Warner Bros. hit the jackpot in 2014 with the 2014 release of The Lego Batman Movie. It helped establish the Warner Bros. Animation in the modern landscape of computer animation films (Storks in 2016 was their 2nd release). It also established an animated franchise that they can build on as well, with a series of sequels and spinoffs planned over the next few years. The first such spinoff is this year’s The Lego Batman Movie, giving Batman his own feature film story in the Lego universe that Lord and Miller created in The Lego Movie.
Will Arnett returns to voice Batman, having to once again thwart a scheme by The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and practically all of the rogues gallery of Batman to take over the city. In doing so, Batman breaks The Joker’s heart, telling him to his face that Batman has no “greatest enemy.” This premise creates two paths. For The Joker, he sets off on a mission to prove to everyone, but mostly to Batman, they he is his true arch-enemy. For Batman, it makes the movie a journey about dealing with his issues of isolation and being a loner as opposed to a team player. While beloved by Gotham City for his heroics, as Bruce Wayne he is quite alone, with only Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and ‘Puter (hilariously, voiced by Siri) to keep him company. His insular world is thrown into chaos by the retirement of Commissioner Gordon and the appointment of his daughter, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) as the new commissioner. Her vision for the city is one that has an effective police force that doesn’t need Batman. In the midst of this, Bruce Wayne inadvertently adopts an orphan, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who becomes Robin when Alfred forces the issue of making Bruce Wayne take charge of him and bring him into his world, something that becomes more important when Joker’s plans actually require Batman to rely on others and work as part of a team.
Warner Bros. has put good people around this project and it has paid off. Director Chris McKay is someone who has been deeply involved in the popular Robot Chicken on Adult Swim. Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, co-wrote the script. A lot of love and affection for all incarnations of Batman is sprinkled throughout the movie, with references to just about every iteration of the iconic DC figure thrown in at some point, from as recently as Batman V Superman all the way back to the Batman serials of the 1940s. There are a ton of visual references and lines that reference previous movies.
Existing in its own Lego universe gives them the freedom to connect these threads and tie them together in their own unique way; much like how the Lego toys can embrace practically every version of Batman. It also has the added bonus of giving us a Batman character in a light, funny movie as opposed to something dark and gritty as has been the default posture for the character in the 21st century. These aren’t critiques of the Batman character as much as playful ribbing of how the character has been portrayed for the past 30 years and how that persona has been solidified in pop culture during that time. It’s ok to have fun with the character and embrace the best features of previous periods of the character. It’s a genuinely fun moment when at one point they start fighting and the “POW!” and “BOOM!” appear on the screen, and in the self-aware manner they employ it.
The voice cast for this movie is loaded. Arnett has the perfect deep voice for the Batman character. And his sort of default comedic persona perfectly fits the way that they want to make this Batman, a rich guy who is a little self-absorbed, a little lonely, and a little aloof. Cera’s Dick Grayson has a wide-eyed innocence and eagerness to belong that is amusing and works well with Arnett (Big surprise considering they’re both Arrested Development alums). Dawson and Fiennes are good in supporting roles. The rest of the cast is populate by Jenny Slate, Hector Elizondo, Mariah Carey, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Jemaine Clement, Billy Dee Williams (AS TWO-FACE!), Riki Lindhome, Conan O’Brien, Jason Mantzoukas, Zoe Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Doug Benson (who does a great version of Tom Hardy’s Bane), Channing Tatum, Elle Kemper, Adam Devine, and Jonah Hill.
The story is a bit on the light side, but it is a movie that is mainly geared toward kids. It builds upon the themes from The Lego Movie about the importance of teamwork and friendship and using your individual talents to enhance the team. Also, the issues that Batman has about having trouble letting people into his life is something that has been explored in other Batman material, and it’s natural to his story considering his parents were gunned down in front of him as a child, but here it makes his story accessible for younger fans of the character.
Also, like The Lego Movie, this film is dazzling visually. Everything on screen is vibrant and kinetic. There were some complaints about this with The Lego Movie, and it is easy to see how it could be overstimulation and just too busy visually. I think it is a visual style that has a certain shelf life if not properly modulated and is something that could become a drawback for the Lego franchise at some point, but it hasn’t reach that point for me yet.
The Lego Batman Movie is a solid second step in the overall Lego franchise that Warner Bros. has created for itself. With another spinoff later this year, The Lego Ninjago Movie, and a sequel and a third spinoff in the works for 2019, the future looks promising and lucrative for this Lego franchise. The Lego Batman Movie is well-crafted and done so by people who are creative, funny, and good at their craft. Having the right people for the job who can create good material can make all the difference. It’s welcome counter-programming to the live-action counterparts of Warner Bros. superheroes that we got in 2016.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars