When I was nine or 10, the most important thing to me was my LEGO – the vast sprawl of sets that populated the floors and bookshelves and tables of at least three rooms of my family home. Both my bedroom, my brother’s bedroom, and the back room were full of debris from LEGO sets ranging from Star Wars to Indiana Jones to… maybe a handful of Bionicles (not really my thing, sorry!). These sprawling sets lived in harmony, connected by metre-upon-metre of road plates that formed towns, or little LEGO universes where a battle-damaged Darth Vader lived across the street from a miniature version of the bald, buff Nazi bloke from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) who gets eaten by a plane.
The LEGO obsession I nurtured extended beyond the material collection my brother and I had accumulated. Anyone whose childhood continued through the 2000s would be familiar with the YouTube channel forrestfire101, if not for its extensive body of LEGO stop-motion videos, then for its viral-as-all-hell animations of The Duck Song (in all its various sequels and spinoffs). forrestfire101’s videos not only captured my imagination with its various iterations of Batman and Spider-Man animations (which convinced me try my hand at my own stop-motion videos, all committed to tape somewhere in the home video archives) but fostered my dream of there being somewhere, someday, some kind of official feature-length LEGO movie that would bring these dumb plastic bricks I loved so much to life.
Alas, in 2008 my little sister was born – in theory, the perfect successor to me and my brother’s LEGO obsession. But 11 years have passed and as much as I love my sister now, I’ll never be able to forgive her for the events that unfolded between 2008-2010, a.k.a. the Fall of the LEGO Kingdom, where every last set, spaceship, and structure – the sprawling metropolis of LEGO paraphernalia I built my whole youth around – was torn to the ground by an infant fuelled on, and content with, ruining my childhood with her own. Through tears, me and my brother packed these bricks into storage.
Fast forward to 2014, where the release of The LEGO Movie blows my mind, and all the creative malleability of the bricks is realised, onscreen, in sprawling, true-to-form, stop-motion-esque animation. Unlike the DTV, bargain bin spinoffs like LEGO Star Wars: The Padawan Menace (2011), The Empire Strikes Out (2012) and Lego Batman: The Movie – DC Super Heroes Unite (2013), the LEGO form wasn’t combined with some helpless IP and taken as a base for flaccid animation – The LEGO Movie instead built itself brick by brick off the back of forrestfire101’s stop-motion videos into an authentic representation of these plastic pieces, giving structure to the studded, compartmentalised cities, and humour to the way that the characters’ hands are just fingerless claws. It was like seeing my collection come (back) to life.
This year’s sequel, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, revived that feeling. Penned again by irreverent screenwriting duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, The LEGO Movie 2 is permeated with a sense that its barrage of meta-jokes and blockbuster trope lampooning might eventually force the film to collapse under its own weight; that the inexhaustible self-referentiality is exhausting; that the film will parody itself towards a swift and skeletal death. It is, after all, a film that brings together the contrasting talents of Beck, Robyn, and The Lonely Island for a song about how the end credits are not only “unbelievable, super cool, outrageous and amazing,” but the best part of a film. In a critical light, one could read this as the filmmakers taking aim at the post-credit practices that Marvel have made commonplace, but the tune is dressed in such a lavish and hyper-constructed catchiness that the joy of it all overrides any underlying pointedness. This type of innocuous disguise is emblematic of the rest of the film, whose pointed criticisms hide beneath its hyperactive, impossibly quick-witted, this-is-a-kids-movie temperament.
Of course, Lord and Miller take every chance they get to riff on the fact that the film is a) a sequel (though less obnoxiously than 22 Jump Street ); b) a film about a billion-dollar company that sells plastic toys to kids (though less explicitly than The LEGO Movie); and c) owned by Warner Bros (taking every chance to flash a recognisable IP in the form of a time travel reference, or a comment on the haphazardness with which the DCEU has been handled). But after all this postmodern circlejerking is said and done, Lord and Miller spin an incisive interrogation of the toxic masculinity channelled through contemporary blockbuster cinema’s male heroes, using their protagonist’s voice actor, Chris Pratt, as an amalgam of superficial Hollywood leading men; as a conduit in need of satirising, unpacking, and critically re-assessing.
