After his scene-stealing supporting turn in 2014’s surprise smash “The Lego Movie,” it was a virtual certainty that the caped crusader would be chosen for a star turn in what is sure to become an inevitable flood of features based on the little interlocking plastic blocks. The job of fashioning a vehicle for him fell to no fewer than five writers and director Chris McKay, who had been animation director and editor on the 2014 picture and assumes the top job this time around.
For the most part, they—along with the talented voice cast headed by Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes and Rosario Dawson, and a large technical crew—have pulled it off nicely. The plot has the supremely arrogant Bruce Wayne/Batman (the gravelly-voiced Arnett) having to come to terms with the lone wolf life he’s embraced as a result—it becomes clear—of losing his parents as a child. To that end he’ll have to learn to become part of a team—butler Alfred (Fiennes), new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Dawson) and Dick Grayson (Cera), the orphan he accidentally adopts—that he finally accepts as his new family. He’ll also need to acknowledge his “special relationship” with his arch-nemesis, the Joker (Galifianakis).
If the moral that it takes a village to save Gotham sounds a mite heavy, rest assured it’s treated not as some deep psychological analysis but as freewheeling, action-filled farce. Part of that comes from Grayson’s uneasy adoption of the role of Robin under the prodding of Batman by Alfred, and the butler’s joining the superhero squad as well (along with Gordon). Even more follows from the Joker’s entrance into the Phantom Zone to extract a bevy of the infamous villains there—among them King Kong, Godzilla, Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West and Dr. Who’s Daleks)—to destroy Gotham. In the face of such an onslaught, Batman will finally—though reluctantly–learn that he can’t do it all on his own.
Of course, there’s a larger stable of DC heroes on tap, but they assume cameo status here. One sequence involves a visit to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, for example, but it only serves to italicize surly Batman’s isolation from his Justice League compatriots. And Joker’s enlistment of otherworldly villains into his army will have a divisive impact on his old terrestrial cohorts, some of whom are admittedly not top-tier (Condiment King, with his catsup and mustard weapons, anyone?).
To concentrate exclusively on the major narrative threads of “The Lego Batman Movie,” however, fails to note one of the movie’s major strengths: its non-stop, machine-gun style delivery of visual gags and pop-cultural quips that might not be understood by the small fry at whom any Lego movie is by its nature directed, but will certainly delight the adults who brought them to the theatre. The central message about narcissism may be taken at different levels by the varying age segments of the audience—tykes will read it simply as a lesson about loneliness, while their elders might understand it as contemporary political commentary—but ultimately it just comes down to the idea that’s ubiquitous in children’s films today: the need for family. In this case, the notion is just presented more cleverly than the norm.
The voice work is exemplary across the board, with Arnett’s misanthropic growl taking pride of place but Cera’s gee-whiz Robin and Fiennes’ po-faced Alfred not far behind. Galifianakis’ whiny Joker and Dawson’s no-nonsense Gordon complement them nicely, and they’re joined by a seemingly endless stream of guest stars, including Channing Tatum as Superman, Billy Dee Williams as Two Face and Conan O’Brien as Riddler. As good as their vocal contributions are, however, they’d count for little if not for the visual pyrotechnics of the wizards at Warners Animation and Animal Logic, who create eye-popping widescreen vistas of movement and color that editors David Burrows, Matt Villa and John Venzon keep moving at a frantic clip. The movie does go on a bit long, though, which proves that one can have too much even of a very good thing.
After the sad disappointment of “The Master,” the first Lego short that was shown along with “Storks” (which probably explains why you didn’t see it), “The Lego Batman Movie” demonstrates that the conceit has potential, if imaginatively handled. Fast, funny, and visually spectacular, it’s every bit as good as the original “Lego Movie.” Whether future installments will manage the trick is another question.
A footnote for the historical record: one of the executive producers is Steven Mnuchin, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Treasury. If he’s confirmed, that will probably ensure a sequel, though presumably he’ll have to divest himself of any profit participation.