Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are Hollywood’s reigning experts in converting the soulless imperatives of entertainment conceived as an extension of intellectual property into actual art. There was no reason on Earth to reboot a forgotten 1980s TV series about undercover cops in high school as an action comedy and no way to build a compelling story whose primary purpose was to sell buckets of plastic blocks, but 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie served both God and mammon, and the latter even managed to turn its ignoble origins into a resonant statement about the creativity of remix culture. (If they’d only been able to follow through on their vision for the Han Solo spinoff, the Star Wars franchise might not have had to kill off that entire stream of film.) The Lego Movie’s most inspired gambit was to turn fully allegorical, pulling back from the battle between ingenuous Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) and the repressive Lord Business (Will Ferrell) to show that it was actually a battle between father and son, the older of whom had forgotten that toys are meant to be played with.
The Lego Movie 2—written by Lord and Miller, and directed by Mike Mitchell—is built around another battle on the homefront, not between father and son but brother and sister. The movie picks up where its predecessor left off, with Finn (Jadon Sand, reprising his role) luxuriating in his newfound freedom, only to find it immediately threatened by the incursion of his little sister, Bianca (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince). Fast-forward five years, and the once-peaceful city of Bricksburg is a Mad Max–style wasteland leveled by sibling rivalry. The tension between Finn’s minifigs and the invaders from planet Duplo (named for the oversize blocks built for tinier hands) is such that it threatens to bring about Armomageddon, the dreaded point where the kids’ mother (Maya Rudolph) gets fed up and forces both to put their toys away.
Foregrounding the presence of humans rather than revealing it as a third-act twist raises the conceptual bar, but going back and forth between worlds makes it difficult to fully sink into one or the other. Rather than turning into an allegory, The Lego Movie 2 starts as one, so when we find out that the forces of Duplo destruction are acting under the orders of queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), we start thinking about not just who she is but what she represents. That’s a lot to sustain for a movie that is already stuffed to the brim with jokes and jokes about jokes. The references to pop-cultural properties, most of them owned by the movie’s studio, Warner Bros.—Lord of the Rings, Scooby-Doo, and a good chunk of the DC Extended Universe—fly by so fast you can feel short of breath keeping up with them, but too many of them exist only for their own sake. The Lego Batman Movie’s embrace of the character’s campy TV past felt like a meaningful break with decades of stentorian portrayals, but here it’s just at the tail end of a gag about all the people who’ve played the role that will be unintelligible to children who’ve never heard of Adam West and will elicit only a nod of recognition from their parents.
Will Arnett’s memorably sullen take on the Lego Dark Knight gets short shrift here, but that’s because he has to make room for Rex Dangervest, a hard-bitten, stubble-sporting adventurer who takes on the role of Emmet’s quasi–alter ego. Rex’s backstory, which includes stints as a rogue archaeologist and a raptor trainer, is an obvious nod to Chris Pratt’s career, including rumors of a role in the next Indiana Jones sequel, and his evolution from baby-faced TV sweetheart to chiseled action star. He’s even voiced by Pratt, in a gravelly snarl an octave deeper than Emmet’s cheery trill. But the character is also a lament for what gets left behind in the leap toward an adolescent vision of maturity. You see it too in Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), a self-styled warrior, formerly known as Wyldstyle, who drops occasional hints that she used to be a lot more, well, girly. Rex is introduced with churning guitar riffs (Metallica’s James Hetfield is thanked in the credits), while Queen Watevera’s secret weapon is an insidious catchy pop song—called, naturally “Catchy Song”—of the kind with which younger siblings have tortured their elders and parents since time immemorial.
Rex presents himself to Emmet as the manlike figurine he needs to repel the invaders’ influence, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that all isn’t quite as it seems (an off-screen reference to time travel is an early clue). Like last year’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, the movie evolves into a parable about toxic masculinity and the danger of mistaking darkness for depth, but Lego Movie 2’s frequent flips to the real world subject its underlying text to a scrutiny it can’t bear, and take the fun out of reading between the lines. Lord and Miller have always known what they’re doing, but here it feels like they need you to know it, too.