The Muddled Message of 'Lego Movie 2'

Lego Movie 2- Still 6 - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
The sequel takes on art, capitalism and death in a way that may leave adults unsatisfied.

[This story contains spoilers for The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part]

The following is a spoiler-filled conversation about The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part conducted by Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. The Lego Movie 2 is the latest comedy scripted by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street). Like The Lego Movie before it, The Lego Movie 2 features a lot of pop culture references and self-referential humor. It’s also (arguably) pretty and upbeat, so expect some curmudgeonly remarks from Messieurs Abrams and Boone. The film earned solid reviews but came in under expectations at the box office over the weekend. Let's get into it...

Simon Abrams (aka Manchego Ninjago)I take issue with The Lego Movie 2 and The Lego Movie because of their please-like-me jokes, their boring-looking visuals (sorry, man) and their winky-winky stock characters. More specifically, I dislike Lord, Miller, and director Mike Mitchell’s expression of The Lego Movie 2’s biggest idea: grimdark entertainment, like Mad Max: Fury Road, is just as valid as bubblegum pop, like, say, The Lego Movie, because both films are ultimately optimistic. Well, yeah. And?

Everything in The Lego Movie 2 repeats or barely develops that theme. I felt like I had already seen the whole movie by the 30-minute mark. Oh, so the menacing Duplo aliens are just misunderstood? And evil shape-shifting alien Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) — a big target of skepticism for our well-meaning, outspoken heroine Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) — is not really evil? I got all of that after about 30 minutes. Granted, I did not anticipate the twist about Chris Pratt (voiced by Pratt) and Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), his grimdark Chris Pratt alter-ego. But I am not (just) boasting when I say that I had this movie pegged from early on — I wanted to love this movie, especially since I like both Lord and Miller's 21 Jump Street and the Lord and Rodney Rothman co-scripted Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I'm not immune to Lord and Miller's meta-reflexive style of humor. But man, The Lego Movie 2 is depressing.

I know you're about to bring the hammer down on me. But first, I wanted to add some links and quotes from mixed-to-positive The Lego Movie 2 reviews that I read and liked. First, here's ScreenCrush's Matt Singer, who writes that the film is "very cute and very sweet,” but adds that "The scene I keep coming back to is the one where Emmet tries to remind the residents of Bricksburg that ... everyone is special now. Nobody’s buying it, and to be perfectly honest, after The Second Part, I’m not sure I am either." Then there's Vox's Todd VanDerWerff, who says, "The bar is higher, and Lego Movie 2 doesn’t clear it with nearly as much ease." Finally, check out this short piece by The Boston Globe's Tom Russo, where he emphasizes the post-Lego Movie transformation of Will Ferrell's father figure/conflicted LEGO alter-ego (aka Lord Business): "[Even Lord Business] eventually came to understand the imagination-sparking value of a Legoland without borders."

And without further ado: tag, you’re it.

Steven Boone (aka Bionicle with a Monocle): I don't hate it. If I had to write a full Lego Movie 2 review, it would probably go little further than Singer's note, "This is a very fun movie to look at." In 2019, we expect a popular family film to have a lot on its mind. The mindlessness of your average contemporary mindless entertainment owes more to its visual construction — interchangeable CGI hyperbole and infographic sense of storytelling — than to the content. Very smart people make these movies, and pop-culturally astute people gobble them up. In that sense, The Lego Movie 2 is standard-issue toothless (or teething, rather) satire with a difference: like its predecessor, it is distinctly gorgeous.

Whatever Nerf bat this film is trying to beat kids over the head with about gender roles — and toxic masculinity, encroaching puberty, optimism, identity, anxiety and Real Life — I tended to experience like a five year-old: as a light show, a pop-up book, a crib mobile. Goo-goo. As I said to you earlier, about your quietly mortified reaction during the screening: The Lego Movie 2 has more visual texture, solidity and dreaminess than Mad Max: Fury Road. Side note: there's a specific ingenious technical choice the filmmakers made for all the Lego movies that I won't go into here, but it provides a kind of visual Autotune that also happened to benefit the first three Mad Maxes. The first reader who guesses what it is wins my love.

