by Philip Price
The most unexpected of cinematic universe's to be born from this current trend is no doubt this massive ‘LEGO’ franchise, but behind the trailblazer that is Marvel it is LEGO that seems to be having the most success in carving their own path out of a recognizable brand. Granted, we're now only two movies in with a third on the way this fall, but the point is there seems no sign that this train will be slowing down anytime soon. After absolutely blowing all expectations out of the water with “The LEGO Movie” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller set not only a precedent for any sequels and spin offs that might come in the wake of their success, but they also set a very specific tone that will seemingly serve as the signature trait of this movie universe as “The LEGO Batman Movie” is just as irreverent as could be expected when it comes to this toy brands take on the dark and brooding titular hero. With the self-aware and spoof-like nature of that initial LEGO outing being paired with a character as established in the pop culture mythos as Batman there is plenty of opportunity for lampooning and lampoon is exactly what director Chris McKay does best. Beginning even before the studio logos hit the screen “The LEGO Batman Movie” is ready to ridicule and criticize everything about the previous phases in our hero's career while pulling off that oh so critical tone of it being all in good fun. Never does it feel as if “The LEGO Batman Movie” is taking pot shots at any of the other imaginings or interpretations of the Dark Knight character, but rather McKay is offering comically tinged observations on what makes a grown man running around in a Halloween costume feel so serious when, in layman's terms, the reasons as to why as much is laughable should be obvious. Reprising his role from “The LEGO Movie,” Will Arnett is once again the very self-serious caped crusader who loves being Batman and who expects everyone else to love him because he's Batman. Arnett's take on the character is essentially this raving egomaniac who has to constantly keep up this facade he's built around himself. Pairing this type of Batman with a cavalcade of other characters and villains from his universe as well as countless other Warner Bros. properties McKay exploits every avenue he can in order to display as much comedy and action on screen as he does merchandise.
In the opening and rather impressive action sequence (post-Arnett narrating the logos, of course) “The LEGO Batman Movie” gets even more meta than it already was (again, following Arnett's Batman as he narrates the studio logos) as the soundtrack is made to mimic that of Hans Zimmer's score for Christopher Nolan's ‘Dark Knight’ series. When we talk about tone in the LEGO universe we are more or less talking about how funny these writers and creators can make the content through self-degradation. Not simply acknowledging the tropes by which the genre in which they're lampooning operates, but how they can take such structure and expectation and turn them on their head in ways that aren't just unexpected, but genuinely hilarious. “The LEGO Batman Movie” provides this in spades as the references, which I'm positive I didn't catch all of, are non-stop as is the funny. Within that opening action sequence we are granted access to the villain among villains in the DC universe with Zach Galifianakis providing the voice of The Joker in what is both a unique and, again, very aware Clown Prince. It isn't moments after The Joker shows up though, that he is joined by a host of other baddies from Batman's arsenal-most of which are fun, recognizable throwbacks for those who were fans of the nineties animated series up through some of the newer DC original animated properties. This is what might in fact be the biggest advantage of getting to see a Batman movie in this form. From the outside looking in it seemed unnecessary that Warner Bros. make another attempt to cash in on their most beloved and profitable super hero by not only giving us two live-action incarnations of the character in two years, but another in that same time span via this animated and albeit lighter vehicle. Some things one just doesn't know they need though, as “The LEGO Batman Movie” provides the perfect vessel for some of the goofier yet still beloved characters from the Batman comics and TV shows to finally earn their spot on the big screen. I'm talking more along the lines of Clayface, but hey-we'll take Condiment King when we can get him.
Of course, with so many options and so many possibilities the question was going to be where would McKay and his screenwriters land when it came to story. With a credited five screenwriters it's something of a wonder the film came together as coherently as it did, though screenplays and the process of finding the story is admittedly much different when it comes to animated films. That said, “The LEGO Batman Movie” doesn't necessarily offer anything new in terms of story, but it does offer something new within the dynamics we typically see play out between these characters. Last year DC Animation released their adaptation of the much-beloved graphic novel The Killing Joke which is hailed for its portrayal of the Joker/Batman relationship and how each need one another to survive-to find the momentum and the meaning to get up every morning and continue doing what they do, but where that film substituted a prologue that had little to do with the actual graphic novel for purposes solely having to do with running time “The LEGO Batman Movie” offers what might actually be a more insightful take on the Batman/Joker dynamic. Not to mention, more insights for Batman himself as it's not he who is doling out the life lessons here, but he who is learning them. Of course, there are the many plot devices that allow The Joker to intentionally get himself locked up in Arkham Asylum (a move that is totally, but more subtly than you might expect-spoofing every Joker arc ever) in order to get to the Phantom Zone so that he might recruit baddies from beyond the Batman realm to help prove he is indeed Batman's greatest enemy and the like, but this doesn't prove to be all there is to the movie. The plot synopsis may even sound a little redundant, but a lot of that is the point. The bad guy's scheme is over-complicated, the ever-expanding roster of enemies for fan service-it is all meant as a joke and luckily “The LEGO Batman Movie” is light enough on its feet to never allow as much to actually weigh it down. Rather, while the whole crux of the good versus evil thing that is necessary in any Batman movie is born out of The Joker needing to prove his worth to his greatest adversary the movie isn't really about The Joker as much as it is about Batman learning to move forward in his life after being stalled for some 90 years. Since the death of his parents Bruce Wayne has hid under the cowl and refused to let anyone into his life, but this changes when he meets new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and accidentally adopts a little orphan boy named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).
And so, the story and themes are in place as is the type of comedy that needs to be conveyed through them, so how well does “The LEGO Batman Movie” actually execute all of these promising parts? Rather well, actually. As was seen in “The LEGO Movie” it was the energy of the pacing and the creativity of the tried and true plot along with characters we came to care about that allowed it to work so well-not to mention some legitimate emotional heft and an awesome soundtrack, but while it was always going to be more or less out of Batman's reach to bring Pixar-level emotions to plastic figurines fighting one another “The LEGO Batman Movie” could excel in the specificity of its jokes and the advantages it has to take with its humor due to its famous subject. In short, it takes full advantage of these aspects-leading to a movie that starts off going 90 miles a minute with the action, the laughs, the music, and the animation culminating to form this kind of euphoric feel-good experience. Unfortunately, the movie can only keep up with itself for so long; the pace slowing rather severely in its second act when it has to accomplish more of the plot stuff. There are certainly respites from these lagging moments such as when Batman and Robin break into the "Fortress of Solitude" to find Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and the rest of the Justice League partying it up without them, but by the time Batman learns his necessary lessons and we are back on course with the narrative matching the momentum of the comedy and visual style it can't help but to feel just the slightest bit disjointed. Had the film shaved off ten or so minutes it might have been able to better maintain or at least felt like it better maintained the energy it so excitedly kicked off with. That isn't to say the pacing is a huge issue with the film, but rather that it only brings it down a few pegs from the joyful perfection it seemed to so easily be coasting by on up until that point. “The LEGO Batman Movie” is still very much an uninhibited good time with a plethora of talent in the voice department-all seeming to be having a blast sending-up these iconic characters we've all been asked to take so seriously in other incarnations. Ralph Fiennes is especially a hoot as Alfred. With that, it seems this newly minted LEGO cinematic universe will have an unrivaled staying power for the next few years for if they keep up the levels of comedy and quality they have shown in their first two features I can't imagine the reception to as much being anything but awesome.