Everyone’s gotta grow up sometimes, even animated movie franchises. Kids’ movies, like the rest of us, find themselves in a difficult position these days: Ignore the sense of impending doom and pretend everything is, well… awesome? Or address the Cheeto-tinted elephant in the room, at least nominally? In “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part,” director Mike Mitchell, along with writers and producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller and a cadre of other scribes, decided to re-mix the first movie’s annoyingly catchy theme song, “Everything Is Awesome,” reminding kids and adults alike that sometimes everything isn’t awesome — and that’s okay. Unfortunately, that message of mediocrity applies more to the actual movie than anything else.
The movie opens with a live-action flash of Dad (Will Ferrell) and Finn (Jadon Sand) playing LEGO, before Dad says it’s time to “invite your sister.” Cue the ominous music, and we’re back to our stubbornly sunny LEGO builder Emmett Brickowski (Chris Pratt), whose perennial optimism hasn’t faded in the slightest, despite now inhabiting a flaming, garbage-filled apocalypse town. Since Hollywood writers never met a Brooklyn jab they didn’t like, this new garbage town has been dubbed Apocalypsburg. As its predecessor did with “The Matrix,” “The LEGO Movie 2” borrows heavily from popular sci-fi movies, and the sand dunes and sewer babies of Emmett’s new home bear a striking resemblance to “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
That would make Emmett’s butt-kicking sidekick Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) Imperator Furiosa, a role she fits nicely despite maintaining her signature blue locks. Ever the pragmatist, Lucy begs Emmett to realize everything’s not awesome, and to grow up and stop kidding himself that a white picket fence is in their future. Ever since aliens invaded, in the form of squealing LEGO DUPLO bricks, nothing can be pretty or colorful anymore, lest it be destroyed by their voracious appetite for destroying shiny things.
When a helmeted General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System (get it?) looking to capture their leader, she absconds with Lucy, Batman (Will Arnett), and the rest of the gang, allegedly to conduct a giant wedding ceremony that Emmett is certain will bring about the dreaded Ourmomageddon, as his nightmare prophesied.
The real fun begins when they arrive, greeted by Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), a clunky DUPLO horse who can take any shape she chooses. In a fun sight gag, the queen is first introduced as a typical blonde princess, only to be dismissed coolly by the colorful horse she rode in on, AKA the actual queen. She then proceeds to sing, in a chilling minor key, about how not evil she is. It’s a fun song in the vein of the great Disney villain tunes, and it includes the vaguely familiar line: “I’m the least evil person I know.”
Haddish muscles through the actual singing part, but her presence in the movie is such a breath of fresh air that it hardly matters. Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi is a much-needed addition to the gang of misfit characters, whose sheen has worn off somewhat since the first movie. It’s not that they’re any less amusing, it’s just that their gags — Emmett thinks everything is awesome, Batman is a total narcissist — are no longer surprising, so the jokes have to work twice as hard to be just as funny. Emmett’s double-decker couch makes an appearance, and Batman’s many references to “The LEGO Batman Movie” suggest a well-worn formula fraying at the seams.
Emmett’s plot, in which he is saved and influenced by a manlier version of himself named Rex Dangervest, relies on a half-baked “Back to the Future” gag, but with no Doc character to make it funny. A silly romance between the Queen and Batman is much more inspired; she tricks him into marrying her by playing on his ego before discovering an oddly harmonious match. Though fewer in number, the delightful one-liners abound. Like when Abraham Lincoln, falling into the black hole of Ourmomageddon, cries: “But I had theater tickets.”
By this point in the movie, there have been more than enough (read: far too many) live-action cuts in slow motion, showing the detached arms of a quarreling sister and brother, that even the thickest kid will understand what’s happening. It’s actually a relief when Ourmomageddon arrives, seeing as Mom is Maya Rudolph, who appears as a late in the game pinch hitter to order the kids to put the LEGO in storage (AKA “the bin of stor-ahj”) if they can’t share. In a classic “LEGO Movie” meta-joke, she protests their cries: “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character.”
In its effort to deliver moral lessons — about growing up, feeding your imagination, resolving differences, and dealing with things not being awesome all the time — “The LEGO Movie 2” falls flat. The genius of the first movie was its ability to disguise a searing critique of capitalism inside a hilarious package, an idea that is genuinely funny itself. The sequel, with its recycled jokes and re-mixed songs, is merely a reminder of how original the original actually was.
“The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, February 8 from Warner Bros.