Every Hollywood film is a business transaction, and yet 2014's The LEGO Movie looked like it was going to be even more blatantly corporate than your typical cinematic toy tie-in. What a shock, then, that it turned out to be both a feature-length commercial and a brilliant, inventive animated comedy, exuberant and visually playful and highly self-aware.
It inspired two spin-off movies and now the requisite sequel, which is also pretty breezy and occasionally very funny. What's missing in The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, though, is any novelty — the sheer I-can't-believe-this-is-actually-good surprise — that came with the original. It's kind of like putting together one of those elaborate, thousand-piece LEGO sets for a second time: You already know how all the bricks fit together, and that sense of discovery is gone, but it's still an enjoyable way to pass the time.
That's to be expected, of course, when a franchise goes back to the well for a fourth time. At least Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the sharp writing and directing team behind the first LEGO Movie, are responsible for this script. It's up to its eyeballs with their trademark wink-wink, nudge-nudge jokes, boasting surprisingly sophisticated pop culture references for the adults and goofy slapstick for the kids (although I found myself laughing at a lot of the same gags as some of the preschool-aged audience members).
The Second Part takes us back to the all-LEGO town of Bricksburg (the crumbling sign now reads "Icksburg"), which has devolved into a dusty, sepia-colored Mad Max hellscape — excuse me, heckscape. Why? Well, because a sequel has to be grittier and darker than its predecessor. Returning is the dopily optimistic Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt), who we last saw stumbling into heroism, and the cyberpunk Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who's too busy delivering brooding voiceover to settle down with Emmet in the suburbs.
As if the city didn't have enough problems, it's attacked by an army of cutesy Duplo toys — little pink hearts and smiley-faced stars that, despite their chirpy toddler voices, explode like grenades. Their leader is the mysterious General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), who kidnaps Wyldstyle and a coterie of supporting characters — Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie), MetalBeard (Nick Offerman) and Benny the overeager Spaceman (Charlie Day) — and takes them to a planet overseen by the seemingly devious Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi (Tiffany Haddish).
She's a shapeshifter (read her name out loud to yourself), changing forms between a sweet-looking horse and a tentacled, magenta-colored blob, and she wants to marry the stubborn bachelor Batman. Meanwhile, Emmet teams up with the adventurer Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Pratt, doing his best Kurt Russell impersonation) to save his friends and stop the queen's wedding, which he fears will bring about an "ar-mom-ageddon."
Not much has changed since that original film. There are a handful of new, recognizable figurines, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gary Payton, Bruce Willis and the Justice League, exasperated because Green Lantern demands to tag along on their adventures. And there are even more clever tunes, including a Lonely Island song extolling the virtues of sitting through the end credits, and a jingle that rivals "Everything Is Awesome" as the most aggressive earworm you've ever heard. There are also more live-action interstitials this go-around, involving a brother and his little sister learning to play together and blend their respective LEGO sets.
Most of the movie feels like an extended third act, racing toward the next plot development with the patience of a kid making up a toy story on the living room carpet. It's not as formally audacious as the first movie, and it doesn't have the same joke success rate as 2017's The LEGO Batman Movie. Yet it's still an amiable adventure with a few great meta gags — I particularly liked Rex's function as a Chris Pratt surrogate (amongst his skills are "chiseled features previously hidden beneath baby fat"), and the use of an apparatus called a C.P.D. (short for "Convenient Plot Device").
The original film ended with a discussion of the two types of LEGO builders — those who follow the instructions to the letter, and those who are more freeform, eschewing direction to find their own shapes. This movie is more the former than the latter, rehashing a formula that seemed much fresher five years ago, but it's no less entertaining to watch the finished product (and yes, it's still very much a product) be put together. ♦