The LEGO Batman Movie
Well, at least the DC legacy lives large in one of Warner Bros’ big screen franchises. Managing to take the piss out of the company’s comic book kingdom and make it much more fun, engaging and coherent than the real deal is no small achievement, but Chris McKay’s superior spin-off to 2014’s The Lego Movie succeeds and then some. The LEGO Batman Movie is almost exhaustingly funny, embracing the kind of rapid-fire gag momentum we’re familiar with from the Zucker Brothers (and Abrahams), Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and, of course, producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
It’s probably no wonder Batfleck appears poised to walk away from the wrecking ball that is the Snyder-supervised main offering, when he looks at what is ostensibly a joke that has been so rapturously received. Sure, Will Arnett’s Batman may be looking to the campery of Adam West as the true godfather of this movie (from the theme tune, to the Robin costume, to the Zap! Pow! inserts of the climactic fight, to the unrivalled Bat Shark Repellent, and even a clip from the movie – along with several from Jerry Maguire, amongst references to a number of near-forgettable romcoms), but he manages to leave you invested in his Batman/Bruce. Which is more than I’ve done with the series since, well, Batman Returns probably (and Michael Keaton was hardly in that). I know, that will have Bale fans up in arms, but really there was one great movie in that trilogy, and what was great about it was all Heath Ledger.
Yes, the picture inevitably moves in the direction of inclusive sentiment, because it has to have an in-your-face moral as it’s a kid’s movie. So, a little more sincerely than South Park mocking the same, and a long way from how The Naked Gun made no pretence at such feeling at all. But it’s still far from the rather awkward and intrusive appearance of Will Ferrell in The Lego Movie, and the general bending over backwards therein to insert a message so unpalatably cynical you choke on it (I tend to the view that even kids’ movies are better when they aren’t spoon-feeding morals, although I’m not a parent, so what do I know?).
As Arnett comments in the third trailer, “You know, it’s kind of like the original Lego Movie, only vastly superior because it revolves entirely around me”. The key is that it never loses sight of having fun with Warner’s licences and characters, cutting a swathe of irreverence across the screen even when its’s forced to wax lyrical about the importance of family (Dom Torretto would be proud, but then there is only one current emotional undercurrent to studio movies currently, it seems).
Alfred: Sir, I have seen you go through similar phases in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966.
Following a deliriously funny opening in which Batman squares off against Zach Galifianakis’ Joker while acknowledging all the tropes (but not that he hates him; Superman is Batman’s greatest enemy) before riffing on the rivalry with Supes (a returning Channing Tatum) to maximum effect (I wish there’d been more of this; I did get a vague feeling that they only went so far with Supes and the Justice League so as to avoid Warner completely self-immolating the actual franchise’s chances come November – especially since what we see here is – that word again – much more fun and visually appealing than anything Snyder has come up with), Batman must face his greatest fear. No, not snake clowns, but letting others in, which means orphan Robin (Michael Cera). And, until it gets too sincere, this makes for a formidable hive of humour.
But it’s the decision to play with one of Superman’s main devices, the Phantom Zone, that yields the widest-ranging, most fruitful and freewheeling dividends. By this point, we’ve already had an obvious but still funny backhander aimed at Suicide Squad – what idiot would send villains to catch villains – and the parade of ludicrous, but I can quite believe are all accurate, C-list villains from the Bat oeuvre, including a few better-known ones (Bane in particular, is hilarious, Killer Croc is attributed one line that defines him more than Suicide Squad did – “I actually did something!” – as well as being much better designed, while Billy Dee Williams finally gets to play Two-Face).
The Phantom Zone unleashes, in haphazard yet inspired fashion, the likes of Sauron (Jermaine Clement, always great value, particularly his delivery of “My eye!”), Voldermort (not Ralph Fiennes, busy playing Alfred, but Eddie Izzard), Agent Smith(s), Godzilla, British robot villains the Daleks (I would never have conceived that Batman would meet the Daleks, outside of a Joe Dante movie, which brings me to…) and Gremlins (who even get linked to their The Twilight Zone namesake when they set to work on the Batwing).
The level of comic invention is so frenetic that, like those other comedy past masters, it scarcely matters that some of them miss. The musical interludes/Bat raps are fine, but none are as inspired as Batman’s Song (Untitled Self Portrait) in the first movie (as such, this is a classic example of something going down so well that attempting to repeat that inspiration is fated to fail). And, with regard to Batman’s emotional journey, it is undoubtedly hammered home, but all involved are far too wised-up to make you buy that it’s too genuine (as in, more important than making us laugh – the makers would be fools not engineer a reset of some description for the sequel, because that faux-moodiness is the appeal of Arnett’s performance. They’ll probably turn Cera into a rebellious teenager too).
Visually, this is, like its predecessor, an incredibly busy movie, particularly when it comes to the Day-Glo, technicolour cavalcade of ADD action that is the climax (it might have been inspired by the filmography of Stephen Sommers). Perhaps not too much for the microchipped kids, able to process ever more alarming quantities of information at ever higher rates, but for the elderly it can be difficult to keep up, best expressed (visually) by Poison Ivy killing an infinite succession of penguins (not the character) inserted between her and Batman.
So the six(!) credited writers have done well. Making a change, Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup fixation is actually productive, enabling him to throw any element he can think of at the page, and once the gag writers (Chris McKenna and Eric Sommers from Community and American Dad probably had the most significant input) have bulked it up, he even comes off looking almost accomplished.
Vocally, Arnett is the business (after about five minutes of Wayne chilling in his Bat cowl, I thought this might be intent on reversing the conceit of unmasking the famous lead actor at every available opportunity), and his Arrested Development co-star Cera is, as expected, entirely serving and submissive to the material, while Galifianakis makes for a worthy sparring partner.
Is the Lego movie franchise unstoppable? I’d guess that depends upon whether it can maintain a broad appeal. As long as they’re holding screenings full of adults (as mine was), quite probably, but God knows what LEGO Ninja Hildago Movie (as I want to call it) will mean to anyone outside of the tots. And it’s always dangerous to flood the market with movies of the same ilk, unless you’re Marvel and know what you’re doing. There were points during The LEGO Batman Movie where I thought they’d surely left nothing in reserve for The LEGO Batman Returns Movie, so unswerving was the willingness to throw anything and everything into the pot. But then I realised that was just foolish. After all, the entire main DC franchise will probably really have gone down in Bat flames by then, and there’ll be a whole lot more grist for the Bat mill.