The LEGO films are clever in the way that they use their real-life live-action narrative to frame the internal, animated LEGO narrative. The films create a dimension where a completely farfetched LEGO world can interact with, and explicate the consequences of, the human world. The first LEGO Movie dreamt up the ‘kragle,’ a super-weapon with the potential to freeze the brick-based world into a perfectly organised form, wielded as a weapon of mass destruction by the film’s villain, Lord Business (Will Ferrell). In reality, the kragle was nothing but ‘Krazy Glue,’ a tube of superglue with a weathered label (hence the “kra-gle”) used in the live-action narrative by the father of Finn (Jadon Sand), our human protagonist, to (as collectors do) glue his precious LEGO bricks together, safe from destruction. In reality, the kragle is utilised as a symbol of the father’s need to maintain a kind of antiquated perfectionism; within the LEGO narrative, this ability was mobilised as a catastrophic event for its yellow protagonists. The first film ended in a retaliation against this idea, advocating that the essence of LEGO is the creative freedom that the hundreds of thousands of tiny bricks allow, anointing its tiny plastic protagonist with the title of ‘Master Builder.’
Following this consecration, The LEGO Movie leaves us with the promise of a sequel: Finn has been allowed to play with the LEGO in his father’s basement, but only on the condition that he lets his sister play too. In the internal LEGO universe narrative affected by live-action happenings, this brings upon the invasion of aliens in the form the giant, child-friendly Duplo LEGO blocks. The LEGO Movie 2 picks up right where its predecessor left off: its main characters, Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), along with their good pal Batman (Will Arnett), stand defiant but sit small in the shadow of these oversized Duplo blocks. Along for the ride again are, among other various cute minifigures: Benny, a spaceman (Charlie Day), Unikitty, a unicorn/cat hybrid (Alison Brie), and MetalBeard, a giant robot pirate (Nick Offerman). In negotiating with these Duplo aliens, Emmet, flaunting his newly-minted ‘Master Builder’ status, builds a bright pink heart as a token of friendship between the two disparate groups of LEGO. But when offering it to them, the Duplo respond by eating the heart, and the people of Bricksburg interpret this as a hostile attack. Plastic pandemonium ensues in the form of the all-out destruction of their city, Bricksburg.
We jump forward five years, where Emmet, Lucy and co. are left in a heavily Mad Max-inspired post-apocalyptic setting, aptly titled ‘Apocalypseburg’, forcing the town’s inhabitants to harden their outlooks on life: all leather and chainsaws. Everything still seems awesome enough, though Lucy has grown disillusioned with Emmet’s perpetually sunny demeanour, imploring him to grow up beyond his childish obsession with catchy pop songs and general naiveté. In his attempt at brooding (per Lucy’s suggestion), Emmet is troubled by a cryptic cataclysmic vision of the future, dubbed ‘Armamageddon’ where he watches on as all his friends are sucked away in a mysterious void.
There was a similar parallel in my own life: the five-year irl gap between The LEGO Movie and its sequel saw my sister move beyond Duplo and discover her own affection for LEGO. She’s since accrued a collection sizeable enough to rival the one I had as a kid; the only difference being that her collection isn’t comprised of the same type of LEGO that I’d liked then. It’s populated with the skin-coloured, more anthropomorphic ‘mini-doll’ LEGO Friends, whose sets are marketed towards a young female audience and feature a band of women characters in a range of dream-laden locations. There’s a multi-story pet centre, a cupcake café, a pop star tour bus; not a spaceship nor a piece-perfect recreation of the Death Star in sight. The entire design of these sets, with their oddly-shaped minifigures and floral-pastel colour palette, stands at visual odds with the typical plasticky-yellow LEGO design of the sets I grew up with.
The LEGO Movie 2 understands the difference between these types of sets, illustrating the ways that they interact as gendered entities, and thematising this relationship through the ways that Finn and his sister, Bianca (Brooklynn Prince), relate to their individual LEGO. The inciting event within the LEGO narrative sees our yellow protagonists met with the arrival of a new, unidentified spaceship, carrying within it a cyborg-esque, space-suited ‘mini-doll’ character named General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz). She meets Apocalypseburg with a demand: that Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) of the ‘Systar System’ is looking to marry the region’s “fiercest leader”. General Mayhem’s physical appearance – that of a ‘mini-doll’ LEGO minifigure à la the ones included in the sets my sister loves – is at first misconstrued as hostile: she appears different from the norms of Bricksburg’s people, from the traditional, trapezoidal ‘minifigure’ getup. Again, the townspeople misread this request as an attack, and, as they meet Mayhem’s demands with stubborn sense of hostility, Lucy, Batman, Benny, Unikitty, and MetalBeard are captured and whisked away to the Systar System, leaving a helpless Emmet behind.
