Looking back over the past decade, I can think of just two films that have done justice to the idea of play — the special way that creativity and imagination combine in the human brain to entertain us. The first was a lighthearted art film called “Faces Places” from forever-young director Agnès Varda in which she and graffiti artist JR stage ephemeral installations throughout the French countryside. The other was “The Lego Movie,” a high-concept animated blockbuster that used the massively popular toy brand to explore — and celebrate — how people of all ages amuse themselves differently with the versatile construction sets.
Computer animated in a faux-stop-motion style by a team at Animal Logic, the 2014 film was revolutionary on multiple levels: technically and conceptually, as well as being one of the most innovative reinterpretations of high-value IP in Hollywood history. It treated the toys as toys — scratches and all — rather than presenting them as anthropomorphic plastic people. The movie was also novel in emphasizing that the characters, led by a “special” figure named Emmet (Chris Pratt), exist primarily in the minds of those who play with them.
In the first movie’s final minutes, co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller pulled back to reveal a brilliant meta-twist: Pretty much everything audiences had seen until that point had taken place in the head of an 8-year-old boy named Finn (Jadon Sand) whose obsessive-minded father (Will Ferrell) has lost the capacity for fun, building everything according to the instructions instead of freestyling as Finn does. “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” picks up where the original film left off, with the suggestion of a new threat from Finn’s younger sister, Bianca (played by “The Florida Project” charmer Brooklyn Prince), and her wacky Duplo-block creations.
That may have been a funny joke to end on in the previous film, but it serves as a false conflict for this sequel, overseen by director Mike Mitchell (“Trolls”) but very much in keeping with Lord and Miller’s irreverent mile-a-minute sensibility — even if the novelty has dissipated now that the franchise’s once-radical aesthetic has settled into being a kind of official look for Lego movies, of which we have since gotten a Batman stand-alone (inspired) and a Ninjago spinoff (tired).
“The Lego Movie 2” ought to have raised the bar, and while it’s faster, denser, and jam-packed with all sorts of catchy new songs (including one, “Catchy Song,” that’s insidiously engineered to get stuck inside your head), all that energy only goes so far to cover for the wobblier foundation on which this film is built. At the most basic level, it was a bad call to treat li’l Bianca as a villain when what she really represents is an extreme case of Finn’s own approach. As far as the filmmakers — and the Denmark-based parent company — are concerned, there’s no wrong way to play with Legos (after all, this is still one of the few movies in which the registered trademark symbol actually appears in the title). That means unless Bianca leaves bite marks in the plastic, causes vital parts to go missing, or smears them in grape jelly (all of which would have been fair kid-sister complaints), the movie will surely end up validating her own unique style, whatever that may be.
Where Mitchell, Lord, and Miller get creative is in devising a strategy whereby “The Lego Movie 2” can simultaneously reflect how two siblings of mismatched ages and genders interact with the toys, forcing them either to share the Legos or to find some kind of middle ground so that their incompatible approaches to play can coexist. That’s the high-concept conceit for the sequel, and while certainly ambitious, it’s a tough challenge to pull off. Because audiences already know that the Lego characters’ fates are determined by the caprices of real-world child-gods, they’ll wind up working overtime to unpack what’s happening in the Lego-verse, formerly confined to the basement but now expanded to “the Systar System,” where Finn’s (and fans’) favorite mini-figures — including Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), MetalBeard (Nick Offerman), and Unikitty (Alison Brie) — risk getting redecorated with glitter, stickers, and fabric. There in Bianca’s upstairs play spaces, the hilariously hard-boiled Batman (Will Arnett) becomes the Studio 54-ready “Man of Bats,” with a more upbeat attitude and newly bedazzled white cape.
One of the joys of “The Lego Movie” came in watching Finn’s imagination veer far outside the lines of what his parents — much less Lego’s parent company — intended for the toys: He mixed play sets, united characters from separate worlds (like pirates and spacemen and superheroes), and created elaborate hybrid vehicles. Bianca is no less creative but has an entirely different set of instincts, putting most of her energy into constructing colorful original characters — like Banarna (Ben Schwartz) and the shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) — even if it means borrowing pieces from her Duplo and Lego Friends collections.
Maybe the tension over how to play with Legos is a generational thing: Dad is a classicist, Finn gets modern, and Bianca proves downright avant-garde. Now that he’s a brooding adolescent, Finn has lost some of his innocence — and, clearly, managed to see a handful of classic or R-rated movies — adding pop-culture references to everything from “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mary Poppins” to “Die Hard” and “The Matrix.” He resents the girly way Bianca treats his toys, giving them spa days and spectacular weddings. But why would the Legos themselves feel any kind of allegiance to one sibling over the other?
After Bianca tore down much of what Dad had built, Finn gave Bricksburg an extreme post-apocalyptic overhaul, suggesting that perhaps the Legos need saving from him, not whatever princess wedding Bianca is planning upstairs. In the original film, Finn came across as a more imaginative version of Buzz and Woody’s human friend Andy in “Toy Story”; now he’s closer to the Pixar classic’s delinquent, toy-defacing Sid, whereas Bianca resembles the sister who transformed Buzz into Mrs. Nesbit, seating him at a tea party among her dollies.
Divided between trucks and camouflage military toys in one aisle and pink-clad dolls in another, American children’s toys are so fiercely gender coded that brothers and sisters rarely covet one another’s playthings — but Lego is an exception, appealing to boys and girls of most ages. And so it makes sense that Bianca might steal a few of Finn’s in a transparent bid for attention. Riffing on the first movie’s memorable theme song, “The Lego Movie 2” asks: What happens when everything isn’t awesome anymore? That’s a useful lesson for kids, even if the answer feels a little glib — something about needing to break things in order to build them back up again.
In the end, the screenplay overcomplicates itself trying to separate the siblings’ “real-world” drama from what our Lego hero Emmet sees as his latest adventure: attempting to rescue Wyldstyle and the others from a bandit named General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) — all of which feels zanier and a lot more satisfying than the live-action bits. The folks at Pixar probably would have found a better solution for the family dimension of the story, since sincerity is a priority at that rival studio. “The Lego Movie 2” is never funnier than in the end credits, for which Beck teamed up with the Lonely Island trio to write the six-minute song “Super Cool,” which lasts through perhaps a quarter of the countless names of people who contributed a million little pieces to the ambitious project.
Still, the message part of “The Second Part” comes off somewhat affected, most likely because the team is more focused on trying to be funny. When it comes to finding this movie’s emotional center, the creators quite literally try to reverse-engineer its heart from a handful of multicolored bricks. That gag works, but the rest feels like a calculated move to teach audiences new ways to appreciate the product in what amounts to a really entertaining feature-length commercial.