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Film review: 'The LEGO Movie 2'

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When "The LEGO Movie," made its way to theaters in early 2014, there wasn't much reason to expect it to be more than a simple cash grab; a feature-length commercial for the long-beloved building block toys. Instead, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller invested their film with more wit and imagination than they needed to, making a sweet-natured ode to childhood creativity that ended up being one of the best family films in recent memory.

So of course any sequel has a lot to live up to. Working with director Mike Mitchell, Lord and Miller (returning as writers and producers this time around) succeed in making "The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part" just as clever, inventive, and funny as the first, even if a bit of the novelty has worn off.

The plot picks up five years after the original film, and everything's no longer awesome in Bricksburg. A war with a race of baby-voiced alien invaders made from Duplo blocks has left the city a dystopian wasteland straight out of "Mad Max: Fury Road," and the citizens have all adapted to this new, hardened way of life. All, that is, except for Emmet (Chris Pratt), who's somehow maintained his sunny, cheerfully naive outlook despite the devastation that surrounds him. This frustrates Wyldstyle, aka Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), who wants him to grow up and be as serious as everyone else.

But when his friends are taken hostage by General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), and taken back to the planet ruled by shape-shifting alien Queen WatevraWa'Nabi (Tiffany Haddish, making a seemingly effortless transition into voice acting) Emmet musters up the courage to go after them. Along the way, he gets some help from Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Pratt), a more traditionally aggressive tough guy hero who offers to help mold Emmet into the manly hero he says Emmet's friends need him to be.

As in the first film, "The LEGO Movie 2" has plenty of humor poking fun at the tropes of "chosen one" hero's journey narratives. And while the first film had a late-in-the-game meta reveal in which we learned that a live action, real-world universe was shaping and influencing the film's story, the new film makes greater use of that element. When the people of Bricksburg quarrel with an alien race, we see that it's really a now teenaged Finn (Jadon Sand) fighting with his younger sister Bianca (Brooklynn Prince). Their central conflict comes from his surly, adolescent male imagination clashing with the exuberance of the young girl's.

"The LEGO Movie 2" maintains the first's central core of sweetness, and though it doesn't feel as effortless this time around, the film manages to juggle a number of potent ideas beneath its bright and candy-colored exterior. It continues the first film's celebration of creativity and childlike joy, expanding to incorporate the notion of growing up and the way we're encouraged to develop a hardened shell of seriousness as we get older.

Mitchell, Lord, and Miller even manage to weave in some pointed messages about the dangers of xenophobia through the film's characters' encounters with alien Duplos. When the film says that those who are different should be greeted with nothing but love and compassion, it's a sweet and resonant message, showing that there's no limit to the ideas that can be built from a simple movie about toy bricks.