The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

Cast: (voiced by) Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Maya Rudolph

Director: Mike Mitchell

Writers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

In all the years I’ve been going to the cinema, watching The LEGO Movie in 2014 is still one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It’s not just that the film was so irresistibly funny, stupendously animated and surprisingly clever and moving, but also because I went in that day entirely convinced that I was going to detest every second of it. The very idea of it stunk to me of cheap corporate marketing tactics and I thought all I was going to get out of it was a 2-hour commercial. What I was totally unprepared for was what an astounding commercial it would turn out to be. It favoured a delightfully anarchic comedic style, it showcased dozens upon dozens of inventive and colourful sets and characters and it had a smart story to tell about the push-pull between going by the rules and individual creativity, all of which were given even greater weight with the revelation that this whole universe was born from the imagination of an eight-year-old boy. The inevitable obstacle facing this sequel is that it’s never going to astound me in the same way its predecessor did. Short of a complete reinvention of its whole ethos from the ground up, the humour is now going to feel familiar, the premise won’t be as fresh and, no matter what this sequel offers, its going to be encumbered by the burden of expectation.

Five years after the first film’s release, the second chapter cleverly realises that its original audience of young kids have now grown up to become pre-teens and so the film resolves to grow up with them. Picking up from the last film’s ending where Bricksburg is visited by Duplo invaders, the city has grown into a gritty, dystopian wasteland like something out of the Mad Max films that only adults and big kids are allowed to watch. Lucy (or Wyldstyle, as she prefers) feels right at hope in this desolate landscape, dressed up as a post-apocalyptic warrior and brooding all day long whilst contemplating their hopeless future and loss of humanity. One character who hasn’t lost a shred of his humanity though is Emmet, who continues to cheerfully go about his day humming the tune to ‘Everything is Awesome’ in an environment that’s anything but. Lucy presses onto him that Bricksburg (or Apocalypseburg as its now called) has grown too harsh and inhospitable for Emmet to survive with his upbeat disposition and one of the central conflicts of this film is whether he ought to (or even can) become tough and mean enough to be that kind of ‘hero’. Either way, Emmet must spring to action when the Duplos return once again and abduct Lucy, Batman, Benny the Astronaut, Metalbeard, and Unikitty, taking them back to their home in the dreaded SyStar System.

Given that those who have seen the first film already know about the real-world twist, there’s little point in dancing around the fact that the same device returns and is even more prominent this time around. The little boy Finn (Jadon Sand) is now five years older and his interests have moved on from the childish antics of the first film to the more gritty, angsty wasteland of Aposalypseburg. The SyStar System, meanwhile, is the bright, sparkly realm of Bianca (Brooklynn Prince), the little sister who wants nothing more than to play with her big brother. While he has a clear, controlled idea of what he wants his world to be, she favours more of an anything and everything approach, going with her whims and doing whatever it is that seems the most fun (sound familiar?). Thus it is soon made clear to us that the cosmic scale of Emmet’s quest to cross the galaxy and save his friends is in fact being driven by a spat between two siblings who can’t get along. Hanging over them throughout is threat of our-mom-ageddon, which will erupt should their conflict grow too out of hand. What’s smart about this revival of a previous device is how it expands on the conflict that shaped the first film rather than merely repeating it, even if the device is so pronounced this time around that it borders on distracting.

Back in the world of the imagination, Lucy and her captive friends are brought before Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, a shape-shifting amalgamation of bricks and “the least evil queen in history” (words that describe her include unduplicitous, unmalicious and unconniving). She embodies the limitless and overwhelming energy of Bianca’s world and she entices the captured party (apart from Lucy) with promises of happiness and fulfilment. Her domain appears to be an idyllic one where nothing bad ever happens, much in the vein of the picturesque and musical world that Bricksburg used to be (complete with another irrepressibly catchy song appropriately titled ‘This Song’s Gonna Get Stuck Inside Your Head’). Meanwhile Emmet is doggedly on his way to rescue Lucy and co. and helping him is Rex Dangervest, a Chris Pratt-ish character who embodies the Kurt Russell sci-fi hero persona that Pratt has grown into in the five years since the first movie. He is a space cowboy who travels the galaxy on his spaceship searching for lost, ancient artefacts, training raptors and sporting chiselled, buff features where he once had baby fat (Rex Dangervest is even the exact kind of name that Andy Dwyer would invent for this kind of character). Realising that Rex is precisely the kind of guy Emmet feels like he needs to become in order to satisfy Lucy, he determines to follow his example and learn all he can from the badass hero.

