'The Lego Batman Movie'
‘The Lego Movie’ shouldn’t have been nearly as good as it was. The product placement pop culture extravaganza could have been a wearily commercial enterprise designed to sell expensive pieces of plastic, but turned out to be a wonderful explosion of creativity and comedy instead. Now the scene-stealing Bat-star of that film has his own spinoff.
Again, this shouldn’t have worked. There was a Batman movie not even a year ago and this one is even more commercially driven. Somehow, ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ has more style, spark and love for the character than his massive and painfully serious battle with Superman.
Here’s another impossible truth: The movie essentially does what Joel Schumacher hoped to achieve with his take on the franchise, only does it well. Basically, this is a version of ‘Batman & Robin’ that’ll be loved even by those who loathed ‘Batman & Robin’. It’s another Lego movie miracle, if not quite as delightful as the first.
‘The Lego Batman Movie’ opens by announcing itself as a parody of the dark and gritty superhero blockbusters that Warner Bros. is cranking out alongside these wacky animated productions. Over a black screen, Will Arnett’s growling Caped Crusader talks about how all serious movies start with a black screen and comments on the way even the production company logos are dark and brooding. From there, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) unleashes a dastardly plan involving almost every single Batman villain from Two-Face (a sadly underused Billy Dee Williams, despite some brilliant in-joke casting) to Orca and Condiment Man. Batman defeats the Joker (naturally), but really irritates him by saying that he doesn’t consider him a true mortal enemy.
After that, we see how lonely the Caped Crusader has become in his toy-filled mansion/cave combo. Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) decides that Batty needs a family, so he adopts a boy (Michael Cera) who quickly takes up the mantle of Robin. Meanwhile, the Joker is busy hatching a new plot involving an even wider series of iconic villains outside of the DC universe (but rather tellingly, all owned by Warner Bros.). Somewhere along the way, Batman is going to need to learn the value of family to survive.
That’s right, this is one of those Bat-tales where Batman learns the importance of having a Bat-family. For anyone who has read even a handful of Bat-comics (or watched ‘The Animated Series’), the theme will be familiar. However, it’s never quite worked in live action aside from the Adam West series. Why? Well, because it’s a bit silly for a dark and tortured vigilante to learn to love a young boy platonically. That’s tough to pull off in a movie desperately trying to lend credibility to a live action cartoon. Joel Schumacher tried and failed to tell that popular Bat-myth in the ’90s. The trick that makes the story work this time is that it’s actually funny and completely in love with Bat-lore. Though ostensibly a piss-take on arguably the greatest superhero, ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ is so filled with nods to popular comic book, film and television renditions of the character that nerds will likely spend years sorting out all the references, and they’ll enjoy it too.
The film is hilarious as well. ‘Robot Chicken’ director Chris McKay and his team of six writers clearly love this source material, but not as much as they adore absurdist humor and parody. The movie piles jokes on top of jokes inside of references within action scenes. They fly at viewers constantly and the hit rate is high. The CGI-as-Lego-stop-motion aesthetic is as eye-tickling and adorable as ‘The Lego Movie’, with surprisingly ambitious action scenes blasting audiences in the face almost as often as the humor. It’s a relentless blast of giddy comic book entertainment, both mocking and reverent of the form. In a way, it feels like the contemporary equivalent of the old Adam West ‘Batman’ TV series – pure unapologetic pop art fuelled by boundless visual imagination and layers of irony.
The voice cast is perfect. Will Arnett’s ironically tortured act proves just as infectious at feature length as it was in short bursts in ‘The Lego Movie’. Galifianakis’ dramatic commitment to his cartoon Joker works surprisingly well, as does Michael Cera’s hysterically enthusiastic and childlike Robin (which starts as a parody of an annoying character and somehow grows into a lovable ‘tween). The rest of the cast are all in-jokes who play along gamely, with everyone from Channing Tatum and Jenny Slate to Conan O’Brien and Doug Benson getting a few gags to sell (and sell well).
Revealing all of the characters who appear would be unfair, since who pops up and who voices them is part of the fun. There are so many layers of meta humor here for parents and veteran Bat-fans to eat up with relish (including a running gag about ‘Jerry Maguire’ sure to fly over the heads of anyone who wasn’t pubescent in the 1990s), but never at the expensive of the slapstick, one-liners or visual gags to keep the kids happy. There really is something here for any Batman fan, regardless of which era you jumped on board the Bat-train.
If there’s a problem with the movie, it’s that it’s too ambitious comedically and not interested enough in telling a worthy story. Yes, the references and jokes are endless, but that kind-of hurts the heart. The whole “Trust in family, don’t go do everything alone” message is such a tiresome cliché of family features and Batman/Robin adventures that it becomes a bit of a snooze long before the third act message-making arrives.
What made ‘The Lego Movie’ more than mass entertainment was the sincere call to embrace imagination that felt unique and vital in a movie about plastic block playsets. ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ is more of a trip through the motions, selling audiences stories and sentiment that they already know. That’s a bummer, but it doesn’t change the fact that the movie is easily the most entertaining and joyous Batman creation to come along in a while. Somehow, it manages to be more geared to longtime superhero obsessives than the massive somber DC blockbuster franchise that claims to be aimed at that fan base. It’s nice to have a goofy good time with Batman again. This is the Batman that we need right now and the one that we deserve.