With The Lego Movie, writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller captured lightning in a bottle, producing a film that, despite, or even because of, its overtly corporate background, managed to charm, thrill, and damn near incapacitate you with laughter. Without them (Lego Batman is directed by Robot Chicken’s Chris McKay), the same trick can’t quite be pulled off again, but this DC-backed spin-off of the original movie is very good fun nonetheless. It might lack the beautiful message and genuine inspiration of Lord and Miller’s film, but it’s still consistently entertaining and chock-full of solid to great gags that should have audiences of every age laughing.
It’s also the best DC adaptation since 2012’s Dark Knight Rises – the ostensibly Marvel-rivalling DC Expanded Universe having proved massively disappointing thus far – and it’s refreshing to see these iconic characters handled well again after a rather long wait. Not only does Lego Batman find the right tone for its world, but in its examination of the psychology of Batman (Will Arnett reprising his Lego Movie role) as a violent, rich loner it creates an emotional hook that this universe has lacked since Christopher Nolan left. Bringing in solid screen time for surrogate son Robin (Michael Cera) and father figure Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) ensures that we actually care about the Bat-family, even through an frenetic and utterly absurd story.
While Batman wrestles with his loneliness, which he constantly tries to play off as mysterious edge, a scheme from the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and a new set of rules from new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) renders him irrelevant. The Joker surrenders completely to the authorities, and Barbara makes the very valid point that Batman’s punch-based tactics are not actually effective for crime prevention. Going slowly mad on his lonesome down in his Batcave, and wanting to avoid parenting the accidentally adopted Robin, he decides to break the Joker out of prison in order to send him to a super-space prison – the Phantom Zone.
He’s partly motivated by a desire to see his greatest foe (as the Joker insists on being called) permanently incarcerated, but Batman mainly sets about this plan because he’s incredibly bored. Naturally, everything goes horribly wrong, in a manner that would be a nasty spoiler to reveal, but suffice to say it’s all wonderfully silly and features a bevy of great cameos. Batman’s superheroics are energetically directed and the plot moves forward with a frantic, breakneck pace that should keep all the children watching occupied.
On that note, Lego Batman is definitely more young child-friendly than The Lego Movie, with more accessible jokes (many of which still garnered embarrassingly loud laughs from me) and calmer animation. Lego bricks still make up almost the entirety of the scenery, but there’s less ‘Master Building’ here and characters are just slightly more static, though that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some magnificent sight gags. Focusing on Batman in particular also aids with the inescapable product placement of a film like this, and some of Batman’s vehicles are bound to soon shoot to the top of younger viewers’ wishlists.
Will Arnett, who has been honing his sad and lonely animated character skills in the superlative Bojack Horseman, makes for a great parody of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne while also bringing his own take to the character, even though he’s given a few too many singing interludes. Cera and Fiennes also give very charming vocal performances, offsetting Arnett’s deliberately over-gravelly tones with a light and warm bounciness to each of them. This lead trio sell the family dynamic completely, keeping the emotional stakes grounded even as an army of villains attacks Gotham and never-ending DC easter eggs bombard the screen.
It’s an impressive balancing act to pull off, and plenty of credit has to of course go to the giant writing team, headed up by Seth Grahame-Smith for keeping comprehensibility amidst all the chaos. Without Lord and Miller at the helm, Lego Batman is slightly more standard fare than Lego Movie, but it’s still a high-class animated offering that offers a 100-minute blast of near-constant fun.