In 2014, The Lego Movie gave me a low-level migraine, the seasick sensation of being in a toy store for too long, or the beaten-down feeling of being forced to spend an un-caffeinated afternoon with a group of 7-year-old boys. I feared Lego Movie 2: The Second Part but was instead stunned. It’s great! Why? How? Did someone slip some Ritalin into my Coke?
The original Lego’s hyperkinetic blend of Millenial affirmation (“Everything is AWESOME!”), toybox nostalgia and pop-culture irony was universally adored on its 2014 release. It has a 95 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, but ignore that because, actually, everything is awful about that first The Lego Movie. This fact, more than anything is why loving the second one is so strange to me. Now, I understand creating a global film franchise about stacking plastic blocks isn’t an easy task. I can imagine the pitch meeting with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller must have sounded hip and provocative:
“We will set our story in a Lego land called Bricksburg, a paradise of soulless conformity. Our everyman hero Emmett will discover he’s special, even though that character arc is not. We will introduce Lego Batman halfway through the movie, because we can, which will please the merchandising department. Next, we’ll race through Lego worlds so quickly they’ll seem like ads, because they are. And there will be laser battles, because the thing that make Legos unique and endearing are the laser battles. Finally, we will blow minds by saying this ridiculous movie is all a dream, or actually a battle played out by a sad, toy-loving businessman and a son with deep, deep Oedipal conflicts!”
The first Lego Movie was a strange amalgam of Michael Bay blockbusters, Family Guy, Philip K. Dick’s The Cosmic Puppets and an afterschool special about emotional abuse. The blank slate of a modular children’s toy resulted in a convoluted franchise flick so over-steeped in irony and caught in a rotor of distraction, it was impossible to register an emotional connection. Which maybe was the point.
But in 2018, Lego 2 went to rehab and came out not a completely horrible person.
Lego 2 literally knocks Bricksburg to the ground, thanks to an invasion of Duplo-Blocks. They’re adorable and terrifying. Fast forward a few years, and nice guy Emmet (Chris Pratt) is in denial, believing that everything is still awesome in his post-apocalyptic home, Apocalypseburg. But the Duplos return, kidnapping the city’s protector Batman (Will Arnett) to marry him off to a shape-shifting alien queen (Tiffany Haddish). They’ve got to rescue him, but also look their Lego selves in the mirror. What have they become?
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part wisely limits itself to a fewer worlds within the sci-fi genre. But more importantly defines each character’s goals and internal conflicts so the movie becomes a fun ensemble comedy, whose underlying theme is identity. While Batman raspily ponders commitment to an alien queen, milquetoast Emmet decides to remake himself in an Alpha Male to impress his hardcore dream girl Wyldstyl (Elizabeth Banks), who conceals her own softer side beneath brooding voiceovers. Emmet gets dude-bro guru when he’s rescued by Rex Dangervest, a dude’s due in the Kurt Russell mode.
All this doesn’t make Lego 2 a groundbreaking inquiry into toxic masculinity (these are Legos, not therapy puppets!), but it does give the film an emotional grounding whose absence made the original feel at times like watching a 5th grader play a video game on Twitch.
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Even better, the first film’s Matrix-like wrapper — that the Lego world is just a manifestation of the conflicts of a real-world family — becomes a legitimate B story, affecting the main plotline, as the sparkle-obsessed baby sister tries to overcome her brother’s aversion to combining their toys. Plus, Maya Rudolph plays the mom.
Yes, there are still pop references galore (the Avengers, Doc Brown, Bruce Willis), an outer space sequence that’s a sly triple homage to Star Wars, The Twilight Zone and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And funny ironic songs (“Catchy Song”) that while not totally intellectually offensive, feel more like rejected Lonely Island bits than anything truly “funny.”
But the sequel is less about “stuff” and more about characters — characters who happen to be miniature plastic toys, but also have to decide to what extent they’ll reinvent themselves. It’s totally impressive how Lego 2 takes the first film apart and puts it back together. Nothing is that different, but everything is. That’s an optimistic story in a year that heads toward Dumbo, Uglydolls, and Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. Maybe it’s possible to make something original out of the old parts. If not, we’re in trouble.