When The Lego Movie arrived in theaters back in 2014, it was something of a surprise. An animated film based on featureless, colored building blocks ended up being a deceptively deep examination of conformity versus individuality and the power of imagination. Something of a madcap pop culture melange, it was a perfect recreation of the unrestricted creativity that Legos themselves ostensibly nurture. The Lego Batman Movie, which spins off one of the original film’s most consistently amusing running gags, continues in much the same vein, gleefully throwing everything Batman into itself before slamming its fist down on the turbo button.
Once again, Will Arnett voices a growling, egocentric, and ridiculously self-aware take on the Dark Knight. He even begins with a voice over talking about how all good films start with a black screen. This is a Batman so egocentric that he won’t even acknowledge the importance of his antagonistic relationship with arch-nemesis the Joker (Zach Galifianakis). Amidst the Joker’s schemes to once again take over Gotham City, Batman has to contend with wide-eyed orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), whom he accidentally adopts while distracted at a party by new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson).
The Batman featured in The Lego Movie walked the line between winking homage and brutal satire, respecting the character even while tearing him down. Batman even had his own theme song, a nu metal parody where he both complained and boasted about the dark past that made him into a broody loner. The Lego Batman Movie takes that joke and stretches it into its own full-length feature, populating its cast with an overabundance of supporting players to help keep the film itself stable. The vast majority of the time, it works beautifully, even if it can’t quite hide the fragile nature of the blocks keeping it from falling apart.
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directors of The Lego Movie, have turned over the reins to Chris McKay, who was an animation co-director on that film. McKay tries his best to mimic the beats and style that made the original film so captivating, and for the most part he succeeds, sometimes a bit too well; like Lord and Miller, McKay’s action sequences too often veer off into confusion. He has a great grasp of frame, though, and many of the film’s scenes are structured better than most live action superhero films. It’s as vibrant and colorful without being gaudy, and it’s tight and contained without being drowned by gritty urban paranoia. This is the first Batman film in a long time that doesn’t have to be color-corrected and doesn’t show Bruce Wayne’s parents getting gunned down.
The organic vibe that McKay infuses into the film often helps to cover up the patches in the film’s screenplay. While the jokes come fast and furious, and they hit far more often than they miss, there’s little plot to speak of; Joker has a scheme, Batman sets out to stop it, people learn valuable life lessons, roll credits. With a team of six writers, the film has plenty of material but not enough focus. The script still has a distinct tone and style that’s expertly maintained throughout its entire runtime, though, so it’s easy to get lost in the dialogue and forget all about the story.
Even if the script sometimes blunts the character arcs of its cast, the dedicated work of the voice actors behind those characters makes up for it. It takes a certain kind of skill to make Lego mini-figs seem more human than flesh-and-blood actors. Will Arnett never strays from the stereotypical Batman growl, even in the guise of Bruce Wayne, and it perfectly sets the tone for the character. It’s an affectation that’s become a lifestyle, and it incapsulates everything that makes this Batman one of the most entertaining ones on film. We’re drawn to the voice even while he realize how artificial it is, projecting a type of wish-fulfillment version of ultimate cool while also pointing out how impractical and limiting that wish actually is.
Arnett’s supporting cast never lets him down, their characters acting as both ally and straight-man to Batman at the same time. Michael Cera’s Robin/Dick Grayson is an amplified version of Burt Ward’s golly-gee take on the character from the 1960s, but what’s most surprising is how well that works in the context of the film. He’s as optimistic and innocent as Arentt’s Batman is self-consciously cynical, and the two play off of each other well. Likewise, Rosario Dawson’s Barbara Gordon is both steely and vulnerable in equal measures, drawing equally from any number of iterations of the character to form an appealing and naturalistic take on the role. Rounding out Batman’s team is Ralph Fiennes as Batman’s butler Alfred, who takes on the perpetually-level tone of an authoritative-but-supportive parent. The only truly weak point in the voice cast comes from Zach Galifianakis’ Joker, who turns in a fine if generic performance that lacks the outsized personality we’ve come to associate with the character.
Much like The Lego Movie before it, The Lego Batman Movie truly has the vibe of somebody playing with everything at once, combining and cross-pollinating from multiple sources to produce something new. By taking material from the entirety of Batman’s mythology, it builds something altogether different that comments on the character like a PG-rated version of Deadpool while going off in its own direction. It’s a piece of unfettered imagination, both for good and for not, an infectious blast of knowing whimsy. The Dark Knight’s never been this vibrant before, and it’s about time.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B