The Lego Movie‘s largely flawless execution doubtless came as something of a relief to those who, having been burned by many an ill-conceived movie adaptation of a toy-line, didn’t quite know what to expect. On top of relief was the pleasant surprise that it had genuinely funny gags, a unique animation style and, at its heart, a story that thoughtfully examined the necessity of creative expression in a world that often greets such activity with a cynical sneer. Of course it also helped that, in true ‘Member Berries’ style, it was loaded with nods to its own ever-expanding line of tie-in pop culture merchandise. Stealing the show in this respect was the appearance of Batman as an unlikely love-rival and resented hero of the hour. Used sparingly, all things considered, the character summed up everything that worked about the film, including the inherent ridiculousness of its premise.
For such a successful character Batman has proved awfully hard to get right when it comes to film adaptations, an issue I suspect comes down to nailing the duality of his character – over the years the good Batmans haven’t necessarily been convincing Bruce Waynes, and vice versa. Worse still is that it’s a character that should lend itself to self-referential humour just as much as po-faced melodrama, yet the goofier entries such as 1997’s Batman & Robin and last year’s Dawn of Justice are, by all accounts, about as fun as a bowel obstruction diagnosis on the morning of a family member’s wedding. Certainly the various television series had done a better job, though the notion of a Lego Batman movie, on top of all manner of Lego Batman outings from video games to, confusingly, 2013’s separate, straight-to-DVD Lego Batman: The Movie, prompts some concerns. The most obvious one being that whenever a character who steals the show in a movie is blessed with a bigger role in the sequel – or, as in this case, their own spin-off – it largely proves to be a failing struggle to carry that extra weight. In lieu of a direct sequel to The Lego Movie (knock wood we’ll see that one in 2019), The Lego Batman Movie is what we get, and it brings with it a similar sense of relief as its predecessor did.
For the time being at least, the main gimmicks and visual motifs from the last film have remained fresh enough to sustain another feature-length adventure. The jerky, jumpy animation style evocative of stop-motion that separates these outings from other onscreen Lego adventures that use more traditionally rigged CG is very much at play here, characters still bound by the physical limitations of being plastic figurines when it comes to small movements yet capable of grand, environment-changing actions and behaviours when called upon to. As in the original Lego Movie, Will “Wales is technically England” Arnett demonstrates how much more effectively a less-is-more (as opposed to certain, frankly Baleful takes on the character in recent memory) approach to voicing Batman works, even when played for laughs. In the early days of his television career Arnett had enjoyed a tenure as television’s answer to Don LaFontaine, voicing the trailers for procedural CBS dramas with earnest melodrama; this same gritty, charmingly ludicrous delivery is a perfect fit for Batman, even more so in miniature figurine form.
The thrust of the metaphysical storyline comes about during an exchange with arch-nemesis The Joker (voiced by Zach “He Just Ain’t Mark Hamill” Galifianakis) who, after another one of his trademark citywide destruction schemes is foiled, is crestfallen to learn that Batman doesn’t regard their relationship as anything particularly special. Surrendering himself and his legion of villains, many of whom so obscure that the casual fan would assume are made up for the movie, Joker’s incarceration is, naturally, the first stage of a far grander plan that takes the film into the wider DC universe, eventually leading to the Phantom Zone where all manner of pop culture villains have been banished. It is there that The Joker amasses his deadliest army yet and returns to wreak havoc on both Wayne Manor and Gotham City at large.
That’s about as much of the story that warrants retelling – it probably comes as no huge surprise to anyone who saw the original Lego Movie that, in truth, the story is secondary to the main reason for the film’s existence, to be a vehicle for as much visual ingenuity and quickfire, referential gags as can be crammed into 106 minutes.
As someone who has a casually fond attitude toward the Batman franchise but has never delved that far into its many-decades-old mythology (I only found out there’s been more than one Robin like a week ago) this film feels tailor made for the likes of me. Sequences such as a brief speech by butler Alfred (the suitably understated Ralph Fiennes) that reference every live-action outing we’ve seen, dismissals of The Joker as a serious threat from his victims – “Is this gonna be as scary as that parade with the Prince music?” – or Doug Benson’s affectionate jab at Tom Hardy’s Bane highlight what a refreshingly self-aware, self-effacing affair this film is. The film also scores points for presenting Batman’s trademark ennui and emotional torture as equatable to the narcissistic stubbornness of a perpetual toddler, pitching beautifully animated hissy fits when imposed upon to attend public events and only vaguely suspecting his sense of self-aggrandisement might be askew when unknowingly crashing a party at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to which he wasn’t invited.
The main story beats as the film smashes and flashes its way through the final act are unavoidably predictable – lessons are learned, alliances are forged, heroes and villains alike live to fight another day, et cetera – but the wit and charm is ever-present right up through to the credits, with a nice payoff gag about pulling together that could only take place – or make sense – in the world of Lego. Aside from the gradual encroachment of buttock numbness that quietly suggests that perhaps the film might have benefited from being ten minutes shorter, there’s very little by way of criticism that can be reasonably leveled against a film that conducts itself as joyfully and warmly as The Lego Batman Movie. And frankly a bit of joy and warmth doesn’t go amiss nowadays.
The Lego Batman Movie is released today in UK cinemas