Hard to believe, but between my childhood and my six-year-old son’s, the Lego company once teetered on bankruptcy. Synergizing with properties like Star Wars helped get it out of the hole, so in an era where every toy, video game, and app gets a movie, it was unsurprising that Lego would get one, too. The surprise was that The Lego Movie (2014) was good–sturdily constructed, by the team behind the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Jump Street franchises, and brimming with heart.
Busy with next summer’s Han Solo movie, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller produced The Lego Batman Movie, spotlighting the mothership’s breakout star, and their absence as writers and directors is felt. There are laughs, but they’re more scattered this time, and the emotions are more plastic. The director, Chris McKay, directed episodes of the Emmy-winning Robot Chicken and co-directed the animation of the first film, and the writers are drawn from the likes of Community and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There are five credited screenwriters, and maybe that’s the problem–the movie feels diluted, heavy on the Batman in-jokes and many, many other pop culture references, skimpy on everything else.
My biggest gripe about comic book movies, particularly Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, is that they’re very rarely comic. The Lego Batman Movie sends up the darkness from the get-go, with Will Arnett’s Batman cracking wise about the black-on-black opening titles, the portentous credit sequences, and the general gloom and doom of it all. It’s a nice little hit job, and the current live action DC-verse, represented by the dire Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, deserves the ribbing. One of the movie’s gags is that this Batman barely recognizes his 60s self–the knowing camp of Adam West was long ago ironed out of the template, and The Lego Batman Movie wants to bring back the funny.
That the stoically self-absorbed, why-so-serious Batman never cracks a smile through his cowl is lampooned here. He can’t love, a burden that the helpful Alfred (an unflappable Ralph Fiennes), accidental ward Robin (Arnett’s Arrested Development co-star Michael Cera), and new commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) attempt to relieve. Just as crucially, he can’t hate, which vexes the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who can’t get a rise out of his nemesis, even when his supervillain minions trash Gotham City. It’s all in a day’s work for the Caped Crusader–but, manipulating Batman’s tormented relationship with Superman, the Joker accesses the Phantom Zone, from which new and unstoppable foes tumble down, upsetting Batman’s crimefighting routine.
If you’ve ever yearned to see Batman go bricko-a-bricko with Godzilla, the Daleks, the Eye of Sauron, Agent Smiths from The Matrix, and so on, and and are a little too old to buy the appropriate Lego Sets to make this happen on your living room floor, The Lego Batman Movie is for you. Me, I got restless, as the one-liners got harder and harder to hear over the defeaning noise of explosions erupting in the IMAX theater. (I was grateful not to have to experience it in 3D–losing hearing and eyesight is too steep a price to pay for a press ticket.) I noticed that my kids, who perked up whenever plucky Robin appeared (Cera’s guileless vocal performance steals the show), were getting fidgety, too. The Lego Movie went into our world to encourage involvement and engagement; The Lego Batman Movie, mechanically invoking “family” like a Fast and the Furious installment, dispenses product after product.
Aggressively bright and cheerful, The Lego Batman Movie sometimes connects–there’s a clever setpiece at the end that makes inspired use of the Lego-ness of the characters–but never snaps together. Maybe my wife can take the kids to see The Lego Ninjago Movie, which opens later this year.