Part of the critical acclaim for The Lego Movie was the sheer surprise of the whole experience. No one expected something that seemed such a blatant marketing cash-in to be so loaded with such heart and sweetness and sheer visual inventiveness. It’s the sort of lightning in a bottle that you never could really capture for a second time.
That being said The Lego Batman Movie makes an attempt and comes remarkably close, succeeding on some incredibly wonderful merits of its own. Lego Batman is a celebration, a look into a character that has so occupied such a large space of the pop cultural psyche, that actually feels celebratory. This is a joyous film that is crackling with kinetic energy, the feeling of an overexcited kid actually getting free reign to play with the biggest toybox ever.
The Lego Batman Movie exists in a world where, essentially, every Batman thing ever has happened at some point. Our Batman (Will Arnett) is almost 80 years old, yet he’s still not acting a day over about 14. Batman is a defiant, angry teenager who still pushes everyone away since the loss of his family, leaving him all alone in his cavernous mansion with his Lobster Thermidor, his collection of romantic comedies, and his butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), a surrogate father figure who’s still trying to learn how to deal with his angsty son.
Like all angsty teenagers, a series of changes forces Batman to start to reconsider his life. Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) takes over as Police Commissioner, hoping to start working with Batman rather than leaving him on his own to keep “karate-chopping poor people.” He accidentally adopts wide-eyed orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and is forced to take the future Robin under his reluctant wing. And the Joker (Zach Galifanakis) is obsessed with Batman acknowledging their relationship as greatest enemies, which leads him on a plot involving all the villains in Gotham, the Phantom Zone, and some truly unexpected cameos.
There’s a lot to delight in here, beginning with the most impressive feat, which is actually creating a coherent spin-off. Arnett’s Batman was sort of an unexpected breakout from The Lego Movie, a skewering of the overly dark and serious tack the character had taken in the popular canon that managed to find plenty of charm in his own right. But he was a joke character, a one-note of anger and grumpy that begged to fall flat upon expansion.
So what The Lego Batman Movie is draw on the assertions of Glenn Weldon in his book The Caped Crusade. Namely, that Batman is always at his most interesting in a family scenario, as someone who is bouncing off of and having to manage his life with other people around him. By expanding him not just to the overly-confident bro with sick abs, but also to someone who uses that confidence to shove others away and hide a lot of pain and then grows closer to the people around him, the movie finds a character that can go on a path, that can take a continuum from his point A to his point B.
Yeah, The Lego Batman Movie is essentially hiding a pretty sweet little movie under the animation and the anarchy. It’s what keeps the whole thing moving underneath the rapid-fire “child’s playtime” vibe of it all.
Because trust me, this is a seriously fast-moving ride. Director Chris McKay comes to us from Adult Swim sketch show Robot Chicken, and that show’s joke density and penchant for witty insanity mixed with pop culture minutia is this film’s M.O.
When I said earlier that this takes place in a world where basically all of Batman canon has happened, I meant it. This is a movie dense with references both great and small to the the history of Batman, going all the way back to his earliest days and the embarrassing first serials (seriously, check them out now. They are CRAZY racist). It’s a movie for people who hear references to villains like Gentleman Ghost and the Condiment King and know that they’re real villains without a Google.
To be fair, there’s gonna be a little bit lost on an audience that doesn’t quite grasp those references, a lot of in-jokes that may just be dead air if you aren’t quite so familiar. But even then, there’s enough else across the humor spectrum that you’re gonna find something to appeal to you.
Maybe it’ll be the animation, which keeps the fidelity to the actual processes and aesthetics of Lego-building and the weird stiltedness of Lego movement that made The Lego Movie come to life the way it did. It’s impressive what they manage to construct out of the Lego bricks here and how remarkably pleasing it is to look at. Some strong composition here especially, always surprising how good looking these movies have been.
Maybe it’ll be the voice cast. Will Arnett’s Batman is a known quantity, so it’s the supporting players around him that give this movie its special quality. Michael Cera’s Robin is an absolute delight, conveying an eagerness and an excitability we’ve never really heard out of Cera before. Fiennes’ Alfred is just a reminder that we’ve been deprived never having Fiennes play a live-action version of the character. Galifanakis brings a remarkably different quality to the Joker character, more petulant kid on the playground than sinister crime lord. The supporting cast is a murderer’s row of great small comedic bit players, so let me throw out particular praise to Jenny Slate’s Harley Quinn (who again, we’ve been deprived never having Slate play a live-action version) and Doug Benson’s Bane, who’s just adorable.
Whatever it is, The Lego Batman is an immensely appealing time, something that just puts a smile on your face from the opening narration of the production company logos and doesn’t really let up until the end credits song. It’s a less innovative fun, granted. Lego Batman absolutely does not have the surprise of The Lego Movie, nor necessarily its inventiveness or thematic richness. We’re building on a formula here, not creating it. Lego Batman is going through far more familiar beats and certainly doesn’t have the Lord and Miller rewards of the last 30 minutes of its predecessor.
But why constantly reinvent the wheel? Sometimes you need to have a good time and a good laugh, and this provides both in spades.