Originally posted on thedistantcloseup.com (Feb. 10th, 2017)
Who would have thought that an animated film about the LEGO Batman would be far superior to almost any movie featuring the actual Batman? On a similar note, who would have though that an animated cinematic universe of LEGO movies would potentially be one of the most successful and consistently entertaining franchises currently existing in modern film?
These are the interesting times we find ourselves in with this weekend’s The LEGO Batman Movie, the LEGO Movie spinoff dedicated to Will Arnett’s gravelly-voiced Christian Bale parody, who was arguably the most memorable character from that film. Though the practically infallible duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were not on hand for the creative process here, the project was left in the capable hands of first-time feature film director Chris McKay, who was an animation co-director for the original film and even contributed his voice as the disgruntled barista.
Some anxiousness is always involved when there’s a changing of hands in any franchise, but McKay’s assured presence, along with strong writing and a fantastic vocal ensemble, helps The LEGO Batman Movie successfully recall the irreverent glee that made its predecessor a welcome surprise.
It’s incredibly easy for animated kids films to pander to their audience as nothing more than a brightly colored diversion that will keep a parent’s child occupied for an hour and a half. The LEGO Batman Movie’s animation may not fall too far from the rainbow-hued tree, but all the same, it is nothing short of dazzling in both its explosion of color and the still awe-inspiring likeness its figures bear to the real life toys.
What was so astounding about The LEGO Movie, and continues to be equally so here, was how closely each film’s animation could possibly resemble stop-motion in both its proximity to reality and the frequent jerky motions. It’s more engaging and believable, as it feels like each scene could have been ripped from any audience member’s memories or fantasies.
Of course, Will Arnett reprises his role as the Dark Knight, though with a few added quirks and a noticeable insecurity complex exaggerated by an overemphasized element of brooding. It’s a portrayal that simultaneously lampoons the Batman character, and in a weird way pays homage to past portrayals in their vast array of seriousness and unabashed camp – something the film does, as well, in a series of hilarious references and digs.
Joining Arnett is Zach Galifianakis as the Joker, who is appropriately stripped of his more sinister qualities in favor of something quirkily comical in his emotional range. Michael Cera lends his voice to a young Richard Grayson, whose voice is surely as wide-eyed as the children sitting in the audience. Crossing the Marvel/DC line is Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon, kicking all kinds of ass and taking all kinds of names. And rounding out the primary cast is Ralph Fiennes as Alfred Pennyworth, who is suitably solemn in tone, though still with a few laughs up his sleeve.
Speaking of laughs, there are plenty to go around here, and they’re just as self-aware and entwined in popular culture as The LEGO Movie. They don’t come quite as thick and fast as that film, but when they come flying in, they stick the landing with gut-busting impact. Though it was perhaps to be expected, the jokes come in relief for a plot that doesn’t have as deep of an emotional message as the first film, but there is still a strong sense of gravity in its writing through Batman’s character development, which uses his oft-beaten to death origin story in a creative fashion.
So I ask again, how did we get to a point where an animated cinematic universe about LEGO figurines would be one of the most consistently successful and entertaining film franchises in the market today? Well, isn’t it amazing how far ingenuity can go? It isn’t a word that gets tossed about lightly much, but in this case, it’s hard to think of a better word that applies.