The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is, I am deeply unhappy to report, a bit better than you should expect of the fourth movie in a franchise of animated comedies for children that double as toy commercials. I am unhappy to report this, because 2015's The Lego Movie wasn't "better than you should expect"; it was so far beyond anything reasonable to hope for as to be closer to a miracle than a movie. In the intervening five years, we've had the amusing but messy The Lego Batman Movie and the tedious The Lego Ninjago Movie, and the idea that there'd be a continued decline in inspiration across all of these is perfectly reasonable (and in fact, it is not continued at all: The Second Part is, by all means, better than Ninjago). Still, the fact that all-purpose meta-comedy geniuses Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were writing the screenplay for the sequel to the movie that remains their peak as directors seemed like it really ought to have ended in more than the absolutely fine movie that has resulted.

We can tease out what has made this happen and be cunning and all, or we could just be direct: The Second Part has too much damn plot. The twist ending of The Lego Movie is, unsurprisingly, front and center in the sequel, and it has proven far more than the film can bear. In the first movie, after all, the developments of that twist merely recolored what we'd already seen; it had to stand on its own merits as a zany adventure comedy and any added depth or gravitas from the twist was merely a nice treat. Here, the re-oriented stakes are reiterated enough times during the first act that it becomes really hard to care about the film in and of itself, instead feeling like the whole thing is just an elaborate metaphor with no actual point to it. And if you can be charitable enough to overlook that, there comes a point in the climactic fight scene where the villain points out that the entire film till then has been an elaborate metaphor with no actual point to it. Which, I mean, it's bad enough if I have to pick out the flaws in a movie I was hoping to love; the movie itself really doesn't need to go out of its way to tell me that I was right.

Anyway, let's pretend that the plot actually matters, because when the damn framing narrative can bother to keep itself shut the hell up, it's a pretty fine and fun followup. Starting a few seconds before the end of The Lego Movie, the film begins by depicting the futile battle of the Lego minifigure residents of Bricksburg fighting hopelessly against an alien force of baby-voiced Duplo monsters. Five years later, the world has turned into a post-apocalyptic desert, with all of the Lego people having altered their bodies in perfect little homages to Mad Max 2, done in flawlessly rendered CGI plastic. Nobody is taking this all harder than Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), the former revolutionary freedom fighter who now spends all of her day spouting angry one-liners about how grim and dark the world is. Which makes quite a contrast with her dear friend Emmet (Chris Pratt), the idiot manchild "hero" of five years ago who has retained his shrilly happy attitude about everything. Despite Lucy's insistent pleas to grow up and learn to be more unhappy and serious, he simply refuses to do so, and persists in this even once a new alien civilization kidnaps Lucy and the rest of the Bricksburg leaders, who conveniently happen to consist of all the main characters from the last movie.

The direction this is going is of course obvious. It was obvious last time as well, though more inspired; a savagely cheerful parody of Chosen One narratives is a richer and more productive story to tell than a fable about how actually, it's better not to get too mature too fast, not as long you can still play with Legoยฎ brand construction toys well into your adolescence and adulthood. For example, you could play with the post-apocalypse Bricksburg set, intended for ages 16 and up, with a retail price of just $299.99.*

Anyway, grousing aside, the story is charming, first in that Emmet and Lucy are pleasant characters, voiced impeccably by Pratt and Banks (the former gets to repeatedly make fun of his career renaissance as a wiseass action hero, the latter gets way more to do than in the last movie). And second in that it's cluttered with all sorts of odds and ends: an alien queen voiced by Tiffany Haddish (who is great at ebullient comedy, and much worse at musical numbers, of which she has somehow gotten three), more of the acidic pop culture riffs that were a highlight of the last film, even though they feel distinctly more "things that Warner Bros. has the rights to" in a way that I found a huge drag, and another snazzy, mindless earworm in the spirit of "Everything Is Awesome!!", even if it's no shock that it can't read such exquisite heights as that masterpiece of insipid pep. And sure, "cluttered" is not typically a compliment, but the idea the film is putting forth is that playing with Legos is a cluttered business full of random inspiration and ideas that need to be expressed right now especially if they are goofy and nonsensical. How that squares with the manufacture of e.g. expensive sets with minutely detailed instructions for re-creating the film's locations is a question the film wants us to not ask, but the point is that being overstuffed is very much the film's raison d'รชtre, and the slurry of gags, references, and visual conceits is the end in and of itself.

None of it is remotely as creative or inspired as last time: director Mike Mitchell isn't trying to capture the astonishing freedom of visual movement that marked all of The Lego Movie and much of Lego Batman (despite having co-directed 2016's Trolls, one of the very few movies that caught the baton that The Lego Movie tossed, in terms of texture and dizzying camera movement). This is a generally grounded, squared-off movie. And there's not such a sense of "where can it possibly go next" novelty as grounded the first movie. Will Arnett's Batman is at this point comfort food more than a shocking piss-take on Warner's biggest brand name, and the other returning characters are plugged in clearly for the sake of continuity, and not because the filmmakers had anything new to do with them besides exactly redo the jokes that they did in 2014.

Still, it looks great, it moves fast, and it's funny more often than it's not. History is littered with less-than sequels, and it's a pity that The Second Part would be one of these in literally every facet of its being. But history is also littered with flat-out dreadful sequels, and we can all be happy that it managed not to be that.

*Righteous indignation notwithstanding, if I had the $300 to burn, I would absolutely burn it that way.