Like many kids films this tells a story about growing up, but it offers a slightly different spin on the idea. Emmet’s arc in this film revolves around the idea that he needs to grow up in order to be a hero and the kind of man Lucy would want as a boyfriend. The film thus pairs him with Rex who is the personification of many of the tropes we associate with modern-day action movie heroes. Rex is less of a character than he is an archetype of the masculine ideal; one who is tough, confident (or maybe arrogant is the word), impulsive, aggressive and emotionally repressed. If he isn’t showing off his awesome lifestyle and heroic accomplishments, he’s brooding about his tragic backstory and how anybody who gets close to him is doomed to get hurt. While Emmet’s talents lie in hope and creation, Rex’s talents are all about power and destruction. This dynamic helps to inform the story taking place in the real world where Finn, a boy who has doubtless consumed much of the media celebrating such ultra masculine superheroes as those that Chris Pratt has portrayed, is playing with his LEGO more along the lines of what he now considers to be more grown-up and cooler, whereas his sister wants to play in a more light-hearted and carefree manner (along with the hearts, smiley faces and glitter that he now finds contemptible). The story is thus not so much about growing into maturity as it is about refuting a certain misguided idea of maturity that a lot of kids experience.

The film is also more self-aware than its predecessor, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes bad. One example is when they rightly call the first film out for featuring Lucy as a strong female character who did all the work only for the hapless male to get the credit (a trope that is as common in movies today as it is tired), but if there was an attempt on this film’s part to give her more agency then it was never really brought to fruition. The self-awareness is ever present in the comedy as well, ranging from the portrayal of Rex Dangerfield as the epitome of all that is Chris Pratt to the knowing references and asides that only the adults will understand. Sometimes it gets a laugh and sometimes it feels like the movie is trying too hard to be cleverer than the already clever material delivered by the previous film’s directors Lord and Miller demands. Or maybe that has more to do with the challenges of making a comedy sequel when the audience is already in on the joke. In any case there is plenty to enjoy in The LEGO Movie 2. It has many worthwhile ideas on its mind, it boasts fantastic visuals with a greater wealth of detail than ever before, and it is consistently entertaining from beginning to end.



The Happytime Murders

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks

Director: Brian Henson

Writer: Todd Berger

There are some moments in your life when you have to take a moment to stop, take a step back, and think introspectively about the choices that led you to where you are. It could be one of matured recognition where you’ve realised that you’re not as young as you used to be and that you’ve either changed completely or haven’t changed at all. It could be a moment of sober clarity in which you’ve suddenly found yourself in a bad situation like financial insolvency or a toxic relationship and are not quite sure how you got there or how you’re going to get out. It could also be the kind of moment where you wake up on the street on a cold winter morning covered in bruises and your own vomit for the umpteenth time and are starting to finally understand that you have a serious problem. I had such an experience as I was watching The Happytime Murders; I even remember the exact moment it happened. It was a Muppet sex scene where a puppet man ejaculated silly string around the entire room for what felt like eons while a puppet woman screamed in nymphomanic ecstasy. That was the instance where I had to take a deep look at my own life and question the choices that led me to the cinema that day.

How foolish and naïve I must have been when I first heard about the film and thought that a gritty, raunchy noir-comedy about Muppets (directed, no less, by Brian Henson, director of The Muppet Christmas Carol) had promise. A proposed marriage between the creative ingenuity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the uproarious shock value of Team America: World Police, this movie has absolutely none of the satirical wit that made both of those movies so much greater than their gimmicks. Instead The Happytime Murders feels more like if Sesame Street hired the obnoxious, self-proclaimed ‘class clown’ from your primary school to pen a remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown using humour that Family Guy would describe as juvenile. Whatever points or insights the movie might have made with its depiction of an alternate Los Angeles where humans and puppets struggle to co-exist are quickly brushed aside in order to make room for puppet porn, sugar snorting and whatever the Muppet equivalent of blood and gore is (fluff and felt?). It’s one thing for a film to neglect exploring its own allegory in any kind of interesting or worthwhile way because it’s so much more focused on being one-dimensionally crude and naughty. What really makes The Happytime Murders so completely insufferable is how agonisingly unfunny it is.

