When The Lego Movie hit theaters in the winter doldrums of 2014, it stunned critics by being self-aware, sophisticated and just plain funny. Now, two lucrative spin-offs later (The Lego Batman Movie, The Lego Ninjago Movie), everyone from the haughtiest critic to the smallest Lego-loving child is familiar with the comedy style of screenwriting team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. That gives The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part a much higher bar to clear.
While the sequel — directed by Mike Mitchell (Trolls), with Lord and Miller returning to writing duties — isn't as deliciously unexpected as the first movie, it's not a lazy rehash, either. After a wobbly first third, it's a solid construction with plenty of laughs and a surprisingly cogent message.
The freewheeling randomness of The Lego Movie had a strong basis in its meta conceit: The animated story we're watching is actually the concoction of a kid, Finn (Jadon Sand), playing with Legos in ways his dad (Will Ferrell) doesn't condone. That film ends with Finn's Lego paradise facing a new existential threat: the intrusion of his kid sister (Brooklynn Prince).
In Lego 2, that threat plays out in the animated sphere as an invasion by ridiculously adorable Lego Duplo aliens. When the dust settles, after a substantial time jump, the protagonists of the first movie — unfailingly upbeat Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt) and his edgier pal, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) — are living in "Apocalypseburg."
Through an ungainly series of events, Wyldstyle, Batman (Will Arnett) and others are abducted and carried away to the "Systar System," home of the invaders, where everything is pink and sparkly. There the protean Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) sings to them with suspicious insistence about how not evil she is, while Emmet embarks on a rescue mission.
The often-chaotic plot is complicated by fast-flying in-jokes about various entertainment properties. But from the chaos emerges a simple, timely and actually pretty daring fable about the ideas and ideals that pop culture sells to us.
The brother-sister conflict is presented as a primal one; for preadolescent Finn, coming of age means manning up. So Emmet, worried that his sweetness won't suffice to keep the love of Wyldstyle, takes lessons in grim and grit from his new action-hero friend, Rex Dangervest. And Wyldstyle worries that the cuteness of the Systar System will rub off on her.
These are the gendered oppositions — cute versus gritty, frivolous versus serious — that structure our pop culture, and sometimes even our politics. Here, though, the conflict doesn't shake out as expected — perhaps because, as the first movie established, children's play has an anarchic streak. It's hard to keep Lego sets separate when they're yearning to become one big awesome collage of pop-culture properties and approaches to the world.
I hesitate to use the world "deconstruct" in reference to a movie that gets its biggest laughs from the subtitled dialogue of a bunch of cool-dude dinosaurs. But that's exactly what Lego 2 does to our assumptions about gritty, battle-worn heroes, earworm pop songs and the like. It shakes things up enough to demonstrate that an anthem titled "Everything's Not Awesome" is as much a lie as its Pollyanna counterpart.
In this movie, it's possible to stake out a middle ground between delusion and despair, and to do it with more dance-partying than preaching. "Hey, check out these cool shades of gray" is hardly a new message for children's entertainment, but right now, we need it more than ever.