By Andrew Haas
Very few films have shocked the world with their quality like 2014’s The LEGO Movie did. Not only was it my favorite film of that year, but it’s also currently one of my favorite animated films of all time. What could’ve just been a ninety-minute toy commercial became one of the funniest and smartest family films of the past decade. When I heard the studio announce spin-offs of the film, including one based around Will Arnett’s stand-out interpretation of Batman, I was nervous at first. The magic of the original seemed like it would be hard to capture again, and side characters getting their own films doesn’t always work out. But in all fairness, Batman was one of the funniest parts of the film and the trailers had me sold on the concept. After finally seeing it, I immediately felt the urge to see it again.
Arnett returns as LEGO Batman, a brooding narcissist version of the iconic DC superhero. He refuses to have any type of relationship with anyone, not even with the Joker, voiced by Zach Galifianakis, who just wants to be Batman’s “greatest enemy.” Soon the caped crusader’s life changes when Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson, becomes the new Gotham City commissioner and wants him to work within the law. On top of that, he has accidentally adopted the orphan Dick Grayson, voiced by Michael Cera, who he reluctantly allows to follow him as Robin in his next attempt to stop the Joker. And it just gets crazier from there.
The people at Warner Animation Group seem to love making their films as frenetic as possible in the comedy, and for a very good reason. Much like the original LEGO Movie, the jokes and gags are flying non-stop and there are often so many that it’s hard to catch all of them in one viewing, and it works. The opening alone had me laughing frequently and I’m pretty sure there are still little moments that I missed. The best part is that the film, at its core, is a spoof on everything having to do with the Batman franchise, from films, shows, and even down to the most obscure comics. There are even a couple sly shots at some of the more recent efforts from DC Films. At some points, it reminded me of another animated Batman film, Return of the Caped Crusaders, which is a satirical homage to the 1960’s show. While that one is also funny and clever, LEGO Batman tops it in how it lovingly roasts a wider range of the character’s history and mixes in the childlike energy that made the first LEGO film so much fun.
Part of that fun also comes through in the animation, which sticks to the original’s faux stop motion look. It’s even directed by the original film’s animation supervisor, Chris McKay, who clearly has a love for both Batman and this style. There’s always something charming about the way people animate LEGO bricks frame by frame, and even though they don’t use real ones here, it’s still impressive to look at all the attention to detail. I could stare at Wayne Manor or the Batcave and marvel at the beautiful construction while searching for little Easter eggs. With the 3D, which is not a necessity for viewing this movie, there’s enough depth that made me feel like I was looking into a real physical playset, which, knowing the company, would probably be difficult to afford, let alone build. Granted, the film cheats a bit by occasionally using regular water and smoke effects this time instead of all bricks, but since the film is more focused on the Batman element than the toy element, it still doesn’t detract from how wonderful and downright cinematic the people at Animal Logic made this movie look.
Once again, the voice talent is excellent, even to a point where it reaches a level of emotion I didn’t expect. The returning Will Arnett is the ultimate comedic Batman, playing the loveable egotistical jerk who wants to save the day, but struggles admitting his faults and letting anyone into his life. In terms of the new characters, Michael Cera is adorably dorky as Robin, Rosario Dawson makes for an interesting Barbara Gordon, and Ralph Fiennes is frankly one of the best movie portrayals of Alfred I have seen. The biggest surprise for me was actually Zach Galifianakis’s take on the Joker. While he isn’t always the more traditional Joker we’ve come to know, the way this character just wants Batman to be in a hero/nemesis “relationship” with him is humorous and sometimes even touching. The lengths this guy goes to get Batman’s attention is what makes him a great and funny bad guy.
If I had to find a few nitpicks, I’d say the insane pacing and number of jokes can get a little exhausting after a certain point. By the time the film starts to slow down and head into emotional territory, I felt like I needed to take a huge breath. Not helping is that there are a few jokes that don’t land as well as others, including moments of Batman beatboxing. The rest of the film is still hilarious and full of heart, but it cannot compete with the level of depth that went into the original film. Not that there isn’t any depth, as it does a good job working as a character study on the titular hero. I just wasn’t quite as blown away by it as I was with the first. But again, that’s just me digging deep for flaws.
While I personally think The LEGO Movie was better, The LEGO Batman Movie is still a well crafted animated comedy and one of the better spin-off films. In fact, I’d say it’s the best Batman film we’ve had since The Dark Knight. The characters are loveable, the animation is as gorgeous as before, and the jokes are spot-on. This is one of those films people can watch over and over again and find something new to laugh at each time. I highly recommend this film to kids, adults, DC fans, and LEGO fans. At this point, I’m just perplexed at how Warner Bros. is better at constructing (pun intended) a cinematic universe of building blocks for kids than a big live action DC Universe for adults, even when using the same characters.