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REVIEW – “The Lego Movie 2”: Awesomeness in Spades, A Muddled Message Everywhere Else

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Five years ago, the accidental genius pairing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Clone High, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) created an unexpected bout of cinematic magic when The Lego Movie minted nearly $600 million and won the hearts of audiences and even the most hard-hearted critics. The key to its instant connection with viewers, and certainly me as a less mature 20-year-old, was its conceptual approach to an existential crisis, whether an existential crisis, wherein the hero must escape societal norms and break a rudimentary fourth wall to protect his community from a relative enemy. Put more simply, it was a deep, emotional, stylized yet unashamed in its humoristic choices philosophical allegory where playtime is meant to be for all, and the creativity of lone individuals ought to be celebrated and shared for all. The sequel we had expected, and that has now arrived onto screens after a long gestation does not necessarily make the latter part all that clear, but easily maintains more than its lion’s share of meta-humor stripes and oddly appropriate cameos. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is clearly its own existential crisis: a truly fun trip that’s worthwhile just on positive character development, an endless bouquet of gags, and an increased volume of musical moments, but struggles to maintain its deeper meaning past what its predecessor left behind in that cliffhanger ending.

Opening exactly where the first left off, as the strange Duplo creatures make their first encounter on the now peaceful community of Bricksburg, what was once a bustling cityscape with the promise of future growth has evolved backward into a nightmarish Mad Max-esque realm, the aptly named Apocalypseburg. Emmet (Chris Pratt), their one-time hero, is still the optimistic, charming, trifle immature dude, versus his fellow master builders having grown hardened, a bit too gritty for their own good. He wants to be more of a provider for his gruff, cynical girlfriend Lucy fka Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), yet she continually must remind him that the overwhelming awesomeness he’d always considered part of his identity, with time and age, lessens, especially given circumstances.

Five years can seem like an eternity for many individuals, and for kids who grow up at the drop of a hat, that time can feel like a distant memory. One of the first film’s grandest hallmarks was connecting Emmet to a human player in the third act, the plucky Finn (Jadon Sand). The disagreement held toward his dad, aka President Business (Will Ferrell, who returns to the role in vocal form only), over trying to share brick pieces to build something beyond the norm, had led to a particular unity, something his sister Bianca (The Florida Project standout Brooklyn Prince) had wanted in incorporating her Duplo toys. He doesn’t wish to mix his toys, she tries to steal them away, they fight. Typical sibling jazz.

Emmet’s not-completely-serious girlfriend, and their gifted work colleagues are then pulled away, past the upstairs, and toward the SyStar system (har har), where everything’s a bit more girly, and far more saccharine, bordering on tooth-rotting. The kingdom’s hyper-transformative leader, Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) promotes a rather “not-evil” approach, promising peace among worlds while also wanting to charm the elusive, brooding Batman (Will Arnett) into a public wedding ceremony. The other MBs, Metalbeard (Nick Offerman), Unikitty (Alison Brie), and Benny the astronaut (Charlie Day), they’re all easily convinced things may not as bad as originally considered. Of course, except for Lucy. And this does put Emmet in the most awkward position as the lone rescuer. He does get an unexpected level of assistance, in the form of an older, more macho version of himself, the self-proclaimed action hero Rex Dangervest; easily mistakable for the side of Chris Pratt who did grow up as an actor, after Parks and Rec left the air, and Jurassic World made him bankable. Other SyStar residents such as the directive-driven General Sweet Mayhem (Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s fiery Stephanie Beatriz), the casual Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), and the mostly gag-oriented Banarnar (Ben Schwartz), they go above simply rounding out a strong vocal cast, they make their new realm worth revisiting. Hell, the one-off cameos (including a certain Sonics player from the olden days), will surprise in the best way.

The Lord-Miller camp, alongside co-writer Matthew Fogel (Big Momma’s: Like Father, Like Son), riding high on their unique approach to the Spiderverse, revisit their past success with an affectionate fondness, and a clear path for where an enigmatic reward should lie. Yet their usual directorial magic is absent, almost to zero benefits. Mike Mitchell, a highly versatile helmsman in his own right, having left his mark on straightforward live action (Sky High), animated (Trolls), and hybrid films (Sponge Out of Water) does his best to carry forth an otherwise flawless cinematic trip, but leaves a few muddled missteps through that path, keeping any sort of emotional response a bit tactless, while taking a few extra avenues to reach a particular goal. I could read that philosophical dread a bit easier, even if it had carried a slightly bitter taste on the tongue. Like the conflict appeared forced, dry, a bit tough to feign relatability to. As genuine as the adolescent actors were, alongside their quirky mom (Maya Rudolph), part of me would’ve liked just a more seamless weave in between both shared worlds, and their brick-by-brick construction.

That may just be a small quarrel to what is still an impressive sequel that doesn’t shy away from building upon the momentum of its predecessor and its bat-centric spinoff film, though not so much the ill-advised Lego Ninjago spinoff feature that likely didn’t need to exist but was still a noble effort. The attention to detail, admiration for fellow established IPs (especially DC, and their top slate of characters is put to much better use here), and infinite closet filled with running gags and one-off jokes that had left me a giggling mess from head to tail, are all appreciated, even celebrated, whether it be Finn’s sudden penchant for more grown-up films, including but not limited to Die Hard and Back to the Future, Rex’s clear friendship with an all-raptor army he personally trained, or the way the film uses music.

In spectacular, yet almost unexpected fashion, having just one memorable song (“Everything is Awesome”) is not enough this time. You need 10, eight of them new, and five of those penned quite brilliantly by comedian Jon Lajoie. Between the accurately titled “Catchy Song”, that yes, will get “stuck inside your head”, Haddish’s anti-villain song, and what may be among the best end credits song tied to easily one of the best end credit sequences of any film this decade, coupled by Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, it honestly cannot miss, aiming for the target every time.

Despite taking a few missteps in reaching its explosive brick-laden emotional core (think a tootsie pop, only thicker), I still found plenty to laugh about, and much to keep a dumb smile on my face all the way home after. So what if this second Lego Movie isn’t as awesome as the first? Not everything can be, as they make clear. But that couldn’t be more OK; it’s a bit rough around the edges, but to ignore just how much fun there is to be had, would only make a viewer only more brooding and dark. It is still quite possibly the first great film of the year overall, a testament to great filmmaking when the people involved are giving all their energy to something that can be as effective even if it isn’t as sharp, with nary a callback unturned, and quite the potential for more of the same. I’m not saying there should be a third film to complete the set, but it wouldn’t hurt. And who knows? Much like the original tried, this effort might start to grow on me with time, and in turn, be all the more awesome. (B+)

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG for mild action and rude humor; 107 minutes.