Fans of the anything-goes approach of “The Lego Movie” will be gratified to see that the giddy character-palooza continues in “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” opening on Friday. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), wild-stylin’ Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), and Lego Batman (Will Arnett) all are back, again joined by a bevy of blocky plastic pals as they’re dropped into the post-apocalypse, the world beyond their basement, and a royal wedding. Check it out — it’s Aquaman, voiced by his live-action alter ego, Jason Momoa! Look, it’s nerdily intrepid Velma from “Scooby-Doo!” Hey, the Tin Man! And Ruth Bader Ginsburg!
You’ll recall what major issues Will Ferrell’s first-installment baddie Lord Business had with all of this mingling of disparate creations and pop-cultural figures. (Ferrell has an encore voice cameo in the new movie, FYI.) But even he eventually came to understand the imagination-sparking value of a Legoland without borders.
In fact, we’d argue that the franchise’s sprawling landscape of mash-ups and crossovers is as key to the original film’s success — and to anticipation for the second — as the eye-candy animation or the wit of “Lego” stewards Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. (The first movie’s writing-directing duo also co-scripted the sequel, following a terminated directing stint on “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and their gig contributing to the characteristically chockablock “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”)
Bill Maher and other fanboy-culture detractors might shake their heads to hear it, but the fact is this: If there’s a form of escapism more satisfying, more joyful, than seeing touchstones of our youth skillfully and affectionately translated to the contemporary screen, it’s seeing the trick performed many times over, all at once. Just as important, without a surfeit of rules about putting the whole thing together. We can’t help thinking of the old “Friends” episode titled, aptly, “The One With the Dollhouse”: Monica spends all that time fussing over her hobbyist-perfect Victorian, but it’s Phoebe who wows the gang with her kid-tastically logic-eschewing pad and its licorice furniture.
Even the shared cinematic universes of Marvel and DC don’t cross-pollinate, for all of their multi-multi-character avenging and justice dispensing. Yet somehow “Lego” is deliriously able to toss together denizens of Metropolis and Middle-earth, Albus Dumbledore and Abe Lincoln, Shakespeare and Shaq. Sure, a fair number of the franchise’s characters fall under the Warner corporate umbrella, but still. “I would not want to be a lawyer working on the deal for one of these movies,” Arnett says with a laugh.
Red tape or no, you’d think we might tend to see more such coloring outside the copyrighted lines, given the success that some other notable films and filmmakers have had with character mega-mixes of their own. Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” last year commented on the fanboy zeitgeist — and celebrated it — by imagining a virtual-reality world vastly more fulfilling than the real one, between its DeLorean-versus-Batmobile street races, its questing through “The Shining,” and on and on.
Meanwhile, in “Wreck-It Ralph” and last year’s follow-up, “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Disney dug into both its own toybox and those of video-game developers and Web outfits to conjure up credibly populated story settings, to terrific effect. Pac-Man? Queen Elsa? Groot? Check, check, and check, any presumed mutual exclusivity be darned.
Then there’s “Toy Story 4,” due in theaters in June. Maybe Pixar will add a few more fondly remembered real-world playthings to a collection that already includes Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Barbie and Ken, and iconic composites Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Come to think of it, with the beloved, seemingly evergreen franchise nearing its 25th anniversary next year, the filmmakers could probably turn to the series’ own history for nostalgia plucked from actual toy shelves. Imagine “Toy Story” with a thematic pinch of Droste effect and a narrative dash of Escher. Talk about “To infinity and beyond!”
If there’s a movie that doesn’t get all the credit it might for its properties-uniting ambition, it’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” There’s long been a tendency to view director Robert Zemeckis as a technical innovator first and foremost, never mind what that Oscar for “Forrest Gump” did for his reputation as an elite cinematic storyteller, period. Released in 1988, “Roger Rabbit” was widely hailed for its cutting-edge fusion of Bob Hoskins’s live-action performance with the antics of his animated cohorts. But the film’s communal vision of Toontown was just as remarkable, with its unlikely jumbling of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker and Foghorn Leghorn, Snow White and Betty Boop.
A good three decades before the “Lego” franchise and Bricksburg, Toontown dazzled kids and inner children alike with its imaginatively free-ranging character habitat. It was a magical if kooky place unfettered by either stuffy rights considerations or laws of physics, and filled with combinative possibility. Then as now, everything about the idea was, dare we say it, awesome.