By Preston Wilder
I don’t know whose idea it was to spend the last 20 minutes of The Lego Batman Movie on Batman learning that there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’, nothing beats being part of a family, sometimes people leave us but they’ll always live on in our hearts, etc etc, but whoever it was they managed to spoil what should’ve been a four-star movie. It was always coming, of course, indeed that’s the point of the film – emotionally distant Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) learning to trust, open up and just Lego, I mean let go – but it should’ve been done in a couple of lines, like lancing a boil. Instead, the Author’s Message stuff is allowed to drag on, weighing the film down; especially since the rest of it is so exuberantly weightless.
Grand claims can be made for this animated comedy (as they were for The Lego Movie in 2014), maybe even too grand. Yes, it’s inventive and breathlessly fast, but the breakneck pace is deceptive: Groucho Marx talked fast and stood for rebellion and anarchy, this one talks fast but it stands for connection and harmony, nor is it averse to the fuzzy uplift of corporate values (the name of a corporation is right there in the title). Like geek culture in general, it’s essentially cosy and conformist; icons are teased, but never toppled. Finally, of course, this is a very specific kind of humour, post-modern fun for smart-aleck 12-year-olds (is there any other kind?). When our hero opens proceedings by razzing the Warner Bros logo, and indeed his own movie – “Black! All important movies start with a black screen…” – he joins a familiar tradition stretching back from Deadpool to Hellzapoppin’.
All that may be true. Yet The Lego Batman Movie is (a) uproariously funny, (b) very knowing about all things Batman, and (c) sometimes dazzling to look at, especially an early action scene where the screen explodes in eye-popping colours while a theme song asks rhetorical questions: “Who has the coolest gadgets? Batman! / Who does the sickest back-flips? Batman!”. That song harks back to the old 60s Batman, now reclaimed after years of being dismissed as excessively campy. At one point, a TV reporter lists all the good things about the Caped Crusader, and of course they include “excellent brooding” – the moody tormented Batman of The Dark Knight is an obvious touchstone – but the ‘POW!’s and ‘BAM!’s of the old TV show are here too, albeit with a necessary preface where Batman explains to Robin that they’re about to thump the bad guys so hard that words will spontaneously appear onscreen. After the doomy bombast of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, widely (if wrongly) dismissed as a fiasco in comic-book circles, this affectionate spoof is a case of how Batman fans learned to stopped worrying and love his potential for comedy.
The jokes are relentless, and far too many to list. Robin is an over-excitable orphan who gets himself adopted by a somewhat reluctant Batman, Alfred the butler an explicit father figure who wants his billionaire charge to stop brooding and find himself a family. “You’ve been watching too many Lifetime movies and drinking Chardonnay,” replies Bruce/Batman tersely, coming home to an empty house and microwaved lobster after a hard day’s crime-fighting. Then there’s the Joker, who only wants Batman to acknowledge their special bond – their relationship, if you will – only to find that the Bat doesn’t do relationships. “I like to fight around,” he explains airily, forcing his nemesis to take drastic measures that involve releasing every great movie villain from Voldemort to the Wicked Witch of the West, like a Lego version of the climax from The Cabin in the Woods.
How do all these villains – also including Sauron, the shark from Jaws and Count Dracula (“Count me in!”) – get released from the so-called Phantom Zone? Quite simple really, the Zone has a setting called ‘Release All Inmates’ (one recalls Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove: “Why do we even have that lever?”). It’s a throwaway joke but it’s typical of the blithe, wacky sense of humour here, proof – if proof were needed – that the best Hollywood comedies are ostensibly made for kids these days. It’s a tough viewer who won’t even smile at the first Batman/Robin convo: “My name’s Richard Grayson, but the other kids call me Dick!” “Well, children can be cruel.”
This is a film with something for everyone. If a boring academic wanted to find deeper meaning in The Lego Batman Movie, they could do that: Batman is an unreconstructed macho male who’s always taken care of Gotham – “Let Batman take care of it,” has always been the city’s motto – at least till the new Commissioner (a young woman) finally breaks free of the patriarch’s hold. If a geek wanted to list all the references to heroes and monsters (even Daleks, a.k.a. “British robots”!), they could do that. If a casual viewer wanted to laugh themselves silly, they could do that too. Hopefully they’ll all agree that the last 20 minutes weigh it down, though.
DIRECTED BY Chris McKay
WITH THE VOICES OF Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson
104 mins US 2017