So why didn’t I like it more?
To be sure, The Lego Movie 2 is a lot of fun. If you loved the first movie or just need something to see in theaters, it won’t disappoint. It neatly subverts a bunch of the issues the first movie had, particularly when it came to how that movie portrayed its women characters.
But it also loses a little something in terms of expectations versus reality. In 2014, a movie based on Legos seemed like such a stupid idea. In 2019, we know better. The bar is higher, and Lego Movie 2 doesn’t clear it with nearly as much ease.
Is that slightly unfair to the sequel? Maybe. But it’s also the classic sequel problem. The Lego Movie 2 does everything it needs to do to be a pretty good movie, but it never once takes the leap into somewhere completely unexpected. Instead, it chooses to follow the assembly instructions for a movie sequel to the letter.
And leaping into somewhere completely unexpected — without checking the instructions — was what its predecessor did best.
So let’s look at three ways The Lego Movie 2 tries to one-up its predecessor and gauge how successful it is at any or all of them.
1) It tries to do better by the movie’s women characters
Here is the one place where The Lego Movie 2 largely improves on the original. The 2014 film was an elaborate series of nesting layers, all of which were stories about tricky relationships between fathers and their sons. And while the most prominent woman in the film, Lucy/Wildstyle, a badass Lego warrior voiced by Elizabeth Banks, was a fun character, she was sidelined in the movie’s big climax in order to elevate Emmet, the movie’s Lego hero (voiced by Chris Pratt).
It was something that Tasha Robinson, then of The Dissolve and now of Vox’s sister site The Verge, dubbed the “Trinity problem.” If you were really connected to what Lucy was doing, then the first film’s conclusion rankled just a bit. Emmet was a lot of fun — and, honestly, Pratt’s performance in these movies might be his best big-screen work — but in trying to tell a story about how he wasn’t the only special person in the world, the film inadvertently made him the most special person in the movie.
The end of The Lego Movie deftly sets up how The Lego Movie 2 will be just as much Lucy’s story as Emmet’s. In the concluding scene of that film, the characters are confronted by invading aliens from the “Duplo system” — meant to represent the creatures built by the younger sister of the boy whose imaginary adventures drive the storytelling of both movies.
Thus, the second movie now has an important female counterpart to the dudes, at every level — a sister (played by The Florida Project star Brooklynn Prince) for the brother; a mother alongside the kids’ father (whose cameo I won’t reveal because she’s so good and just a little surprising); Lucy alongside Emmet. There are even a couple of new characters to better even out this balance, including a queen with potentially duplicitous motives (Tiffany Haddish) and her right-hand warrior (Stephanie Beatriz).
This splitting of the narrative also shifts it just a bit to focus on questions of how a story changes depending on who’s telling it. If you pay attention to various scenes, it becomes clear when the characters are being “written” by the brother, who wants to tell a story about the anxiety he feels at his approaching adolescence, versus “written” by the sister, who just wants her big brother to think she’s worth spending time with.
This also allows the plot to do some neat subversions of typical stories. It starts out seeming like Emmet is going to have to save his friends from the first movie from the evil invaders of the “Sis-star System” (get it?????), but it turns out that Emmet just might be the one in need of saving, that his quest up the staircase and into the new system might be about him realizing that others have valid points of view, too.
But that brings us to something that sort of bogs the movie down.
2) It tries to tell a much more thematically complex story
There was a point about two-thirds of the way through The Lego Movie 2 when the preview audience I saw it with — which was loaded with kids — just sort of ... stopped reacting to what was happening on screen. Laughs were scattered, but I could also feel how the plot wasn’t quite landing in the way it was supposed to. And big things were happening! Old relationships were crumbling. New ones were being formed. The dark and terrible “Ar-mom-ageddon” was threatening to break out.
The movie won all of us back over by the end, with a series of rousing reconciliations, some fun action sequences, and a musical number (or two). But the deeper we got into the film, the more I felt like its conceptual brilliance was standing in the way of us actually getting invested in the story.
This is tricky to talk about without directly spoiling a lot of the movie, but suffice to say that somewhere inside of it is buried an attempt to examine the roots of things like toxic masculinity and the way that women’s viewpoints are often shunted aside in favor of the seemingly more “mature” pain felt by men. These are good things to build a kids’ movie around, no doubt! Letting young boys know how important it is to feel their feelings is just as important as letting young girls know that the things they enjoy are equally as valid as the things their brothers enjoy.
But The Lego Movie 2 also kind of lacks the smooth thematic connections at every level of its reality that the first movie had. Emmet and the first movie’s President Business (Will Ferrell) were excellent analogs for the boy and his father in the real world, because they had a similarly push-and-pull relationship. But Emmet and Lucy don’t have a similar connection to each other as the boy and his sister, who is supposed to be represented by the Sis-star characters, who Emmet doesn’t spend any real time with until the end of the movie because Lucy’s among them.
The Lego Movie 2 script is written by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, directors of the first Lego movie and the all-around screenplay wizards who’ve taken such bad ideas as “a 21 Jump Street movie” and “yet another Spider-Man movie, but this one is animated” and made them into some of the most enjoyable movies of the decade. Lord and Miller are geniuses at setup and payoff, at finding ways to introduce story elements in sneaky ways, then pay them off in grand fashion come the end of the film. And when they’re on a roll — as they were in the first Lego movie — they toss off smart, inventive ideas almost as a matter of course.
But they never quite get on a roll in The Lego Movie 2, with a clumsy prophecy that ultimately doesn’t have much bearing on the rest of the story setting much of the action into motion, as well as a series of lengthy misdirects that are too easy to see through. (One twist is almost immediately obvious, but, to be honest, I’m pretty sure the movie expects it to be immediately obvious.)
There are a few intriguing wrinkles here — like the identity of the movie’s real bad guy (and no, it’s neither of the new characters obviously set up to be the new bad guy) — but by and large, a lot of the storytelling in The Lego Movie 2 feels overcomplicated and overheated, despite having some fun concepts backing it up.
3) It wants to spend too much time in the real world
The first movie’s vault into our reality was one of its biggest masterstrokes, so it makes plenty of sense that The Lego Movie 2 would try to make the same leap, both early and often. But new director Mike Mitchell doesn’t have the same verve for shooting live action that Lord and Miller did, and the scenes set in the “real” characters’ home all fall back on flat sitcom visuals.
It doesn’t help that these characters are, on some level, intentional archetypes. The sister doesn’t really have a personality beyond liking to play Legos with her brother and dad. The mom is just a woman who’s devoted to her family but also probably needs a nap. And neither brother nor dad get fleshed out in a way that would justify spending so much time with them.
And since The Lego Movie 2’s storytelling stakes don’t quite scale up into reality as well as they did in the first movie (because the metaphor of what’s happening in Lego world ends up feeling so strained), all of the time spent in reality ends up feeling a little pointless, despite some solid moments from the actress playing the mom.
Unfortunately, “pointless, despite some solid moments” describes too much of The Lego Movie 2, a film with its heart in the right place, some great gags in its head, and an inability to make anything connect beyond individual jokes or plot points. I had a good time watching it, but I could always see the filmmakers just offscreen, holding up the big table the Legos were scattered across, sweating and straining to keep the whole thing from toppling over.
The Lego Movie 2 opens in theaters on Friday, February 8.