The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part features a joke about hurting your foot by stepping on a Lego that’s been left on the floor.
Part of me wants that to be the entire review. The original Lego Movie was quite simply a masterpiece, somehow achieving the aims of both a hyper-commercialized colorful marketing exercise aimed at kids and a trenchant, meticulously engineered yet searingly emotional meditation on the very nature of Lego as a vector for infinite possibility and creativity. It did a lot of difficult things in a really original way, is what I’m saying. And yet, one of its greatest achievements in my eyes has always been how it only barely alludes to the idea of stepping on a Lego and getting hurt.
Try for a moment to appreciate how radical that is: Making a comedy movie about a product (for better and worse) that never includes the only main cultural joke about that product. Picture a New York movie that never shows the Manhattan skyline, a space movie without a spaceship, if you want an idea how big a handicap writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were working with.
The Lego Movie 2 was directed by old franchise hand Mike Mitchell,1 but written by a returning Lord and Miller (as well as uncredited work by BoJack Horseman‘s Raphael Bob-Waksberg). It’s clear the new crew thought having to follow The Lego Movie was enough of a handicap already: The joke about stepping on a Lego is reasonably funny, it plays an amusing little role in the plot, the acting and direction pitch it well in the moment… but at the same time it’s the exact kind of joke about stepping on a Lego you’d expect from a movie about Lego, without any other context or background.
This ends up representing the entire movie well: A superbly executed but very predictable idea, that ends up feeling very different from the explosive surprise of the original. The story finds the heroes of the first film – Chris Pratt’s oblivious hero Emmett, Elizabeth Banks’ cool but insecure Lucy, and their retinue including everyone from a cyborg pirate to Batman – coping with the post-apocalyptic hellscape that was once the vibrant Lego world they knew. Alien attacks from the people of “The Sis-Star System” have ravaged the happy and functional world they once enjoyed, and they’ve descended into moody reminiscence, grim resignation, and lots of steampunk outfits and shoulder pads.
Of course, the Lego people weren’t the only heroes of the movie. Making any sequel to a self-contained story is hard, but it’s particularly tricky to follow up on the eventual revelation that the story we were watching was literally a kid playing with Lego the whole time. The various spinoffs haven’t even tried to deal with it, but The Second Part faces the challenge like a classicist, and ditches the comparative-lit-class feel of the first movie for a more mythological air.
Most early myths were about gods, but gods were never thought of as existing in the same circles that people did: Their lives were on a different level, everything they did had a massive effect on the petty little world we knew. As a result, something you see a lot in myths is the idea of human struggles as proxy disputes among gods: The years of bloody war shown in the Iliad began when Aphrodite’s champion pissed off Athena and Hera; the impossible voyage home from the war that we call the Odyssey was so tough because an Athena-worshipper didn’t sacrifice to Poseidon when he went to sea.
From the perspective of the haughty and immortal gods, these apocalyptic torments are just minor disputes, minuscule in the larger context – and yet, those disputes are universal enough that ancient listeners would recognize the same godly fury within themselves, rendering whole lives and wars in a personal emotional context. This is the foundation of storytelling: Taking something that happened to other people, and putting it in a context so you feel like it happened to you personally.
I took a bit of a long walk on that, but my point is that the story is very up-front about being this kind of dual narrative. We follow the Lego folks on their Lego adventure through the furthest reaches of Lego-space and Lego-time, but we’re constantly being Lego-reminded–sorry, just regular reminded–that this is just the boy from the first movie, who’s become a moody tween with a bundle of insecurities about what growing up as a man entails.
The result? As above, so below: It’s a story that savvy viewers can see coming, but it’s still a good story, presented with style. The ingenious CGI that emulates stop motion is back, and it gets put through its paces and used to tell the story in a hundred subtle ways, but it’s all the same ways that the first movie used. There are more self-reflexive songs that lampshade their own nature in a meta-ironic way, but they’re pretty funny and Tiffany Haddish’s mystery character sings the hell out of them. There’s an extended running gag about how weirdly cast Chris Pratt is as the kick-ass action star of the Jurassic World movies, but the jokes all work even if you aren’t aware of what they’re talking about, since there haven’t been many “funny dinosaur” things since Earl Sinclair met his fate.
That’s why I talk about myths. The idea of “spoilers” would be completely alien to people listening to stories of the gods, huddled around a fire. The canon wasn’t built on new myths, on surprises that people were hearing for the first time: They were built on stories people still loved hearing after too many repetitions to count. The same ol’ same ol’ was the start, not the end, of the story.
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part understands that we live in a very mythological kind of environment when it comes to media: We’re looking for the perfect mix of repetition and advancement, new things happening in the same context, for as long as we feel like we want. I hesitate to say whether it lives up to the first film, but it understands the same things that the original did, which are important enough to make it worthwhile.