The story mainly follows private eye Phil Philips, a De-Niro-inspired puppet who goes about his day with the kind of world-weariness and cynicism we except from this type of character. He used to be a cop way back when and was the first puppet to ever join the force. You see, puppets have historically been considered second-class citizens in this world and there were many who saw Phil’s career as a progressive step forward for his people at a time when puppets were finally starting to make inroads to society. Another shining example of progress was the popular TV show The Happytime Gang, the first show on any major network to feature a predominantly puppet cast (including Phil’s brother Larry). But then things went wrong. While out on the job Phil failed to shoot a fluffy criminal while a human police officer was in danger, convincing the world that puppets were incapable of policing their own kind. The disgraced Phil was sacked and now he spends his melancholic days tailing adulterous husbands and two-bit crooks. That is until somebody starts targeting and murdering the former cast of The Happytime Gang. That’s when Phil gets roped into a tale of death, deception, and demonstrably desperate and dreadful drollery that could not have ended soon enough.

Things soon escalate as the LAPD catches wind of the killing spree and they pair Phil up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Edwards, we learn, is the cop who was endangered by Phil’s inability to shoot a puppet criminal all those years ago and the foul-mouthed, hard-boiled police officer has not forgiven him. They reluctantly proceed with the investigation together and are led into the slums and back alleys of LA where R-rated puppet hijinks ensue. The movie operates under the notion that the mere subversion of the childhood tradition whereby we have these colourful animated characters engaging in activities we would normally associate with more mature genres will be enough to score the laughs they’re after. We therefore get treated to puppets swearing, puppets being mutilated or blown to bits, and puppets having sex; any deed that Kermit and his friends would never be allowed to perform on network television, it’s all enacted here and not a single gag scored as much as a titter out of me. It’s not that the humour is obscene or outrageous because I’ve laughed at plenty of outrageously obscene films before. It’s that the humour is so stupidly simple and groan-inducingly lame.

One thing that both Roger Rabbit and Team America did very well was building their humour around their stories and themes and using them to serve the larger points being made by their allegories. The Happytime Murders never gets that far because all of its humour amounts to puppets saying dirty things and performing dirty deeds. A puppet femme fatale introduces herself as a “sexual I’ma” as in “I’ma see it, I’ma fuck it”. Later there is an homage to Basic Instinct complete with puppet pubes. There’s even a scene where Phil wanders into the back room of a porno store to find a cow having eight of hear teats pleasured by an octopus. Each of these is a one-dimensional joke that serves no motivational or thematic purpose; they exist solely for the sake of making the movie as vulgar and graphic as possible. While Roger Rabbit had its share of throwaway gags and one-liners, it had just as many that were motivated in organic ways by theme and emotion, including and especially the palpable tension between the human characters and the Toons, and used them in smart and creative ways to add layers to the film, to draw you further into the world they had created and to provide the viewer with insights as well as laughs that served the movie’s overall allegory. The Happytime Murders never even attempts to dig deeper beneath the surface level tension that exists between humans and puppets, opting instead to try and distract us with tasteless joke after tasteless joke (oftentimes either sexist or homophobic) that serve no purpose other than to be tasteless. Even if the jokes were funny (which they aren’t), this movie still wouldn’t offer a fraction of the fulfilment one can get from the movies it’s trying to imitate.

What makes the movie feel more disappointing than merely disgusting and unpleasant is that the craft behind the scenes reveals that some genuine talent and creativity went into its making. In the film’s end-credits we are treated to some clips of the puppeteers at work, a sequence that is far more compelling and even humourous than anything that ended up in the finished product. The work that went into creating a world that these puppets could inhabit, achieving their most outlandish effects, and getting the puppets to interact with their human counterparts; these are all labours that deserve to be applied to a more worthy film. The same goes for the talented human actors whose performances are let down by the sheer absence of comedic material. McCarthy and her Bridesmaids co-star Maya Rudolph, playing Phil’s devoted secretary Bubbles, manage to salvage some semblance of comedy in one of their scenes together by simply interacting with one another, but that’s as close as the movie ever gets to being genuinely amusing. That Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale were unable to do anything of note in the whole film should tell you how little they had to work with between them.

The film’s ultimate failing is that, despite how ‘edgy’ and ‘mature’ its content may seem, it is a fundamentally unimaginative and bland film. Because this movie aspires to be nothing more than a simplistic, one-note parody that builds the entirety of its humour around coarse language and gross imagery for their own fruitless sake, the movie is inherently self-defeating in its own banality. When compared to other films of greater ambition and depth that are infinitely better, funnier and more rewarding for their thought and complexity, the film is utterly astounding in its derivativeness. This film offers absolutely nothing even slightly new or original to the viewer nor does it have any contribution of worth to make that hasn’t already been made by the classics it so poorly copies except maybe as a barometer against which to measure their ingenuity. I don’t know exactly how many poor decisions and fundamental errors had to happen in order for me to end up in that cinema where I lost 90 minutes of my life to puppet BDSM and silly string ejaculation, but it was definitely one of the lowest points I have ever experienced as a moviegoer.