The LEGO Movie 2 furthers the dynamic between the live-action and LEGO narratives that made the first film work both as a fantastical animated children’s film and as a film about childhood. The sequel one-ups this dynamic, stretching a (convoluted) sci-fi universe across the various parts of a family home, and inserting real-life places in the LEGO narrative with farcically obvious phonetic readings of their names. Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) becomes Queen ‘Whatever I Wanna Be’; a bricky, shapeshifting alien who has the ability to take the form of any stack of bricks she’d like. The Systar System is most obviously the ‘sister system’ – Bianca’s room, where she plays with (and attempts to marry) the minifigures that she, actualised through Sweet Mayhem’s invasion, has pinched from Finn’s collection. It’s a twee but deceptively clever way to connect the dots within the twofold narrative, effectively using the LEGO narrative to contextualise real-life issues within the generic boundaries of sci-fi/fantasy and then critique them internally. Like other children’s films, the LEGO series retells familiar stories of heroism, but The LEGO Movie 2 uses this as a framework to unpack their telling (and re-telling) through popular culture within larger societal and political contexts.
At first, the film’s political bent may seem non-existent sans a throwaway reference to Trump in the form of Bricksburg’s leader, who jumps ship at the beginning of the invasion to go play golf and lets the citizens face the alien invasion by themselves. But it’s later in the film, post-exposition, that we begin to see through its deceptively bricky surface.
Following his friends’ captures, Emmet packs his cutesy dream home up, transforms it into a spaceship, and attempts to depart Apocalypseburg (Finn’s family’s basement) through ‘The Stairgate’ (the door to the basement) and towards the Systar System (Bianca’s bedroom). Finding himself in the rougher part of an asteroid field, Emmett is rescued by a masked adventurer who soon reveals himself as Rex Dangervest, an evidently hyper-masculine reskinning of Emmet, an externalisation of his perceptions of what it means to be a ‘man’, to be a ‘hero’; to, as Lucy suggested, “grow up.” Rex – also voiced by Chris Pratt, in a lower, raspier register – describes himself a “galaxy-defender, archaeologist, cowboy, and raptor trainer, who likes … having chiselled features previously hidden under baby fat”– a meta-amalgam of Pratt’s many recent leading man roles, and a riff on his transformation from thick Parks & Rec buffoon to the totally shredded Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
Emmet responds with a total idolisation of Rex, all puppy-eyed and ‘teach me how to be a man like you.’ In an effort to impress Lucy, he aspires to ape Rex’s heroism and hardened outlook, to conform to the hyper-masculine image that Rex and all of Chris Pratt’s tentpole leading man roles projects.
In return, Rex teaches Emmet to break things – on the assumption that violence is the only way to deal with your problems. Whereas Emmet is a Master Builder, Rex prides himself on being a ‘Master Breaker,’ obsessed with smashing all crosses his path, characterised by a traditional, stereotypical and harmful form of masculinity. When Emmet asks how to become a Master Breaker, Rex brags, “You have to connect to some pretty grown up feelings: abandonment, regret, anger…”
Venturing through the Systar System, the two stumble upon ‘Heck,’ a garish suburbia spanning as far as the eye can see. It’s the place where any Bricksburgian warrior who dared to reach the Systar System found themselves captured and ‘domesticated,’ doused in glitter and relegated to suburban family homes. It’s everything Rex despises, and as they progress through Heck, the more intensified the place’s cutesiness gets. Met with a town-wide flash mob, Rex deems them “the most disturbing thing [he’s] ever seen” as they perform a perfectly choreographed dance to the gleefully self-reflexive ‘Catchy Song’ – itself a parody on the unfightable infectiousness of contemporary pop. Rex claims everyone’s been brainwashed by this pop music and that the only way to escape is by punching your way out (of the whole planet). Rex’s angst knows no reprieve and Emmet follows in step, turning his nose up at all the brightly coloured things he once unconditionally adored.
Granted with a newfound, incredibly superficial sense of confidence in his power, Emmet, along with Rex, eventually rendezvous with Lucy, who’s escaped from Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi’s deceptive grips, and Rex’s amalgamated-existence appears one big meta-joke bubble waiting to burst. The pin finally drops when Lucy confronts General Mayhem in an attempt to stop the Queen’s wedding. During battle, Mayhem reveals to Lucy that there was never any intention to harm the people of Apocalypseburg – they just miscommunicated their desire to coexist, an animated extension of Bianca’s wish to play with her brother. At the climax of the wedding ceremony, Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi’s true form is revealed to be the token of friendship Emmet originally offered the invading Duplo forces: a bright pink heart; a harmless symbol of affection; a gesture of friendship.
