2017 | rated PG | directed by Chris McKay | 1hr 44mins |
Studio Pitch: Let’s farm out every character from The Lego Movie, turn it into a franchise and bleed it dry!
I have so much affection for Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s surprise work of brilliance The Lego Movie, the idea that Warner Bros is going to spin it off into a bunch of solo films and Lego universes makes me queasy. But The Lego Batman Movie strides confidently out of the gate and knocks out those apprehensions in it’s sensational first 15 minutes. It may not keep up with the sheer cinematic thrills of it’s opening act – that would be almost impossible – ultimately settling into a more familiar story, but like Lego Movie it is a sugar rush of a film, stuffed with wit, more master builder mayhem and piled high with references to 70 years of Batman lore.
Will Arnett’s raspy-voiced take on The Dark Knight turned him into a moping Emo pint-sized bro and death metal fan with ripped abs, quickly becoming a breakout favorite of Lego Movie and making him an obvious choice for their first spin-off. After super serious turns in The Dark Knight Rises and particularly the dower Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, everyone’s favorite humorless, rich orphan who dresses like a rodent has become the most memeable of superheroes. Lego Batman swoops into that zeitgeist and vacuums up all the references from comic book, film and TV history that it’s PG rating can hold. The movie doesn’t go for the sharper Orwellian satire of Lego Movie nor that movie’s sweet sensibility for how children use toys to bring their imagination to life – ie. no big reality-imploding twist here. This movie is all Batman, all the time. It’s fast, its crazy, it breaks the rules of it’s own world over and over again and yet it somehow manages to wrangle all this together into a fitting film in it’s own right.
For it’s main story arc, the film seizes on the Caped Crusader’s pension for working in anti-social isolation. It resurrects the age-old children’s film mantra that champions the value of friends and family, which actually folds into the Batman character like a glove. Bear in mind this is the same theme that 7 Fast and Furious movies have been based on. Arnett’s Batman is too cool for people, ice cold about any mention of his parents and desperate for the city of Gotham to know how awesome he is. He’s also really adorable, pounding away on the buttons of his “puter” with his cuped hands or jumping on the ground to do crunches to get swoll before taking a picture.
His world of isolation is turned upside down with the arrival of the new police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), graduate of Harvard for Police, an orphan who idolizes him (Michael Cera) and the latest city-destroying plot by the Joker (Zach Galifianakis). In keeping with the current DC universe, Batman’s biggest enemy is his competitive jealousy with Superman (Channing Tatum) over any actual villain. Turning the series’ staples on their head, Lego Batman hones in on our hero’s pension for constantly letting his enemies go to fight another day (“He isn’t good at his job” a random citizen blurts out ) and turns his back-and-forth with The Joker into a mutual relationship where the two need each other like an co-dependent couple. A clever observation that as a joke gets beaten into the ground a few times too often. “Batman always defeats you”, says a hijacked pilot, “remember the time with the two boats”. The movie takes the circular nature of a comic book or TV series with returning villains, puts it in a straight line and turns it into a character point about our hero being stuck in a rut. Wow.
Lego Batman is a very funny movie, very much in the tradition of Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s work that echoes a post-Simpsons irreverent style, eschewing real world physics for lightening fast physical jokes. It is trendy for every other cartoon to be a Pixar-esque sweeping, emotional animated film, but the free-wheeling cartoonish work of these movies is refreshing. It has the jokes to back up the noise. Where this movie departs from Lego is how seriously it takes itself as a Batman film while skewering it’s subject. It recalls great parodies like Shaun of the Dead that properly poke fun at the cliches of the franchise, but at the end of the day really loves the property. Lego Batman pipes in a Dark Knight sound-alike score when it comes time for our braggadocios hero to be a hero. It’s CGI stop-motion may make it look like A Town Called Panic, but it sounds and feels like the kind of big budget summer movie it is homaging. It questions everything about the way the character is portrayed and doesn’t take him as a seriously brooding figure, in the process a genuinely good Batman movie – no, the best Batman movie in a decade. The character is fun again.
That’s all given that the film takes a particularly insane turn in it’s 2nd half that only a Lego movie can. While the movie thankfully doesn’t try to replicate a reality imploding twist of the original film, it does stick with that film’s charming child-at-play style (every lego figure yells “pew pew” when shooting their guns) playing out almost stream of consciously in that world like a child smashing all of their toys together without limits to pesky things like copyrights and character licenses. Lego Batman fires out machine-gun speed references to Tim Burton’s films, Joel Schumacher’s films, an army of comic book villains like The Condiment King that aren’t exactly big screen ready, an insert shot of Adam West doing the Batusi, Bruce Wayne’s thinly veiled double life, Superman’s The Phantom Zone, every Warner Bros license the movie can get it’s hands on, Gremlins on an airplane wing and a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”. It is a whirlwind.
It’s a critical cliché to say that the script could have gone back for a few more drafts. Lego Batman feels like a prime example where that happened. Credited to 5 writers (and a host of created bys for all the licenses the movie uses), it feels like this was one script that got tighter and tighter, kept tying up connections and slipping in references and throw-away gags at every pass. There is probably a version of this movie a few drafts back that is funny and entertaining and would have gone over just fine. That The Lego Batman Movie could have easily put out something broader and less clever, but went that extra mile, is something special and rare.
No stranger to stop motion, director Chris McKay wrangles it all together beautifully, knowing the value of wrapping it’s absurdity in a competent package that takes seriously it’s license to be very silly. I’m still skittish about Lego Movie spin-offs. It feels like Lego Batman finding a new inventive way to break the Lego World again is like lightening hitting twice. But so far the high-energy, endlessly imaginative and hilarious The Lego Batman Movie keeps the franchise integrity strong.