Maybe the John Williams sound-alike orchestral cues had something to do with it, too. But when our heroes first blasted off into space to reach the "Stairgate" portal, I felt faint traces of The Force. The light, shadows, spaces and sounds are as carefully considered and modulated here as any passage of The Empire Strikes Back, that most beautifully photographed kiddy space opera. 

So that’s how the film effectively says, "Big bro and little sis, you can play nice and be yourself and be 'cool' all at the same time!” But it tends to say that through the "Please-like-me" characters that you mentioned, rattling off Teen Titans Go!-grade quips and snaps. Everything isn't awesome; everything is meta, everything is sitcom. Two decades after the rise of Pixar and Dreamworks meta-animations (with Ren & Stimpy, Roger Rabbit, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Looney Tunes before them), I feel as beaten into cutesy submission as Lego Batman (Will Arnett), who, in this film, finds love with an alien queen who’s bent on making him over as a vapid raver, complete with glitter cape. Fine, paint my toenails that stupid color — I'm distracted by the spinning lights.

But since The Lego Movie 2 seems pitched even more squarely at little kids — more than the finer corporate satire of The Lego Movie — I'd love to hear exactly what made you swear, upon exiting the theater, to keep your toddler nephew far away from this movie.

Abrams: Damn it, Boone, stop being so reasonable, even as we disagree with each other. I also often feel beaten into "cutesy submission" by contemporary animated movies and their common language of self-referential meta-humor. That whimsical "Nerf bat" approach (good one) approach is what I'm struggling to resist when I beg my poor sister (who has better things to do with her time) to keep her lovable two-year-old, Theodore, far away from the Lego movies. Because The Lego Movie 2 isn't just a knowing apology for The Lego Movie, which is already a defensive statement of purpose. That, in theory, is fine (cough, we both like Glass, cough).

I do, however, dislike two things about The Lego Movie 2. My first objection will become irrelevant in a matter of days, while my second point will only bother me for a little while longer:

1) The songs, jokes, plot and characters of The Lego Movie 2 are all proudly clever. I don't even mind that this movie isn't thoughtful: I just hate being trapped in a Bouncy Castle with a sugar-high grad student who won’t stop lecturing me about how put upon he feels for openly loving Carly Rae Jepsen, Beyonce or whoever.

2) The Lego Movie 2 was made at a moment when Lord and Miller are at the peak of their influence and popularity. So anti-camp jokes about Batman — he's wearing a Liberace glitter cowl while joking about his resemblance to Val Kilmer! — and earworm songs that are knowingly empty but catchy (with lyrics like "This song's gonna get stuck inside your head" and "There's nothing you can do, there's nothing you can say") are petty. Lord and Miller have effectively re-asserted their pop culture dominance by repositioning themselves as besieged, happy-go-lucky poptimist advocates. Give me a break, dudes.

With all that said, I have to ask you, a critic who tends to roll his eyes at bush-league cinematic propaganda: what movie did you see, and would I recognize it if I saw it? 

Boone: 1) I think any corporate satire or send-up that actually comes from the corporate world, be it Joe Dante's Gremlins 2 or a snarky Superbowl spot, is doomed to soft-pedal its most damning conclusions. There are no Howard Beales among blockbuster filmmakers advising the viewer to turn off the set and see with their own eyes. The whole point of Star Wars and E.T. — the two children's films that sparked my imagination — was to insinuate themselves into my playtime the same way that Kaiser Permanente moderated my pediatric visits.

I tend to look outside the corporate media dome for subversive spectacles. YouTube videos — some of which cannibalize big-studio product to deliver superior thrills and subversion — are where the real revolution is happening. A revolt that never leaves the plantation is just sassing the bossman.

2) "...gratingly clever." I've felt that way about every beloved mainstream animation since Pixar and Dreamworks first broke a hundred mil. We are going on three generations of animated features that teach kids the value of smug preening.

