The Lego Movie was my favorite animated film of 2014. It felt fresh, had a story and jokes fit for both children and their parents, and even managed to deliver a heartfelt message at the end. The big standout was Will Arnett as Batman, a self-loving, parodical take on the “serious” Batman we had seen in other films. He was such a breath of fresh air, and hit overall, Warner Bros. decided to make a spin-off film all about him.
The result of this experiment delivered on a few things, but faulted in many other ways. The Lego Batman Movie is the best Batman story in, well, quite a long time but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great film overall. Stretching the one-note character into a full story wasn’t a good idea.
The Lego Batman Movie
Director: Chris McKay
Release Date: February 10, 2017
The Lego Batman Movie opening with Batman (Will Arnett) parodying traditional film credits and openings (narrating over the DC Comics logo, etc.) pretty much tells you all you need to know about the film. This is indeed a love letter to Batman’s goofy past, and isn’t afraid to openly mock the mistakes DC’s live action films have made. In this film, Batman is happy being alone. He eats alone, laughs at romantic comedies, and groans when his butler/surrogate father Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) tells him what to do. Aping Batman’s more childish tendencies this Batman ignores the help and warnings of others; especially the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson). But when the Joker (Zack Galifianakis) kickstarts a plan to destroy Gotham City and prove to Batman that he’s his number one enemy, Batman must learn to work together with his new makeshift family. Including a son, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who Batman unwillingly adopts and brings along as his crime fighting partner.
Wearing its heart and fun on its sleeve, Lego Batman goes for a full-on kitchen sink approach. There’s tons of fan service as it alludes to every iteration of the Batman, ranging from the 60’s show to the famous animated series, and as much of its 78 year long comic history as it can. Villains like Condiment King and friggin’ Orca, DC heroes like Apache Chief and even some pretty damn great surprises from its Warner Bros licensor pop up here. This stuff is certainly going to be great visual candy for its adult fan audience, and the voice cameos are great for everyone (Mariah Carey is the mayor, folks), but it’s definitely going to fly over the heads of most of the audience. But there’s so much going on at a time, Lego Batman feels too packed to work. It’s literally bursting at the seams every scene with visual information packing every corner of the screen. It’s so rife and busy with gags, it’s tough to suss out what your eyes are supposed to focus on.
To make its visual matters worse, Lego Batman often features tons of rapid-fire jokes (sharing a problem with weaker animated films), and while some of the gags hit hard, a good amount of them are average. The film compounds its bad joke ratio by offering so many, and there were times where I wish it relaxed on them a bit more given how affecting its emotional core can be. The emotional core of Batman learning the meaning of ohana (and no one gets left behind) is drowned out by the chaos. It’s even more of a bummer considering how great the film can be when it actually focuses for second. For example, the opening is fantastic as it provides a packed, yet focused narrative. Broken down it’s basically: Joker and some villains attack Gotham with a bomb, Batman saves the day, and Batman goes home alone. Yet the opening features tons of characters, an original theme (with beat boxing and guitar solos), establishes its central conflict (as Batman refuses to let anyone into his life, even his most hated enemy). and wonderfully characterizes this Batman as a lonely, showboating blowhard. It’s just a shame the film never reaches the same level of awesomeness as its opening twenty minutes.
The Lego Batman Movie‘s weakness are stemmed from trying to mine a narrative from a one-note character we’ve already seen the full extent of in another film. Will Arnett is great as a lead, but his performance reeks of diminishing returns. As his Batman constantly speaks, the blowhard nature of the character crosses over into annoying territory. Luckily, Rosario Dawson and Ralph Fiennes pick up the slack. Just as how Batman stole the show in The Lego Movie as a supporting character, however, Michael Cera’s Robin is the clear standout in Lego Batman. His Dick Grayson is infectiously joyous, the character has a cute design (those bug-eyed glasses are inspired) thus amplifying the naivete Cera gives him, and Robin is tasked with driving the familial themes of the plot forward. He also gets the best running gag, constantly referring to Batman as various versions of “Papa,” also. It’s pretty funny to see Lego Batman showcasing someone other than its main character like its predecessor.
I’ve been trying my hardest not to compare The Lego Batman Movie to 2014’s The Lego Movie, but it’s hard not to when the films are ultimately similar. Aspects of the first film’s production which worked so well for me before, just don’t share the same level of finesse in its spin-off. The Lego Batman Movie works well as a loving parody of Batman fiction, but it’s not going to carry as much weight to those who don’t really know (or care) too much about it.
The Lego Batman Movie just isn’t as complex as I had hoped it’d be. Sure it’s nuts to ask a children’s film to be complex, but after its predecessor balanced its audiences so well it stings to watch Batman Movie to go for such cheap gags and greatly limit its audience to a very distinct subset of viewers.
But at least it’s not a gritty and mean Batman. Little victories.