Though it’s never 100% a given (what is, especially when it comes to box office), commonly, animated sequels are some of the most predictable box office performers out there. I mean, most sequels themselves end up doing pretty well at the end of the day, but doubly so if they are animated family movies. After years of replays on television or streaming or just good ol’ fashioned home video, the post theatrical net of an animated film ends up becoming quite a wide one. Kids after all LOVE repetition, and not only do they not complain about seeing the same film over and over again — they actively encourage it. And when the new one comes out, with their favorite characters and what not, you better bet they’re going to beg their parents to take them. Which can lead to box office leaps like Shrek ($267 million) to Shrek 2 ($441 million.) Despicable Me ($251 million) to Despicable Me 2 ($368 million.) Toy Story ($191 million) to Toy Story 2 ($245 million.) That’s like three data points right there so, come on now, I shouldn’t have to present more evidence here — when it comes to animated sequels, big business usually follows.
Which is 100% what Warner Bros. expected going into last weekend’s release of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. And, really, can you blame them? Even putting aside the performance of other animated sequels, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part had a lot going for it going into its first weekend. A wide open playing field with not much competition in general, let alone with animated family movies (fellow Lord/Miller production Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the last one, and its very much on its way out of theaters by this point.) Strong critical reception, with a very solid 85% on Rotten Tomatoes. And, most importantly, it’s the damn sequel to The Lego Movie — that’s pretty much a modern classic by this point, beloved by all. What could possibly go wrong with a return to that realm?
Shockingly, a lot. Like, tens of millions of dollars a lot. Because despite strong estimates going into the weekend, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part rather expectantly under-performed over the three day frame, taking in just $34.5 million. Sure, that was still enough to net it #1 at the box office (once again, slow frame), but it’s a pretty bad comedown for a film that was tracking less than a month ago at $45 million — on the absolute low end. More realistically, WB was hoping for a launch in the $50 million ballpark, which even then would be a substantial drop from the massive $69 million (nice) that the first installment made back in February 2016. But $35 million? Boy oh boy, $35 million is bad. Generally, you don’t want a sequel to perform worse than its predecessor at all. But making literally half what the first one did? That’s bad, bad news for the future of Lego.
Which brings us to the ultimate question: what the hell happened here? I have some theories, but I’ll be honest: I don’t know for sure with this one either. Well something like Ghost in the Shell has clear writing on the wall as to why it would bomb, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part opening poorly is a pretty big shock to me. I was super amped for this one, and I just figured everyone else who saw the first film (all $257 million dollars worth of them) would be too. But I guess they were not. As to why, my best guess is three fold: 1) timing 2) oversaturation and 3) pre-release build up.
One and two are kind of a combo deal, in that Warner Bros. waited a full five years to release The Lego Movie 2 after the massive success of the first one. While it’s somewhat understandable they would do this (animation notoriously takes forever), it still didn’t help the film stay in the zeitgeist the way Warner probably hoped. I’ve always argued that three years or less is the sweet spot for turnaround when it comes to a movie sequel: enough time for people to miss the property, but not too much time that they completely forget about it. At five years, general audiences were more likely to fall into the latter category. Now this is not always a hard and fast rule: we live in the era of the “delayed sequel,” after all, which can be quite lucrative if played right (think Incredibles 2, Finding Dory, any Pixar sequel really.) But those films usually come out over a decade after the last, which allows glorious nostalgia to kick in, and for the title to become a generational mainstay. Five years is simply not enough time for that to happen, putting The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part in an uncomfortable middle ground.
So what about fellow middle ground animated sequel Wreck-It Ralph 2, which managed to follow the animated sequel outperforming the original trend, despite being released six years after it? Well, first of all, Ralph Breaks the Internet BARELY managed to do that, only outgrossing the original film by a slim margin. Furthermore, Ralph Breaks the Internet had a few distinctions that helped it succeed where Lego failed, bringing us back to the latter two points. First and foremost was the fact that the world of Wreck-It Ralph was legitimately gone for six years, and audiences had a pent up demand to see it back. This is where Warner Bros’ kind of shot themselves in the foot with the spin-offs here, as the release of The Lego Batman Movie and (especially) The Lego Ninjago Movie over-saturated the brand. This is especially bad when you consider that all three films released within the same 24 month span — even with the five year gap of core Lego Movies, for most audiences, it really didn’t feel like it.
But what Ralph Breaks the Internet also had that put it over the edge, in terms of audience interest? A fresh take. It was going to be about familiar characters entering a new world, and a world that on its face sounded like it would lead to a different, distinct adventure. A reason to actually venture into the theaters during the holidays (also a big factor, I might add) to go see the movie, rather than just wait for it to hit Netflix. Well I found the marketing for The Lego Movie 2 to be funny and promising, even I admit that the “hook” just wasn’t really there. It looked like more of the same, and with less of the freshness that brought people into the first movie to begin with.
Having seen the movie, I will say, that is slightly the case overall. But also having seen the movie, I’ll also say that it doesn’t stop The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part from being GREAT, and a very well done follow-up to the first film’s legacy. It also does do a lot of different things and has different things it is trying to say…but all those things are from the latter acts, making it pretty hard to present in the trailer. Which is a massive bummer, because I want this movie to perform better. I want to see this franchise continue, really: bring on more Lego movies I say, because I really do love spending time with these characters in this universe.
But the prospects of that, at this point, are pretty dim. Even if the film manages to leg out, its pretty much impossible that it will reach even close to the original’s $257 million cume. The ceiling, unfortunately, is probably in the low $120 million range here. And that’s if it sticks around; with the arrival of another big animated sequel, How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, in just two weeks, competition might end up making things very much not awesome for The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.
But you know the funny thing? The last time I remember a “released too late” animated sequel coming out and massively undeperforming was, in fact, How To Train Your Dragon 2, and that one’s getting a much deserved follow-up (that’s already doing quite well for itself, I might add). So maybe it’s not too late for this franchise yet. That being said, I wouldn’t beat on more Ninjango-esque spin-offs from WB anytime soon. Personally though? Not exactly lamenting that lose.
Also published on Medium.