So when one of these things actually tries something new to go with their by-now mandatory manic precociousness, I emerge from my coma. In the Lego movies, that "something new" is using computer graphics’ capacity for photorealistic light, atmosphere and aberrations to help "paint" scenes as a great cinematographer might. Films like Rango, Wall-E, and Legend of the Guardians were here first, but the Lego movies have made some kind of aesthetic leap. You'd have to look at the edges of the anamorphic frame and those areas where the focus trails off gently from characters’ faces and meticulously grimed surfaces. Or where hot sunlight blooms, flares, pools, scatters and catches the dust ... just to see the man behind the curtain. Such visual subtleties are not mere ornamentation but the higher calling of cash barrels like The Lego Movie 2: While it shovels plot and theme, it applies mood and sensation with a finer touch that speaks to our nonverbal intelligence. (Craig Welsh, the original Lego Movie’s lighting supervisor, got this inspired directive from Lord and Miller: "We want it to look as though it's all been made in someone's basement — someone with a lot of time on their hands — and then lit and photographed by an absolutely top-notch miniatures photographer.")

Like I said, goo-goo.

I know the reader is probably anxious to get down to some spoiler-ific dissection of plot and theme, but I will save my favorite specific aspect of The Lego Movie 2 as story and pop commentary for the next volley. In the meantime: maybe you can encapsulate the film's obnoxiousness in an image or moment that haunts you still...

Abrams: There are a couple of moments that make me want to mutter and grumble, from Haddish's opening song number — when Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi begs Lucy and the other Bricksburg residents to Haddish’s character a chance, even if she repeatedly (and accidentally) threatens them — to the moment where the Bricksburgians sing "Everything's not awesome, but that doesn't mean it's hopeless and bleak."

With that said: if I can only pick one moment that encapsulates what I dislike about The Lego Movie 2, it's got to be the sequence where Rex Dangervest disappears, brick by brick and limb by limb. This should be a sad and/or funny moment, since we’ve spent some time getting to know and ostensibly enjoy the company of Rex, an antiheroic antagonist who is also basically the Ghost of Future Lego Movies. I don’t like Rex, but his destruction should feel important.

But as Rex fades from view, he tells us that his disappearance is just like when Martin McFly almost vanished in Back to the Future. Rex tells us not to worry, because while he's really disappearing — and cannot be resurrected or revisited — it's actually a good thing that he's going away, never to return (ever). Don't cry for him, kids: The Lego Movie 2 is just another movie. Great, so not only am I not allowed to feel a little discomfort or regret at death of this key supporting character, I'm also being told that my natural inclination to connect with him is wrong. Look, guys: if you want to make me cry or laugh, you kinda have to do more than hint at jokes or emotional relationships. Don't just tell me what I should think or feel and then ask me to appreciate the depth of your thoughts and feelings! The Lego Movie 2 is exhausting.

Now you’re it again: what's a scene or image that summed up your viewing experience?

Boone: You've pinpointed the film's essential toothlessness: it's as skittish about deep feelings as its hero Emmet. I get that the filmmakers thought of Rex Dangervest as "only" the alt-timeline dark version of adult Emmet and therefore as dispensible as, say, Evil Goatee Spock. But that won't stop little kids who've grown attached to Rex (and his Raptor buddies) from feeling cheated. Sometimes, toothlessness bites. It’s an odd moment of DGAF for a film that feels like an elaborate therapy session for kids still reeling from Avengers: Infinity War’s tragic ending.

More oddly: for all my going on about the film's technical pizzazz, the scene that sticks with me is the most flatly shot: real-life big brother (Jadon Sand) has a change of heart about little sister's (Brooklynn Prince) silly Lego games. He grows up right before our eyes by staying a kid just for his sister when she needs a playmate. Maybe its Sand's resemblance to the gawky older brother in E.T., who also transforms from tween cynic to born-again dreamer. The scene could have used some Spielberg lyricism, but in this age of post-everything meme and emotional recession — I'll take what I can get.