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Review: 'The Lego Movie 2' is funny but falls short of the first

Review: 'The Lego Movie 2' is funny but falls short of the first
Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) and Emmet (Chris Pratt) in the movie "The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Everything’s not awesome in “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.” That may sound like an unduly harsh assessment of this busy, bouncy and fitfully inspired sequel, but it also works as a fairly accurate plot summary. Five years after the events of the giddily entertaining “Lego Movie,” the once-happy town of Bricksburg has been obliterated by a “Mad Max”-style apocalypse, turned into a sun-blasted wasteland and regularly attacked by alien invaders with bright colors and suspiciously cute eyes.

Brand-savvy members of the audience will recognize those menacing outsiders as Lego Duplo toys, a line of products aimed at younger tots. Their provenance remains a mystery, however, to Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt), the yellow figurine who serves as the movie’s infernally optimistic Everyman hero, and his friends, who once again include the smarter, tougher Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and that caped cocktail weenie known as Batman (Will Arnett). None of them has any idea who the Duplo baddies are or why they keep showing up.

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They also have no idea that they aren’t real people so much as sentient choking hazards, pint-sized playthings that exist for the amusement of their young flesh-and-blood owners. The Lego movies borrow their existential conceit from Pixar’s “Toy Story” trilogy (soon to be a tetralogy), set as they are in a vibrantly colored plastic-pointillist world of someone else’s making, where every elaborate multi-brick structure and every zany new adventure speaks to the imaginative power of children at play.

They also speak, of course, to the power of advertising. The charm of the first “Lego Movie” (2014), written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, was not simply that it tapped into a rich vein of childhood nostalgia, but also that it successfully turned a feature-length toy commercial into a fast, funny and emotionally satisfying adventure. Its relentless stream of pop-cultural allusions and wiseacre gags unfolded in a dizzying comic stratosphere where, it seemed, the imperatives of self-promotion and self-satire could coexist.

Some of that double-sided appeal survives in this sequel, which was written by Lord and Miller but directed by Mike Mitchell. (His previous picture was the weirdly non-terrible psychedelic animation “Trolls,” derived from another popular toy line.) The puns and one-liners are jauntily amusing, the gags clever and well-timed. The tone is a familiar, infectious blend of sincerity and snark — or, if you will, earnestness and cynicism, which might as well be Emmet’s and Wyldstyle’s respective nicknames.

Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) in "The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part."
Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) in "The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

He is once more an ingenuous doofus; she is a lot more skeptical, if also more vulnerable than she lets on. She also represents one of many ways in which “The Lego Movie 2” explodes the common assumption that Lego toys are for boys only. Without giving too much away, it’s worth noting that Emmet’s human owner, Finn (Jadon Sand), has a little sister named Bianca (Brooklynn Prince, “The Florida Project”), and their raucous sibling dynamic — and their very different ideas as to what constitutes play — is what propels the movie forward.

The nod to gender parity is welcome, even if the disarming freshness of the original movie, the sense of moment-by-moment, bursting-at-the-seams-invention, seems to have worn off. You’re still in for a pretty good time, but by now you expect better. When those aliens swoop in and abduct Wyldstyle, Batman and a bunch of other characters too unmemorable for me to look them up in the press materials, “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” becomes an amusingly derivative space opera, where the hallways and stairwells of an American suburban home become portals to so much intergalactic mayhem.

It’s up to the hapless Emmet to rescue his friends, which he does, sort of, after a few bizarre encounters (dinosaurs!) and space-time discontinuities that may remind you of Pratt’s other big blockbuster property, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies. It may also whet your curiosity for the almost certainly better, funnier movie that Lord and Miller would have made out of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” before they were unceremoniously fired. Their brand of personal vision, of bighearted, wordplay-riffic irreverence, remains a rare commodity in Hollywood, which makes you grateful for this movie’s occasional stretches of full-on comic delirium.

These include the introduction of a new supervillain (or is she?) known as Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, who is voiced by the irrepressible, instantly recognizable Tiffany Haddish and whose most charming facet is her ability to assume just about any shape that Duplo bricks can accommodate. She also gets to perform one of several terrific original tunes that enliven the proceedings considerably, from a self-explanatory number called “Catchy Song” to the aptly titled “Super Cool,” which plays over the goofiest, most sustained closing-credits sequence I’ve seen in years. It’s nice when a just-good-enough effort saves the best part for last.

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‘The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part’

Rating: PG, for mild action and rude humor

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: In general release

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