Within this paradigm-shifting moment, Lucy realises Rex’s sinister intentions. Rex reveals himself as an embittered version of Emmet from the future (his name an acronym for “Radical Emmet Xtreme”) returning to enact his revenge after years lost underneath the dryer in the family basement. Rex became the version of Emmet that took Lucy’s advice to grow up too far, and without missing a beat the film turns a critical eye towards Rex’s presupposed hero status. It’s quick to reposition his villainous intent: as someone who embodies a strict adherence to idealised gender norms, armed with a penchant for violence – meeting Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi’s fluid identity with malice, and the Systar Sister’s feminine-coded design with contempt.
Before minds are set to ease, Rex is successful in manipulating Emmet into one grand attack. Amid Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi’s wedding, atop a giant reception cake-cum-temple, Emmet, refusing to listen to Lucy’s assurances about Rex’s true identity, launches a giant punch into the structure, shattering it to pieces. The Queen splinters. Her guests recoil. When Emmet realises his mistake and attempts to back out, Rex laments, “You still wanna go back to The Matrix when you know the truth?” – the reddest of red flags. While scruffing Emmet’s hair in the style of his own, Rex then hits him with the stinger: “It’s a movie only cool, older, mature dudes like us have seen,” this ‘grown up’ posturing revealing just the superficiality of his morals and the extent of his radicalisation.
In the live-action narrative, Finn performs Emmet’s destruction, smashing his sister’s LEGO creation and bringing forth Emmet’s agonising vision: ‘Armamageddon’ (Phonetically, ‘Our Mom’-ageddon). Their mother (Maya Rudolph) overhears the drama, and having already warned her children once, twice, and probably a hundred times, orders them to pack their LEGO into storage. In tears, the kids comply, and the LEGO narrative is temporarily put to rest.
The LEGO Movie 2 recognises that these repressive gender roles begin to thrive come adolescence, characterised here by Finn’s resistance against his sister playing with his LEGO, his disdain towards the way his sister treats his LEGO characters and the stories she tells with them. The way traditional pillars of masculinity are enforced can be suffocating, and when this adolescent angst is left unchecked it bears serious material consequences. Perhaps the most pertinent image in the film is that of Rex’s spaceship: a giant blue fist. It’s hard given the context not to immediately associate such an image with world’s most popular YouTuber PewDiePie’s ‘brofist’ logo, and even harder not to suspect that its inclusion is entirely intentional. (One shot shows the ship in space combat, while hard-coded subtitles explicitly read “Pew! Pew! Pew!”) Whether or not it’s meant as some kind of passive reference, it’s hard to ignore the complicit role the YouTuber plays as part of a network that nurtures an environment where young men become desensitised to all kinds of racist and sexist discrimination, warped by a barrage of alt-right commentators lining their ‘Suggestions’ bar. This wave of influence has been well-documented with regards to such online commentators, especially in recent months, and now finds itself in the diegesis of a kids movie precisely concerned with radicalisation.
I watched forrestfire101’s videos like kids today watch people like PewDiePie. I’m thankful that the video content I consumed at that age wasn’t characterised by a perpetual slate of angry white men ranting to camera with empty platitudes about ‘SJWs’ and ‘PC culture’. The LEGO Movie 2, in deconstructing and then denouncing Rex’s character, the repressive masculine figures he embodies and his radicalised attitudes, attempts to acknowledge and dismantle these structures. Taken at face value, The LEGO Movie 2 proposes that it’s better to be an Emmet than a Rex – that there’s room for heroes without “chiselled features previously hidden under baby fat.” But the film’s subtext suggests that it’s not enough to just be a wide-eyed chump like Emmet – someone who’s easily led by people inciting violence, unable to recognise their complacency in the larger structures that maintain these gender norms, that uphold these radical online communities. That there’s very real consequences to the stories we (re)tell, to the people we see represented on screen, to the fantasies we entertain. There’s work to be done, and thematising all of this in an incredibly popular kids film feels like a small but vital step towards some kind of acknowledgement, some kind of undoing. By tethering the live-action LEGO narratives, The LEGO Movie 2 suggests that these small victories have real-world consequences.
