return of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (authors of the first film and plenty of your favorite comedies of the decade) to writing duties and boasted what seemed to be a slam-dunk plot. It would be a continuation of the original, picking up directly where it ended: with the invasion of the Duplo (Lego’s child friendly brand of big-block toys) monsters on Bricksburg, heralding the arrival of the real-world boy’s sister (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince, who, happily, gets lighter fare to be in this time around) to the basement playroom where he and his dad (Will Ferrell) played with their toys. And, fair enough, it does begin with an expanded version of that scene, and it might be the funniest sequence of the entire film, which bodes poorly for those high hopes.
Now, some years later in the Lego world, Bricksburg is an apocalyptic nightmare, a grim-and-gritty sand-covered locale full of struggle and pain — well, except for Emmett (Chris Pratt), the goofy “special” protagonist of the first film, who still thinks that everything is, in fact, awesome. This chafes on his girlfriend, Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), who wants Emmett to grow up and stop being such a childish goofball, but before she can truly tell him so, a mysterious spaceship appears in Bricksburg, carrying aboard an emissary from the Systar System named General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz). Sweet Mayhem kidnaps every member our main ensemble — Lucy, Batman (Will Arnett), Mechanical pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman), cat warrior princess Unikitty (Alison Brie) and spaceship-obsessed Benny (Charlie Day) — and takes them across the galaxy to her leader, Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), who is an evil-seeming shapeshifter. It’s up to Emmett and his new friend Rex Dangervest (also played by Pratt in a total send-up of what his career has become since 2014) to rescue his friends and potentially put a stop to Wa-Nabi’s ambitions and prevent Our-Mom-ageddon, where all of the toys will be put into the storage bin of death.
Anyways, some secret ingredient is missing from this Lego Movie’s attempt to recapture the spirit of the original. It’s not the animation, which remains top-notch, even if the worlds it is capturing are, well, less visually inventive than the ones in the first film, nor is the cast, whom all do their very best with the material. Maybe it is, in fact, the element of surprise, because outside of one third-act revelation about a character’s origins and intentions, you can pretty much predict exactly what’s going to happen in this film as soon as you step into the theater. Coupled with a weirdly inert pun-based sense of humor (especially for Lord and Miller), a lack of the visual gags that defined the first’s visual aesthetic, and an over-reliance on musical numbers (penned by the normally reliable Jon LaJoie) that attempt to replicate the earwormy nature of the Tegan and Sara modern-classic “Everything is Awesome” with increasingly tepid results, this fatigue essentially renders the film inert.
There isn’t a single character as fun or as inventive as Liam Neeson’s Bad Cop from the first film, nor is there a plot device as existentially terrifying as the Kragle, as well. It becomes a film in which the driving interest of the viewer isn’t so much what will happen to the characters or the world around them, but rather what the next “unexpected” cameo is going to be. One could say that was also present in the original, but there the randomness felt thematically relevant in what it pulled in, but here, it just feels, well, geared towards the audience exclusively without any attempt at justification.
More frustratingly, the film’s themes don’t totally congeal into something as moving as the originals, and the live-action segments fell perfunctory in a way that they didn’t in the first one. There was an innate emotional understanding that Lord and Miller possessed there about the relationship between children and their parents, one that could see both of their perspectives on what Lego — or play in general — meant to them, and it’s missing from this film, where the message essentially boils down to “play nice with your sister or we’ll put your toys away,” and the adult perspective is limited to “boy, stepping on a Lego brick hurts quite a bit.” The former isn’t an inherently bad message, it’s just not a very complex one, though attempts are made to complicate this by making it a referenda on young men being pushed towards grim and gritty expressions of masculinity, especially wrapped up in Dangervest, with Pratt’s Kurt Russell impression concealing an conservative ugliness that is reviled against “girly” things.
If only the film were willing to go further with this in the live-action segments, maybe it would have been just a little bit more successful, but as it stands now, it’s weirdly tepid — a half-hearted lunge in a direction that Lord and Miller have better explored elsewhere (say, in Into the Spider-Verse). And coupled with The Lego Movie 2’s general sequel-itis and its lack of compelling humor, it’s just another diminishing return on a series that’s slowly starting to become defined by them.