Director: Chris McKay
Stars: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson
First thing’s first and BAM! we’re dropped into a LEGO short, which I can’t tell you the name of because even this is spoilery. The appearance of this 5 minutes of fun is significant though. It immediately places Warner Bros Animation Group and specifically their burgeoning LEGO franchise in the same space as Pixar. It’s a neat palette cleanser, sure, but it’s also a statement of intent. We already know The LEGO Movie is getting a proper sequel aside from this welcome spin-off, but the appearance of this short suggests a plan. There’s a new cinematic universe in town and it’s building itself brick by brick.
Three years ago, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s The LEGO Movie had nothing to prove. A movie about a toy? We’d all seen how Transformers and it’s ilk had gone; garish, joyless merch-whores of no value other than their capacity to move more product. That the end product was one of the great animated films of the last decade is still something to marvel. It was funny, it was creative, it even had soul and intelligence. In fact, it had a lot of both. It was a blast with bags of re-watch value and quite frankly if you disagree – and I don’t take this attitude normally – YOU ARE WRONG.
That changes things for The LEGO Batman Movie. There’s expectation now. Bags of it. But, though Lord and Miller are off working on other projects for the moment, it seems as though we’re in safe hands. The scattered promos for this release – which have been dropped gradually for what feels like a year now – suggested things would be more-than-OK. The same anarchic splatter pattern of smart gags were assured. And they are everywhere. Five writers are credited here, and you can well imagine the days lost in spirited competition with one another to assure that the best laughs made it into this movie.
Director Chris McKay crowbars it all into a small miracle of coherence. There’s a lot going on here, yet things are kept pacy and easy to follow. Sure, LEGO Batman doesn’t have quite the ambition or inspiration of its forebearer, but there’s still buckets of fun to be had, most of which comes at the expense of the gargantuan lore of DC’s own peppered history (Suicide Squad is already the butt of a handful of jokes here. Burn).
As this is a family film, family comes first. Once McKay’s film has pummeled you with an opening salvo that features pretty much everyone from the Batverse, things settle down (comparatively) as Batman/Bruce Wayne’s (Will Arnett) self-imposed isolationism at Wayne Manor comes under the film’s pathos-tinged microscope. A close encounter with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has prompted Batman to dwell on how he distances himself from those around him; a trait that’s only emphasised when he realises he’s taken on bug-eyed orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).
Robin has been largely absent from the recent live action Batman films with one minor exception, and it’s easy to see why. The character is tailor-made for the LEGO universe, however, and while Batman’s uber-arrogant billionaire man-child routine is milked for all it’s worth comedy-wise, it’s comfortably Robin who steals the show, undercutting the hero’s straight man routine at every turn.
Did I say ‘hero’? That’s a notion that the film turns on its head as much if not more than Christopher Nolan’s recent series, albeit in a fittingly crazed and unusual way. To even explain it would take up a good portion of my already lax word count. Besides, you want to know it’s good without knowing too much about what happens, right? Half the fun of The LEGO Movie was how out-of-left-field many of its decisions were.
Which brings us back to expectation. If we’re sitting the two films beside one another, though I’m very happy to report that The LEGO Batman Movie dazzles in terms of frantic action braced with fast-paced and funny jokes, it’s a more disposable and therefore less impressive proposition than its predecessor. This film is fantastic escapism – which is what a lot of us need right now (though there are subtle digs at certain real-world situations/persons) – but it’s not particularly anything more than that. It makes one realise how significant the surprise turn in the third act of The LEGO Movie really was, how important to its overall function and success. By comparison LEGO Batman lacks depth. But oh, not for the lack of trying.
The Message. Is IN. YOUR. FACE. The entire time. This wasn’t ever going to be the arena for subtlety, but jeez. LEGO Batman sledgehammers you with its family-is-important there’s-no-I-in-team trust-in-your-friends group hug mentality. It’s as relentless as the clever sight gags and encyclopedic geek reference points (“British robots!”). Now, it’s a good message. Let’s be clear. I agree with the message. I’m not against hugging. I’m on board here. But it’s laid on awfully thick. In fact, it’s constant. The kids’ll get it. The parents can be happy for it. But the insistence does start to grate and risks smothering the rest of the film.
In the moment, The LEGO Batman Movie is an absolute blast. The story bulges with possibilities and has as many turns as anything Nolan propositioned us with, and it’s wrangled into an hour and 45 minutes with barely a breath to spare, which is an admirable thing. The animation looks just as fine as it did last time around; the mastery of the CG here is how it looks handmade. And if you’ve ever wanted a Batman movie where the caped crusader himself is just an absolute jackass the entire time, well, you’ve got your wish. Almost everything here is awesome…
But it falls just that little bit shy of greatness. One for the ages? Time will tell. One for right now? You’re-darn-right-yeah. And there’ll be more coming. Just you wait.