The Lego Movie was one of 2014’s pleasant surprises. Expectations may not have been high for a tie-in to children’s colourful blocks, but Phil Lord and Chris Miller applied their trademark anarchic sense of humour and knack for the unpredictable to cobble together a bright, entertaining film. It’s imperfect, sure, and only half-conceals its product-placement agenda, but it was enough fun that I’ve made a point of revisiting it in the years since.
That the sequel, arriving half-a-decade later, demonstrates diminishing returns isn’t necessarily a surprise. Not only because of the typical problems associated with any sequel, but because sequels feel antithetical to Lord and Miller’s approach. Their best films are born of an intense familiarity of genre tropes: what works, what doesn’t, and striking a joyful balance between subverting and embracing those traditions. The Lego Movie might be a fairly conventional ‘chosen one saves the universe by inspiring everyone to love themselves’ narrative, but it’s so mired in the pitfalls of that storyline that it’s able to leap (almost) all of the problems that plague its brothers and sisters. Plus there’s the great Lord Business twist hiding in the back third.
The Lego Movie 2 is as colourful and creative as its predecessor, but it’s never going to be as surprising. The animation is glorious, equal parts hi-fi CGI and lo-fi plastic blocks. Emmett (Chris Pratt) is still as cheerfully optimistic as ever, even in the midst of a Mad–Max-esque apocalyptic wasteland. Lucy/Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) remains steely-voiced, über-competent and somewhat disgruntled by her now boyfriend’s (I guess?) complacency. Batman (Will Arnett) is still grimdark and utterly lacking in self-aware. Unikitty (Alison Brie) remains a melange of sugar-and-sweetness and fire-and-lasers. Benny (Charlie Day) loves spaceships. (Liam Neeson’s cleverly-conceived cop character is sadly missing in action.)
All of these characters were great jokes in the original film, and they’re still well-executed here … but many of the jokes have worn a bit old. Lord and Miller are superb at crafting characters that buoy a two hour film, but the cunning simplicity of their supporting characters wears out its welcome the second time around. Granted, they’re not directing here, but this is a common trend across their sequels (22 Jump Street, the follow-up to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs): good films, sure, but lacking the spark that elevated what came before.
Not that there aren’t some great additions here. Tiffany Haddish’s character, Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, a shapeshifting matriarch, delivers some memorable music numbers, one cleverly spoofing the time-honoured children’s film tradition of benevolent authority figures turning out to be sinister villains. Rex Dangervest (also Pratt) parodies Pratt’s action movie turns with a grizzly John Wayne impression. But the impact of these additions is weakened by both the need to accommodate characters and plotlines from the first film and the fact that…well, it’s all pretty predictable? Anyone older than seven years old will be able to see most of the major events coming an hour out, which stands in stark contrast to the typical Lord/Miller model of appealing to kids and parents alike.
These are all relatively minor issues. But like stacks of Lego, little things can pile up into something big, and here the overall problem is simply diagnosed: it’s just not as fun or funny as The Lego Movie. The first act, in particular, drags, clumsily setting up storylines and narrative arcs in a way that harks to less sophisticated animated films. There are enough big laughs scattered throughout to keep the film from dragging, but it’s a legitimate disappointment compared to what could have been.