Usually, writers, producers and directors struggle with creating a unique experience for moviegoers and TV bingers that’s different than anything they’ve ever seen before. Whether your film or show takes place in a fantasy word a la “Game of Thrones” or on the “Hacksaw Ridge” battlefields of WWII, it is on the people behind the scenes to immerse the viewer in that universe.
That being said, the practice of world building is something that just comes naturally to the Lego brand. Aside from the fact that the company has made a fortune on literal building blocks for kids, it also has licensing deals with every major pop culture property out there: superheroes, wizards, Joe Dante, you name it. We got a taste of this with 2014’s refreshingly original “The Lego Movie,” whose story didn’t overly rely on its side characters from other franchises who made nice little appearances throughout.
Now, Lego is doubling down on these connections with “The Lego Batman Movie” and while the title may reek of toy selling cash grab (let’s face it, that’s probably a little true), I’m here to assure you that everything is still awesome — at least until we can see Emmet and Wyldstyle again.
It makes sense that the Master Builder Lego version of Batman would get his own spin-off film from “The Lego Movie.” He’s a super-charged household name that has endured for nearly a century and is practically a sure hit for Warner Brothers, whose live action DC Extended Universe has been struggling as of late. The lukewarm (if that) receptions to “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” this past year didn’t help either.
However, the animated DC universe is alive and well, allowing Warner to rake in the box office profits via its animation division before setting sail for stranger tides with film adaptations of in-house Lego brands like “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” which is set for a release this September.
From the very start of “Lego Batman,” animation seems the better route to take, given that the ever-changing roster of live action Bruce Waynes of recent memory may have left audiences a little lassitudinous to say the least.
“All important movies start with a black screen,” says Will Arnett’s Batman — a gravelly version of Arnett’s dimwitted and egotistical magician character from “Arrested Development,” Gob Bluth — before we open on the blue-tinged Warner logo taken straight out of that the tour de force known as “The Dark Knight” and some ominous Hans Zimmer-esque drum banging.
The movie jumps right into the action as The Joker (Zach Galifianakis already showing up Jared Leto as the best Joker of the past year) attempts to blow up Gotham City’s fragile foundations with a cavalcade of Batman’s greatest villains and some obscure C-grade ones like Orca and The Eraser. “They’re worth a Google,” says The Joker (and believe me, I did to make sure they’re canon) to the pilot of a plane he has hijacked in the style of Tom Hardy’s Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises.”
“Is it gonna be like that time with the two boats or the parade with the Prince music?” inquires the pilot about the latest dastardly plan concocted by Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime. “No, it’s nothing like that!” exclaims Galifianakis’s kid-friendly Joker. And that’s the style of this movie: to mock the rich 78-year history surrounding the Caped Crusader, from the campy days of West and Romero, to the gothic team-up of Burton and Keaton and all the way to the brooding era of Nolan and Bale.
Even Batsy’s 2016 presence in “Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” gets a shoutout, a sure sign that pop culture is becoming self-aware at a faster rate than modern technology. The characters know they’re ageless pawns in a vast mythological well that has quenched the thirsts of legendary comic book writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. It also gives them a chance to take some well-aimed potshots at archrival Marvel.
Of all the things for a kid’s movie to revolve around, “The Lego Batman Movie” is about relationships: Bruce’s relationship with his late parents, with Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, with the people of Gotham, with his newly adopted son Dick Grayson aka Robin (Michael Cera) and, most importantly, his relationship with his arch-enemy The Joker.
The latter becomes heartbroken when Batman says that he has no “greatest enemy” and that The Joker (and anyone else for that matter) means nothing to him. It’s a rare day in comic book history when you feel bad for a murdering sociopath like The Joker, but director Chris McKay (“Robot Chicken”) and his team of animators do just that.
Like the beautiful and mock stop motion animation style, the movie’s jokes and cameos come fast and heavy as Batman attempts to banish Joker to the Phantom Zone, which only unleashes an evil rogues gallery of pop culture history’s worst baddies — this is where the true might and reach of Lego comes into play with some truly bizarre yet epic appearances. In response to this massive threat, the selfish and vainglorious Bruce is forced to accept help in the form of Robin, Alfred and newly appointed Gotham police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson moving from one major superhero brand to the next).
And while the voice actors are spot-on (no one could better voice this exaggerated Batman persona than Arnett), more time could have been given to the classic villains and heroes alike (Jim Gordon, Mr. Freeze, Scarecrow, Cat-Woman, Bane, Two-Face and all the rest) who have had a profound impact on the development of Gotham City’s eternal protector. If you’re going to hire the likes of Billy Dee Williams, Conan O’Brien, Jason Mantzoukas and Hector Elizondo to lend their voices to such iconic characters, they need to be put to better use.
Other than that one complaint, “The Lego Batman Movie” continues the wacky convergence of cartoons and reality. In the Lego cinematic universe, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but have a symbiotic relationship that keeps the kids entertained with the flashy colors and mile-a-minute jokes while simultaneously winking to the adults in the audience with nostalgic references to their own upbringings. Moreover, the movie honors its hero’s extensive source material by having the brazen Joker-esque ability to laugh at itself, scars and all. Shortly put, it’s the Batman movie we both deserve and need right now.