Review: “The Lego Batman Movie”

5 out of 5 stars.

In 2014, “The Lego Movie” delighted critics and audiences, though not exactly in the way most people expected.  It wasn’t just an irreverent, fast-paced adventure that’s enjoyable for both kids and kids-at-heart; at the end it revealed a beautiful, moving message that elevated the material beyond typical family fare.  In the aftermath of its success, more movies based around the popular toy were inevitable, but, again, I don’t think many people thought a DC Comics spinoff would be anything more than fairly amusing.  And that’s where “The Lego Batman Movie” proves us all wrong—again.  In fact, it may be the best Batman movie ever made.  I am not joking.

Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) was arguably the most popular member of “The Lego Movie’s” ensemble cast, which featured a mashup of different pop culture characters based on different Lego playsets.  That film played up the dark and edgy aspect of the character for comedic effect, and “The Lego Batman Movie,” which is directed by Chris McKay of “Robot Chicken” fame, picks up that thread before the movie even officially starts, with the voice of Batman hilariously narrating the production company logos that precede the film.  We are then thrust right in the middle of a fast-paced bit of action that really never stops for the entire film, as Batman pursues the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) through Gotham City.  The chase is filled with the quips and gags you’d expect, but it’s when Batman tells Joker that he isn’t important to him, that no one is important in his life except himself, that the film introduces additional layers to Batman/Bruce Wayne’s personality behind the façade.  He goes home to the Batcave, and the film spends a good deal of time further exploring his self-imposed loneliness, as we watch him go about mundane tasks like microwaving dinner, trying to find out which input the TV works on, and watching “Jerry Maguire”—all by himself.  Turns out, ever since his parents were murdered, he has been afraid of letting more people into his life who he could potentially lose also.

But that’s exactly what Batman is going to have to do if he is going to defeat the Joker, whose feelings are hurt by Batman’s appearing not to care about him, resulting in him seeking vengeance by gathering a whole host of villains to destroy Gotham.  He now has to contend with Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who has taken the mantle of Commissioner over from her father Jim Gordon (Hector Elizondo) and who doesn’t want to let Batman continue doing whatever he wants, and with Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), the young orphan he accidentally adopts while he’s distracted.  And of course, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Batman’s loyal butler and father figure, is always there, prodding him to let some of these people into his life.

lego-batman
Batman and Barbara Gordon, who graduated top of her class at Harvard for Police.

“The Lego Batman Movie” has a very similar visual and animation style to its predecessor.  The story is set in a world made from Lego bricks, inhabited by Lego minifigures, so everything moves rather jerkily, as the toys would move in real life.  It sounds not so great, but it works very well within the context of the film, and you have to admire the animators and artists for their attention to detail, both in the many, individual Lego bricks that make up every prop and set piece, and in their commitment to making everything look and move exactly like the real toy does.  Even the film’s 3D effects are good, fully immersing the viewer in what is essentially a giant toy set.

The film also assembles an astonishingly large and talented cast of voice actors.  Even the film’s many (and I mean many) minor characters are voiced by Hollywood heavyweights, from the likes of Channing Tatum as Superman to Seth Green as…well, maybe you should just watch the movie and see.  Galifianakis is delightful as the most adorable Joker you’ll ever see, as is Cera as the most adorable Robin you’ll ever see.  But the show belongs to Arnett, who takes what, based on what we saw in “The Lego Movie,” could have easily turned into a caricature of one of the most popular superheroes ever and turns in a performance that is not just hilarious, but heartfelt and, well, pure Batman.

And that’s where we turn to the story, the reason why I claimed at the beginning of this review, in all seriousness, that “The Lego Batman Movie” may be the best Batman movie ever made.  Yes, the script is witty, nay, laugh-out-loud hilarious, with jokes whizzing by so fast there’s no way you’ll catch them all on the first viewing.  Yes, there’s a big battle against a bad guy—actually, multiple bad guys—at the center of it that is a sci-fi and fantasy nerd’s fever dream, but the heart of the movie is not in the conflict but in the character.  The film offers up a surprisingly in depth exploration the Batman character, including his perpetually complicated relationship with the Joker, the father/son relationships he has with Alfred and Dick, and the reason why he feels like he needs to work alone.  Batman undergoes a significant but believable change over the course of the film, as his friends—and his enemies—help him become not just a better hero, but a better man.

This film is more than a Batman movie, however, and way more than the kids’ movie its marketing seems to indicate it is—it is a homage to the whole Batman mythology.  Every film and TV adaptation of the character is referenced in some capacity, from the most famous to the most obscure.  From the oldest to the newest, there’s something here for every age, for each generation of Bat fans.  We see the 1943 serial starring Lewis Wilson as Batman, the first film adaptation of the character.  We get a lot of references to the Adams West Batman of the 60s, some nods to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and some much deserved dragging of the current series of Warner Brothers DC movies.  No adaptation was left unturned when assembling the film’s team of villains, which includes not only the usual suspects, but even—and this is the point where lifelong Batman fan me is falling out of my seat in the theater—Egghead from the 60s show, and, get this, Condiment King from the great “Batman: The Animated Series.”  That’s not to mention the vast amount of other DC heroes that make up the cast, which even includes the Wonder Twins and Gleek from the “Superfriends,” and I don’t even know if I should get into all of the fun things lurking around the Batcave.

There’s something about the use of a toy traditionally geared toward children as the backdrop for all of this that enhances the feeling of nostalgia for those past iterations of the character, but it also serves as a beacon of hope for the future, that not everything is all gloom and doom as recent films would make it seem.  On the surface, “The Lego Batman Movie” may poke fun at Batman’s superior nature and his brooding personality, but by doing so they get at the heart of the world’s enduring fascination of the character.  He is a superhero without superpowers, and he doesn’t need them, because his power comes from the important people in his life who make him who he is.

Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated PG.

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