There was a sweet gag in 2014’s The Lego Movie, the surprisingly charming film that kicked off an animation franchise that has so far included spin-offs The Lego Batman Movie, The Lego Ninjago Movie and now, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, out this week.
The gag involves the building of a double-decker couch, which is the proud and utterly useless creation of lowly construction worker Emmet (voiced then and now by Chris Pratt). The joke not only appealed to those who can never seem to follow those carefully numbered instructions folded away in the Lego set boxes, but also served as a badly needed moment of bumbling humanity amidst the breakneck and brightly-colored mania on screen.
The couch gag returns in the sequel: Emmet builds a double-decker porch swing for his paramour Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). This time though, the joke is stripped of its sweetness and purpose. No longer a bone toss to clumsy builders, it simply serves a reference to the previous film, one of many hundreds of pop culture references that avalanche out of the new movie like Lego pieces from a pillowcase.
The filmmakers pile on the name-drops—everyone from Mary Poppins to Elliott Smith gets a shout out—in what is an attempt not just to widen its appeal but also to distract from a plot that is both unwieldy and unsatisfying. And while the new film is heavy-handed in its messaging about friendship and the power of getting along, it does so with little of the emotional heft of the previous installments—and about half the wit.
But that doesn’t mean that The Lego Movie 2—which builds its story around the folding in of the Lego Duplo and Lego Friends toy lines into the existing Lego Movie universe—doesn’t have its winning moments. The bulk of these come virtue of its new characters, like Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, a shape-shifting octopus-like alien queen voiced with reckless abandon by Tiffany Haddish.
The Girls Trip star gets to sing a funny tune about what a bad idea it is to date guys from Gotham City. (In the manner of pretty much every other joke in the movie, the song features call-outs to every bat-actor—from Affleck to West.) By contrast, the film’s other major tune, “Catchy Song,” with its single lyric—”This song is gonna get stuck inside your head”—has all the charm of a busy signal.
THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART ★
The story is a jumble, but it chiefly involves the original playthings trying to maintain the chirpy awesomeness famously sung about in the first film when pink, puppy-eyed and oversized invaders enter their once orderly world. When these interlopers seemingly brainwash his friends and make them captives of the Systar System, Emmet teams with a macho adventurer named Rex to rescue them and bring them home.
The collision of these seemingly incongruous worlds is meant to be a representation of the toys’ warring owners Finn (Jadon Sand) and his little sister Bianca (Brooklynn Prince from 2017’s The Florida Project). They—along with their mother (Maya Rudolph) and the voice of their father (Will Ferrell)—are featured near the end of the movie in oddly stilted live action sequences that unfavorably recall NBC’s old “The More You Know” PSAs.
It’s not just emotion and creative innovation that feels MIA in this installment. The film acts as though it’s edgy, but lacks real bite. There is, for example, a half-hearted attempt to send up Scientology with talk of the characters being put through a self-reeducation celebrity center, but the conceit is abandoned as soon as it is introduced.
Instead, we get a fruit basket turnover of references, mainly to movies like Die Hard, Back to the Future and films that, like the other Lego movies, are far more inventive than this one. The Lego Movie 2 serves as proof that while there may be value in our shared language of pop culture, when they are devoid of feeling and wonder, those markers end up being little more than signposts on the road to nowhere.