Warner Bros.

According to The Lego Movie 2 (which bears the cute subtitle The Second Part), everything that’s gone wrong in pop culture over the past five years can be mapped onto the arc of Chris Pratt’s career. When the actor voiced the hero Emmet Brickowski in 2014’s The Lego Movie, Pratt was still part of the cast of Parks and Recreation and often played avuncular sidekicks in rom-coms such as The Five-Year Engagement. In other words, he was ideal casting for the role of a plastic everyman who cheerfully sings along to The Lego Movie’s earworm of a theme song, “Everything Is Awesome.”

Five years later, Pratt’s career has skyrocketed. The actor has added to his résumé starring roles in action franchises, such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, that emphasize his chiseled features, eternal 5 o’clock shadow, and devil-may-care attitude. In the world of The Lego Movie 2, Emmet is unchanged, but everything else has seemingly been decimated by a blockbuster-worthy apocalypse. The glimmering city of Bricksburg is a deserted ruin, the local surfboard shop now sells chain saws, and the adorable princess Unikitty (Alison Brie) is now a feral monster. Everything is not awesome, and there’s even a new hero in town who’s better suited to the times—a stubbled dinosaur trainer–spaceship pilot named Rex Dangervest. His voice actor? Also Chris Pratt.

It’s good to know that Pratt is at least somewhat in on the joke of his own recent choice of roles. But The Lego Movie 2 is doing more than just poking fun at his transformation from cuddly pal next door to muscle-bound action hero. The sequel, directed by Mike Mitchell (Trolls) and written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who made the first Lego Movie), is about the lazy tropes that have infected so much big-budget entertainment in recent years. Rex Dangervest is less a character than he is an attitude—arrogant bravado plus sublimated emotion, a set of skills wrapped up in a haircut.

This, according to The Lego Movie 2, is the role model the movie industry has to offer young viewers these days—a hero who spends most of his time brooding about his tragic past, and who claims he can’t get too close to anyone, lest they die and leave him all alone. Where Emmet’s skill lies in construction (he can make nearly anything out of Lego bricks), Rex has a talent for destruction (he can collapse structures with a well-aimed punch). The metaphor—that pop culture seems more and more geared toward mayhem—gets laid on a little thick. But much like the first Lego Movie, this film is largely fascinated with the dynamics of how children play. And how they play has a lot to do with the heroes that pop culture gives them.

I loved the first Lego Movie because its anarchic comedic style played perfectly into its overarching message. That film was a rambunctious hero’s journey about Emmet learning that he was “the special” (a sort of prophesied savior) and taking down the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Environments would shift at any given moment, new characters were introduced on a whim, and the rules of the universe changed constantly, because the setting was actually a suburban basement. The story was being guided by the imagination of a kid (Jadon Sand) who, like any other kid, was making things up as he went along, but Lord and Miller managed to translate that into a legible plot.

The Lego Movie 2 tries to build on that earlier premise by depicting a push and pull between the original kid, Finn, and his younger sister, Bianca (voiced by Brooklynn Prince, the unforgettable breakout star of The Florida Project). In the intervening five years, Finn has drifted further toward end-of-days storytelling (the adventures he imagines best resemble Mad Max: Fury Road), while Bianca’s sparkly toys keep invading with weapons made of hearts and smiley stars, as they try to pull gruff heroes such as Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and Batman (Will Arnett) into a sunnier direction.

The film doesn’t feel quite as seamless as the original edition; the sequel is trying to make its plot more chaotic while also incorporating a brand-new message about learning to play with your younger sister. Still, the themes at work are fascinating. Rex—an antihero who teeters on the edge of villainy—becomes a stand-in for the kind of negative messaging Finn is getting from all angles of pop culture, while new characters such as the shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) represent the boundless, but overwhelming, energy of Bianca’s approach, which Finn finds grating and malevolent.

An on-brand mix of knowing references, witty one-liners, and celebrity guest stars (Maya Rudolph and Stephanie Beatriz join the ensemble this time) keep The Lego Movie 2 a consistently entertaining experience for its one-hour-and-46-minute running time, though the visual overload might be too much for some. Lord and Miller, who also produced the wonderfully clever and kinetic Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse last year, remain completely unable to phone in an animated film. This is a project that’s loaded with big ideas and worthy morals for its younger viewers, even if it has a little trouble streamlining them all into an easily digestible plot.

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