Will Arnett's growling, moody, humorously humorless take on Batman was the funniest running gag in The Lego Movie (2014), so it comes as no great surprise that he is the center of the follow-up to that hyperkinetic smash hit. As the protagonist of the appropriately titled The Lego Batman Movie, Arnett's dark-suited vigilante has much more to do than just stand in stark juxtaposition to the earlier film's cheerful, candy-colored world of interlocking blocks, which is one of the new movie's primary problems. By making the movie's Lego-constructed world (all computer-generated, of course, even though it has the look of traditional stop-motion animation) largely interchangeable with all the previous Batman films (although it does hew closer to Joel Schumacher than Christopher Nolan), the character is no longer a fish out of water, which was key to why he was so funny. Secondly, because he is now the protagonist instead of a scene-stealing secondary character, Batman has to have some kind of substantial narrative arc, a problem that lead screenwriter and story creator Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) solves by making it all about the importance of family. Batman, the scowling, eternal orphan-loner with the cowl, learns to be part of something bigger than himself, which is, at the very least, a more honest message than the anti-corporatist sloganeering of The Lego Movie).
That family comes in many shapes and forms, most explicitly in Batman's adoption of the orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), an overly enthusiastic kid with big anime eyes who will soon don Robin's bright red, green, and yellow costume (sans long pants, of course). The interpersonal disconnect between Batman and Robin is the movie's most consistently funny material, and Cera voices Robin with a sense of geek gusto that is precisely the opposite of Batman's sour monotone. Batman also learns to better accept the role of his butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes) and his longtime sorta paramour Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who is destined to become Batgirl (although not after a long litany of even less politically correct names). Batman must also come to terms with his relationship with The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), whose entire existence is predicated on what turns out to be unrequited arch-rivalry. While Joker assumes that Batman views him as his primary adversary, Batman insists that he likes to "fight around," an amusing twist on traditional romantic ethos that pits them as lovers who don't see eye to eye on the nature of their relationship. It turns out that Batman's refusal to settle down includes his enemies, as well.
The extremely busy plot, which ultimately involves the Phantom Zone, the interdimensional prison introduced in Superman comics, seems to exist primarily to put as many characters on screen as possible-not only virtually every villain Batman has ever fought, but every member of the Justice League and a bunch of characters from other series, as well (Voldemort from Harry Potter! Sauron from The Lord of the Rings! Dinosaurs from Jurassic Park! Even the shark from Jaws!). Much like The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie is packed to a fault, with virtually every passing second crammed with characters, gags, pop culture references, and visual inanity. It moves about a million miles a second, and there's no time to pause or even try to digest what you just saw and heard. Some of that is fine and can even be exhilarating, but when done at this level, it just becomes exhausting and you start to resent the movie for being so wildly scattered without any meaningful subtext. A lot of the jokes hit and some of them are genuinely hilarious, but there are so many that quite a few land with a thud or not at all, which makes the hectic pace and sensory overload feel like a cover-if they throw enough stuff at us, we won't care how much of it doesn't work because we can't keep up anyway. The director, Chris McKay, has co-directed dozens of episodes of the short-form TV series Robot Chicken, whose anarchic and often subversive sense of rapid-fire humor is clearly the model being emulated. Unfortunately, at 104 minutes in length, The Lego Batman Movie is too much of pretty much everything.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Warner Bros.
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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