At this point the most boring but also undeniably correct observation you can make in film criticism is that Phil Lord and Chris Miller are uniquely skilled at turning what ought to be the tackiest commercially motivated movie projects into actually good films. They do so not through subversion but in a way that sincerely elevates and indeed embraces their very commerciality.
When you think about it, there’s almost an element of the sinister to their ability: It shouldn’t be possible for normal humans to be this good at what is essentially emotion-driven brand marketing. You shouldn’t be able to so successfully turn the LEGO corporation’s self-serving feel good projected image as a vessel for imagination, self-expression, and intergenerational family togetherness into the actual moral through line of The LEGO Movie. At a certain point, a crack should start to show and natural cynicism should take over. “Wait a minute! This is exactly how a company that wants me to fork over money for more of their bricks would want me to feel about them!” The spell should break, but it doesn’t because the movie is that good.
Another thing you probably shouldn’t be able to do is actually make a proper sequel to The LEGO Movie, since it seemed like such a miracle that the original worked as well as it did in the first place. A sequel should also be impossible because (in case you forgot) the first one wrapped up with a uniquely ingenious reality-bending twist that rendered the “stakes” of the main story’s action less than life or death, and further established that its universe was so malleable that sequels could be beside the point. They told what seems to be the story and communicated the message of the property in terms of the framework they’d built for themselves, right?
To be certain: The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part starts out buried (quite literally) under an awareness of OUR awareness of its own sequel stature. It openly plays with the audience’s understanding of what the rules of the scenario are supposed to be now. The sequel’s perspective is meant to keep you guessing within a plot that turns out to be making a big thematic swing instead of a reality-shift this time around. There’s also one of those, in a manner of speaking, though it’s different from the first movie’s twist.
It’s been five years since the climax of the first film and the “to be continued” ending has left the self-contained LEGO universe inhabited by the main characters stratified into a state of war between two states. There’s the mysterious Sistar System — alien invaders who have apparently pillaged the world of its more whimsical pieces — and the remaining inhabitants of what is now Apocalypsburg, a biting sendup of gritty adolescent angst pop culture fixations where everyone but original movie hero Emmet has gone all Mad Max.
When the principal characters from the original are themselves abducted by a mysterious Sistar emissary, Emmett heads out to rescue them. He’s doomed to fail until he allies with new character Rex Dangervest. With both characters voiced by Chris Pratt it’s a sendup of Pratt’s current blockbuster movie persona and how it compliments Emmett’s callback to the actor’s time on Parks and Recreation. Meanwhile, the other characters encounter a mysterious shapeshifting Sistar space queen whose agenda and purpose are something of a massive spoiler, save to note that she’s memorably voiced by Tiffany Haddish and gets two utterly hilarious musical numbers.
To actually describe how this all gets resolved would, unfortunately, give away the game. Suffice to say if The Second Part isn’t ultimately as rock solid a construction as its predecessor it’s only because it’s going for a MUCH bigger, more narratively complex denouement than the original. You might not expect an extended Madeleine L’Engle reference to just get dropped into the midst of a questing sequence and yet that’s what happens here. The movie ends up asking the audience to do a bit more heavy lifting in terms of sorting out what various events in “LEGO World” are supposed to represent vis-a-vis both “reality” and “subconscious inner monologue of characters in reality.”
It wouldn’t surprise me if the actual mechanics of the “big reveal” end up utterly perplexing to the youngest in the audience. Even this ostensible adult didn’t expect to spend several minutes of a LEGO movie trying to work out which of these two characters who are both technically supposed to be imaginary is physically present, and which is being wholly imagined in order to serve as an extension of the other’s existential crisis?
The more winkingly obvious mystery object naming scheme this time makes it easy to figure out that we’re heading for a condemnation of adolescent “gritty” machismo with the same stern-but-gentle finger wag given to fussy stifled adulthood in the original. Still, this means the film ends up asking the younger side of the franchise’s two-tiered audience to be the introspective ones this time. How often do you see that?
Complicated or not, the movie does (if you’ll pardon the pun) eventually all fit together. As ever the animation and sight gags are gorgeous and the cast is uniformly terrific. Who knows how much gas the franchise can truly be said to have in it? But then before the original no one thought this was a franchise in the first place.