Nobody expected The LEGO Movie to be anything more than a 90-minute commercial for the bricks it was based on. But, in a move that has quickly becoming their trademark, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller took a terrible idea and turned it into something special: a movie that took satirical aim at everything from late-stage capitalism to worn-out Chosen One clichés in Young Adult fiction. And in an ingenious third-act reveal, it turned out that the stakes of this adventure were a lot lower than they first seemed. The whole story was being acted out by a young boy named Finn, whose creative and carefree mashups put him at odds with his perfectionist father – represented in LEGO by the supervillain Lord Business.
Now the sequel, appropriately named The Second Part, doubles down on both the clever commentary and the real-world meta-narrative. On the surface, it’s a whip-smart piss-take of grim and gritty post-apocalypse narratives à la Mad Max: Fury Road, but there’s a lot more going on underneath the surface. In fact, like Fury Road, The LEGO Movie 2 is also a thoughtful examination of toxic masculinity; specifically, how it becomes ingrained in the psyches of young children.
As the movie opens, the war-torn city of Apocalypseburg is invaded by aliens from the ‘Systar System’ (in reality Finn’s little sister Bianca), who kidnap most of our heroes at the behest of the shapeshifting Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi. Despite not being particularly hardened, Emmet (Chris Pratt) takes it upon himself to rescue his friends with the help of adventurer Rex Dangervest, who is also voiced by Pratt and seems to be an amalgam of most of the actor’s major roles thus far – he’s a space-adventuring archaeologist whose spaceship is crewed by velociraptors he trained himself.
Rex is in every way the opposite of Emmet; he is confident, capable and effortlessly cool. However, it turns out that Emmet and Rex share more than just a voice actor. In fact, Rex is eventually revealed to be a future version of Emmet, who has embraced his darker – more stereotypically masculine – side after being abandoned by his friends in an alternate timeline, and manipulates Emmet into destroying the Systar System in order to bring about ‘Armommageddon’.
Not only is it a great rug-pull, it’s also a surprisingly sharp observation on how toxic ideas of masculinity are formed. Rex’s whole identity is built around themes of destruction – he styles himself a ‘Master Breaker’ and his spaceship is shaped like a giant fist – but there’s something sympathetic at the heart of it all: loneliness. It’s easy to mock the cabal of angry (usually white) dudes who review-bomb Captain Marvel before it’s even been released and rant about the lady Ghostbusters, but many of them gravitate towards each other out of a sense of community that they struggle to find in the real world.
Lord and Miller’s critique stretches to the rest of the cast, too. Consider Batman and Metalbeard the pirate: two typically gruff, macho figures who become overjoyed at the prospect of covering themselves in glitter and dancing to catchy pop – and, in Batman’s case, wearing a cape that Liberace would be proud of. Even the female characters are affected. Like many ‘Strong Female Characters’ before her, Emmet’s girlfriend Lucy has spent years projecting a tough, badass exterior, and encourages Emmet to do the same.
In the end, it’s the alien warrior General Mayhem who sums it up best. The aliens from the Systar System really did come in peace, but they fell into the role of aggressive invaders because it was the only language the people of Apocalypseburg understood – just as Bianca took on that role because it meant she could play with her big brother. And here the crux of the film’s message becomes clear: as long as pop culture continues to portray the traits of toxic masculinity as cool and desirable, we will emulate them and the cycle will continue in earnest. It is only when Finn decides to really engage with his sister, and embrace the less masculine parts of their play, that either of them seems to have any fun.
Whether we realise it or not, the media that we consume as children shapes our worldview for years to come. And thankfully, it seems that kids’ movies are becoming more aware of the responsibility they have to impart the right messages. Modern Disney movies have tackled thorny issues like racism, mental health, and even the studio’s own endorsement of outdated gender roles. Outside the House of Mouse, the How to Train Your Dragon movies are refreshing in their depiction of disability, and Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King even manages to be (kind of) about Brexit – both avoiding gendered stereotypes in the process. If we continue to respect the intelligence of young children when making movies aimed at them, we can go a long way to making everything awesome in the future.