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‘The Lego Movie 2’ is built on heart

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Maybe the bricks were stacked against the “Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” from the start. Normally, it’d be odd to doubt the comedy talent of writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in the sequel to an award-winning blockbuster. But 2014 was a long time ago. Long enough, perhaps, for people to forget what Lord and Miller accomplished with “The Lego Movie,” turning what should’ve been a gimmicky, feature-length toy commercial into one of the best animated films of the year and (fight me) an incredibly disappointing Oscars snub. And, as much as I hate to admit it, you’re always going to face an uphill battle trying to get people to take those silly, animated Lego figures seriously. The question, then, would be whether “The Lego Movie 2” could assemble the same winning combination of brilliant concept, clever plot and heartwarming charm that made its predecessor a home run. It doesn’t come together perfectly this time around, but “The Lego Movie 2” still carries plenty of its predecessor’s heart and humor to make for a much more thoughtful — and wholesome — film than your average animated flick.

Much of the original film’s brilliance came from its climactic reveal — that (spoilers!) the universe of everyman protagonist Emmet (voiced with the usual comedic chops by Chris Pratt) and his fellow Lego figures was also a surprisingly poignant metaphor for the real world relationship between a father and son. “The Lego Movie 2” can’t un-reveal that, and definitely suffers from having played its best card from the get-go. The sequel does, however, reaffirm the strength of its concept by extending the metaphor in a novel way.

New conflict comes in the form of the dreaded Little Sister, whose alien amalgamations invade from the “Systar System” and transform cheery Bricksburg into a post-apocalyptic world of edgy, parodic angst. When the latest incursion kidnaps Apocalypseburg’s finest, including Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Batman (a scene-stealing Will Arnett), Emmet is urged to toughen up from his usual, wholesome self to embark on the daunting quest to save them. It’s a decent setup that kicks off a fun caper through the Systar System’s new, beautifully animated additions to the Lego universe. Emmet remains an endearing hero, unique among even kids movies these days with his brand of relentless, goofy cheeriness. Lord and Miller, returning to pen the sequel, also use the new metaphorical dynamic of an older brother and younger sister at play to thoughtfully explore conflict, childhood expectations of “growing up” and even tropes of masculinity. One of the best new additions of the film is Galaxy-Defending Archaeologist Cowboy Raptor Trainer Rex Dangervest! (also voiced by Pratt) — there’s something hilarious about parodying the surly, gritty action man of every teenage boy’s dreams in cartoony plastic.

A few key comparisons set “The Lego Movie 2” back compared to its predecessor. The plot labors significantly more; the deliberately weird and childish nature of the little sister’s Systar System takes a while to get used to in a film that already demands that viewers enter a world of Lego, and the least convincing moments of comedy and exposition happen in the initial introduction to this new setting and its characters. While the new metaphorical frame of sibling conflict is a clever one, the film’s closing moral of making up and cooperation feels far less weighty than “The Lego Movie”’s exploration of creativity and freedom. Noticeably absent also is Lord and Miller’s skill in the director’s chair — there was a unique, chaotic charm to the first film’s action sequences that new director Mike Mitchell doesn’t quite capture in the sequel’s set pieces.

Sustaining the film through these rougher patches, though, is its self-awareness and levity. Stuffing a franchise film with shoutouts and references is no longer anything new — Ryan Reynolds has practically staged a career renaissance out of it — but “The Lego Movie 2” comes with the unique advantage of its huge scope and reach, where anyone or anything can be caricatured in a cute, plastic mini-figure. Lord and Miller rightfully refuse to take their fantastical world too seriously, well aware that this is the rare sort of film that can pause itself to cameo Bruce Willis, satirize “Mad Max” and sing a musical number about Batman without anyone batting an eye. They also bolster Lego’s already formidable cast of franchises with wider references to pop culture, to great effect. Look out for a brilliant meta-gag about “Infinity War”’s ending, Benny the Spaceship Man to namedrop Radiohead and an appearance by Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It’s this infectious desire to have fun that keeps the film rolling and ensures it remains an enjoyable ride. Some new twists and additions to the plot don’t quite fit perfectly together, sure, but at the end of the day there’s an undeniable cheeriness to “The Lego Movie 2” that makes the movie click. Between all of the film’s silly characters, meta-jokes and allusions to childhood is a whole lot of heart, reaching for that sense of nostalgia and cheesy, childish fun that probably had us playing with Lego in the first place. Don’t be surprised if it’s still in you.

 

Contact Dan Wu at dwu21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.