THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE
Director: Chris McKay
Cast: The voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Jemaine Clement, Zoë Kravitz, Eddie Izzard, Ellie Kemper, Adam Devine, Seth Green, Mariah Carey, Billy Dee Williams, Jason Mantzoukas, Conan O'Brien, Doug Benson, Hector Elizondo
MPAA Rating: (for rude humor and some action)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 2/10/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 9, 2017
One probably does not expect The LEGO Batman Movie to serve as a considerate, compassionate inspection of the psychological drive of the Caped Crusader. If there's one thing, though, that we're learning from this series, which is now only two films in, it is to expect the unexpected.
The film continues the unique brand of absurd humor, the mentality of a kid having playtime with his or her favorite toys, and pristinely faux-rudimentary design and animation—a combination that made The LEGO Movie such a jolt of pure, imaginative joy. This spin-off, obviously, focuses on that film's version of the Dark Knight, a superhero whose obvious issues with emotional attachment were the basis for a couple of solid gags. This film goes deeper, envisioning Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne (voiced by Will Arnett) as a character who is so wounded by the loss of his parents as a child that he has chosen a life of isolation and detachment. For bonus points, it's a Batman movie in which, for once, we aren't forced to witness the murders of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne.
This conceit—of Batman's inability or lack of desire to connect with people on a normal level—isn't new to a story about the character, of course. What makes The LEGO Batman Movie unique among other cinematic renditions of Batman is its almost-exclusive dedication to that core idea of the character. Lest the film's intentions start to sound too serious-minded, it's also an incredibly funny deconstruction of everything that comes with the Batman brand. The film doesn't quite reach the level of outright parody, although that's to its credit. The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers still really likes the guy in the cape and cowl, after all.
The story opens with what might be the Caped Crusader's greatest challenge—at least until the story's finale. To help him blow up a power plant, the Joker (voice of Zach Galifianakis) has assembled every supervillain in Gotham City—from the known, such as the Riddler and Two-Face, to the weird ones that, the film assures us, are real in Batman lore, such as the Condiment King. The explosion would rip the city asunder, sending it and the population into an endless abyss of nothingness.
Ever the lover of dramatic entrances, Batman arrives at the last minute, defeats the bad guys, and saves the city—all to a heavy metal track on his playlist. The Joker escapes, of course, because that's the myth of the relationship between these two characters—the hero who stands for law and order against the villain who stands for crime and anarchy, even as both are united in the way they evade the social order. The joke here is that Batman's desire for emotional independence even extends to his greatest foe. This Batman likes "to fight around," without attaching himself to a single bad guy. Poor Joker just wants to hear those three, special words from his adversary: "I hate you."
After the breakneck-paced opening, director Chris McKay slows things to a ridiculous degree, as Batman returns to the Batcave and wanders around stately Wayne Manor, still wearing his mask as he reheats the lobster dinner that his butler Alfred (voice of Ralph Fiennes) made. Here are some other thing we've never seen in a Batman movie (We know because the film recites all of his previous incarnations, from the nipples on his costume to that weird period in the '60s): the Dark Knight staring at the spinning turntable of a microwave, eating a lonely dinner among his collection of vehicles, and watching a romantic comedy alone in the manor's home theater (He guffaws at the romantic parts).
At least he has his crime-fighting, right? Well, the new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (voice of Rosario Dawson) has other plans. She wants to restructure the police department to take the best of what Batman has to offer and marry it to pesky concepts such as laws, ethics, and accountability—you know, actual law and order.
It's a nice civics lesson for the kids and a pointed critique of the hero's vigilantism for the adults. The screenplay balances those two mindsets—of introducing the ideas behind Batman to children and satirically poking at those ideas with the adults in mind—with considerable skill. The film even finds a way around the abundant violence of the material. While there's plenty of fighting, all of the gunplay is treated as fake, with all the villains shouting "pew-pew" with every shot. This is, after all, a superhero world within a world of childhood play.
Meanwhile, Bruce accidentally adopts a young orphan named Dick Grayson (voice of Michael Cera), who learns the shocking truth about Bruce: He lives in Batman's basement (There's a running joke that everyone is incapable of figuring out that Bruce and Batman are one and the same). The kid, of course, becomes Robin after finding a costume he likes (and which Batman admits was among his more culturally insensitive ones).
The screenplay doesn't avoid making Batman into—to put it bluntly—a jerk. He's manipulative (Robin's role as a sidekick is to do exactly what Batman tells him to do), narcissistic (His introductory song refers to his awesome qualities, like his nine-pack abs), and lacking in empathy (He tells Alfred that the butler has no idea what it's like to be a surrogate father to an orphan). The plot, which has the Joker recruiting the big villains of an assortment of other universes, is less about the external conflict and more about serving as an excuse to get Batman to comprehend the notions of teamwork, friends, and family (as well as the necessity of telling your archnemesis how you really feel about him).
If it sounds sappy, well, McKay and the screenwriters have deftly avoided that pitfall by taking Batman's emotional and psychological issues seriously. If that sounds too heavy-handed, the filmmakers avoid that trap by overloading this material with sight, verbal, self-referential, and satirical gags. This is to say that The LEGO Batman Movie takes itself and its hero seriously enough that it's one of the better cinematic Batman adventures, without sacrificing an onslaught of pinpoint humor.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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