Realising the violence of his actions, Finn pulls the Queen’s broken pieces out of storage and rebuilds her original form: that lovely pink heart. In the film’s most emotionally affecting scene Finn finds a melancholic Bianca in her room, and returns the heart to her, once again a symbol of harmony, a brotherly offering of affection. This exchange revives the LEGO narrative, empowering Finn’s LEGO minifigures to overcome their differences towards Bianca’s ‘mini-dolls’, unify their unique powers and resist Rex’s final attack.
In one final bid to convert Emmet, a disgruntled Rex casts Emmet under the dryer to force him to repeat the narrative and live Rex’s experiences for himself. But Lucy, accepting Emmet for who he is, arrives to rescue him, enlightening the dusty underside of the family’s basement with a kaleidoscopic wave of bricks. After a short battle, and before fading into the ether (à la Back to the Future’s time-travel mechanics), a now weakened Rex is confronted by Lucy’s acceptance of Emmet. The two persist that Emmet will never be like Rex, never fulfil his deluded prophecy of manhood. Instead, Rex can be more like them – that he doesn’t “have to be the bad guy”, endlessly pitting his past-self in a war against his sister’s interests. The cycle can end right here and now. And before Rex dissolves into thin air, there’s a small glimpse of redemption – in his voice, in his expression – and the loop closes.
In the live-action narrative, Finn and Bianca have moved their stuff into the backyard. They’ve merged their sets, transforming the LEGO universe into ‘Syspocalypstar’: an amalgam of the two different forms of LEGO that the siblings own, a happy medium. They smile and run and play, and all is good and well. One big happy family.
When my brother and I were in our peak LEGO phase, Dad pulled his own childhood bricks out of storage and passed them onto us. The containers his LEGO came in were big, bulky tackle boxes used for storing fishing equipment, and the contents followed suit. Inside was a sea of uninspired traditional old bricks – perfectly useable, if not a little antiquated. He passed them onto us to show us what he grew up with and the types of LEGO he liked – to compare what was popular then to what’s popular now – and always spoke about his collection with just a hint of condescension, and a touch of dismissal towards the sets my brother and I owned. They were a little too convoluted; a little too derivative. This type of technical, highly stylised LEGO lacked the simplicity he knew and remembered from his own childhood.
It’s exactly this kind of condescension that The LEGO Movie 2 attempts to call us out on. I saw the film in cinemas with my little sister by my side, and while watching on (crying my stupid eyeballs out), seeing all its thematic pieces click into place, the selfishness of my resistance towards these different types of LEGO hit me. A few months ago, while toy shopping with my sister, I persuaded her into buying one of the new LEGO Movie 2 sets instead of one of the LEGO Friends sets she loves, much to her initial reluctance. Just because it looked cooler to me. Just because it looked more like the LEGO that I played with as a kid. I undermined the things she liked and it was the very film I convinced her to buy into that kicked me in the ass about it (I think this is the definition of irony). In The LEGO Movie 2, Finn found himself echoing the controlling temperament he saw in his own father and rebelled against it in the first film – and I saw a reflection of myself in him.
I’ve shown my sister forrestfire101’s old LEGO stop-motion videos, and she was more taken up with him being the guy that created the viral Duck Song video that she won’t stop singing. The LEGO Movie 2’s thesis suggests that this kind of difference is key, essential to some kind of unity, some kind of peace. There’s a consciousness in this film of the ways that the pop culture that we consume as kids shapes us, and the cycles it causes us to perpetuate. Submerged within its hyperactivity, buried under its crushing self-referentiality, and under all the pop glitz and glam, the film elucidates a commentary on the meta-relations that have emerged through a history of plastic bricks. Where its predecessor concluded that boundless creativity was the essence of LEGO, The LEGO Movie 2 expands this freedom beyond just the bratty little boys who want to control the narrative, to those whose interests are so often taken as trivial, as inessential. Its final heartfelt note posits that there’s room for these things to coexist – that the pillars of popular culture are broad enough to let us all have our own interests, without condescension. After all, isn’t coexistence the entire premise of the series’ deliriously catchy theme song?
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is now playing in Australian cinemas.
Samuel Harris is a freelance film and music writer, an Editor of Rough Cut and a Michael Bay apologist. He is currently undertaking Honours in Media at RMIT University, writing a little something something about post-cinema and the desktop horror film. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.