The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is out this week. Get your tickets here!
Even more so than live action sequels, animated sequels are a very tricky thing to pull off. While most of the time the studio uses the first film's goodwill to release a half-baked redo, there are exceptions to the rule. These are sequels that decided to honor the legacy of the original film and pushed the storytelling even further by expanding upon the world and developing their characters. In honor of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, we're looking back at three animated sequels (all second chapters) that broke the mold and challenged all expectations:
Toy Story 2
How does one follow up one of the most groundbreaking films (not only animated) of all time? While the original Toy Story showed us the world of toys with great characters and wonderfully inventive storytelling, Toy Story 2 ups the ante and delivers quite possibly one of the best sequels ever crafted. Boasting gorgeously polished animation and a plethora of new and highly memorable characters, Pixar's film boldly expands upon the themes of friendship set up in the first entry and ventures into darker, crazier territory. Toy Story 2, like a lot of Pixar’s oeuvre, is not comfortable just being “for children” but rather is interested in tackling more adult subject matter and thought-provoking questions about materialism, immortality and existentialism. The film could’ve just done the same thing as the first but instead challenges itself by telling a story that is basically about family and learning to appreciate the little moments that one has in life. That is worth applauding. It’s a testament to Pixar that Toy Story 2 is able to have gags that reference The Empire Strikes Back while at the same time tackling Jessie’s emotional journey in one of the most heartbreaking montages of all time and never does it feel out of place or jarring. The seeds for that Up montage that we all cry over are planted here in Toy Story 2. Originally conceived as a direct-to-video offering, Toy Story 2 proves that with the right story it’s possible to capture everything that made the first film special and push the story in new directions.
The sequel to the first winner of the Best Animated Feature Academy Award is a film that doubles down on everything that made the original Shrek a smashing success. Shrek 2, however, is also concerned with exploring life outside of the swamp and discusses a lot of captivating ideas like marriage, commitment and most importantly, couple life. One of the most fascinating aspects about Shrek 2 is that the filmmakers actually incorporate the pop culture references into the very themes of the film. The realm of “Far Far Away” is as obsessed with celebrity culture and materialism as Hollywood is, and the film smartly satirizes that obsession with a playful tone. Instead of the adventurous feel and journey of the first film (which also smartly deconstructs tropes found in medieval romances), Shrek 2 is all about moving forward from that choice and handling expectations within a new family. While the film also introduces some outstanding supporting characters like Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas is pitch perfect as the charming character), the main characters from the first film get a chance to develop and show real emotional growth. One of the biggest takeaways is the evolution of Shrek and Fiona's relationship and the way the film handles their progress. In the first film the romance was all about subverting expectations and accepting your inner beauty, while in the second film it becomes about committing to the relationship, living together and ultimately about discovering that the person you love is the one you want to spend the rest of your life with. It might not be as subversive as the first film, but there is a great deconstructionist and heartfelt attitude to Shrek 2 that makes it a truly worthy sequel.
How To Train Your Dragon 2
A prime example of what a sequel can and should aspire to be. How To Train Your Dragon 2 takes the world established on the first film and just blows it up and expands from a charming “boy and his pet” story into a full-blown action epic about growing up and abuse of power. Dean DeBlois’s mythic approach to the material is on full on display in the sequel which sets out to introduce new characters, pay off character arcs established on the first film and deliver one emotional gut punch after the other. The first film’s beating heart was the relationship between Toothless and Hiccup, and the sequel never forgets about that, actually continuing its development and taking it in new directions. Even with the introduction of a major character (voiced beautifully by Cate Blanchett) the film manages to also give Gerard Butler’s Stoick a great arc. One of the most impressive aspects about HTTY2 is how its bold and risky narrative choices actually enhance the themes of the film, which include a great message about the dangers of intolerance and hatred and the importance of family. There are action sequences in HTTY2 that completely destroy some of its live-action equivalents. Meanwhile, the soaring John Powell score is utterly breathtaking. Every time the characters take flight, it's about as pure as cinema can get. This is also the rare animated film that isn’t afraid to introduce darker elements into the mix. The fact that it goes full Star Wars should come as no surprise with its grand scope and ambition, but it totally earns it in spades. Armed with the visual powers of Roger Deakins (yes, he’s a visual consultant in this film just like in the first) and a pitch-perfect understanding of what a sequel should be – magnify the world established on the first film and develop the characters in compelling ways – HTTY2 is the rare sequel that shatters all expectations.