Power Rangers

Cast: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G, Ludi Lin, Bill Hader, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks

Director: Dean Israelite

Writer: John Gatins

I was a 90s kid which means that I watched my fair share of Power Rangers growing up. The shows were spectacularly corny and silly but it worked very well for what it was, a campy kids TV show. However many different versions were made, the movies and shows all followed the same tried and true formula. A baddie would release some monsters to wreak havoc, the power rangers would suit up and fight them, the baddies would intervene by making one of monsters enormous, and then the rangers would work together in their animal-robot things to take it down. It was the exact same thing episode after episode after movie after episode. But it worked. It was a formula that children could recognise and follow and the show itself was fun enough that its ceaselessly repetitive structure didn’t really matter all that much. Looking back now it’s clear to me what a stupid, lame show it really was, but back then I couldn’t have cared less.

In the idyllic town of Angel Grove, high school football star Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) gets himself into trouble for an elaborate prank gone wrong and ends up in detention. There he meets Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), a shunned cheerleader, and Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler), an autistic nerd. The three end up at an old gold mine along with Trini (Becky), a moody loner, and Zack (Ludi Lin), a reckless maverick. After Billy breaks some rocks with his explosives, the five discover strange coloured coins and each take one. They later find that they’ve all acquired superhuman abilities overnight and return to the mine to discover the source. There they discover a spaceships inhabited by the robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) and the consciousness of Zordon (Bryan Cranston), a ranger from long ago. Zordon reveals that the five have been chosen to assume the roles of the Power Rangers and that they must begin training in order to defend the world against the imminent return of the dreaded Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

This is a film that truly exceeded my expectations. It isn’t by any means a great movie, but it is far, far better than a Power Rangers movie has any business being. All I really expected was five teenagers in coloured suits performing elaborate karate moves on weird-looking monsters. Instead I got a compelling teenage drama worthy of John Hughes with a Power Rangers episode taking up the last 30 minutes or so. The movies gives us five diverse teenagers who really do have attitude and showcases them all in believable, gripping ways. Billy’s autism and Trini’s sexual orientation don’t feel like topical traits the movie tacked on to score diversity points, they feel like genuine parts of their characters. The film actually takes time to show how much of an outsider Billy is, especially after the loss of his father who was the one person he felt he could really talk to, and how disconnected Trini feels with her clueless, conservative parents. Zack meanwhile shares a touching bond with his sick mother and is torn up by her illness while Kimberly struggles with being the subject of resentment amongst her classmates after committing an offence that’s actually pretty deserving of animosity. Jason completes the ensemble as its least interesting member, but he has his own father issues as well that leads to a couple of good moments.

As much as I enjoyed getting to know these characters and watching them bond, it did result in one rather glaring flaw. It takes forever for these characters to actually become the Power Rangers. After they meet Zordon about 30 minutes in, the five teenagers spend the subsequent hour training and learning about their abilities. In order to become the Power Rangers they must learn to morph, but the only way they can do that is by believing in themselves and discovering the power that is already within them. The climax cannot start until this happens and, when it finally does, there’s little more than twenty minutes left to go. The disconnect between the discovery of their abilities and their climatic showdown isn’t nearly as mishandled as it is in Fant4stic, but it’s still an issue. The teenage drama that takes up the first 90 minutes is good, but after a while it started to drag and I found myself looking at my watch wondering when they were finally going to master morphing and become the Power Rangers.

Once the climax does get started its about what you’d expect. The movie follows the standard Power Rangers formula to a tee in their battle against Rita as she comes to Angel Grove to find the something crystal of something power so she can something something destroy something Krispy Kreme something. Banks for her part completely commits herself to the role of the gold-obsessed alien and fully embraces the campy, ridiculous nature of this franchise. The rest, especially Cranston, play it straight for the most part but not to the point where they’re taking themselves too seriously. There’s plenty of comic relief, albeit some of it crude and predictable, and enough over-the-top action for the film to live up to the Power Rangers name. It isn’t a smart or a well-made film, but to be perfectly honest I never expected Power Rangers to be either of those things. That the film is at all thoughtful or compelling is in itself a miracle. There is an earnestness and sincerity to Power Rangers that I found rather charming. It’s a silly film but it falls on the right side of silly, offering kids some good, harmless fun with a couple of good lessons to take away and think about.