We headed out to the offices of animation studio Animal Logic recently to get down to brass tacks with the director of The LEGO Batman Movie, Chris McKay. His nerd credentials are legit, to say the least.
The somewhat unexpected but massive success of 2014’s The Lego Movie has opened up whole vistas of freshly exploitable IP – who could have dreamed that a movie based on a toy based on a comic book was even possible (and now there are toys based on the movie based on the toy based on… you get it)? Luckily, The Lego Batman Movie has charm to spare and fan service by the bucketload, even if it falls short of the high standards set by its predecessor.
Obviously our focus is on Will Arnett’s egomaniacal Lego Batman, whose rock star/playboy lifestyle as the hero of Lego Gotham masks a deep well of loneliness and insecurity. Out man is so gun-shy around relationships that he can’t even bring himself to tell Lego Joker (Zach Galifianakis, and we’ll take the “Lego” prefix as read here on in) that he hates him, leading the latter to concoct a plan to unleash a horde of super-powerful villains on Gotham. Meanwhile Batman, in both his more comfortable cowled identity and his Bruce Wayne persona, struggles to bond with Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, and yay for an Arrested Development reunion), an orphan he has accidentally adopted.
While The Lego Batman Movie lacks the thematic depth of The Lego Movie – “rich douche learns that no man is an island” is a pretty well-worn trope, let’s face it – it’s hard to complain too loudly when it’s so busy trying to make us laugh. Taking its cues from the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker school of comedy, the film just throws barrage after barrage of sight gags, riffs, and references at the viewer, ensuring that if one doesn’t quite land, there’ll be another along in half a second later that’ll tickle your fancy. It’s a film that will benefit from repeat viewings, if only to pick up the countless sight gags and continuity nods.
The film’s real strength is its understanding of both the strength of Batman as an iconic character and the silliness inherent in the very concept, expanding on the whole “darkness, no parents” thing so skilfully deployed in the first film. There’s a deep, deep love of Batman in all his various forms and attitudes – everything from the Nolan films, to the ’66 series, to the animated incarnation is riffed on, and we even get Billy Dee Williams, who played District Attorney Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s ’89 Batman movie, finally getting to take on the role of Two Face. However, loving something so much means you are painfully aware of its flaws, and The Lego Batman Movie is merciless in skewering the adolescent male power fantasy inherent in the character. That it works so well is down to Will Arnett’s perfectly measured vocal performance – Arnett has this kind of self-awareness-free swagger well and truly down pat by now, and he has a top notch cast to bounce off of, including Rosario Dawson as Batgirl and Ralph Fiennes as Alfred (getting, as is traditional now, a lot of the best lines).
For comics fans, it’s a delight – a casual viewer might think some of the parade of minor villains are just wacky for their own sake, but to an audience with a working knowledge of DC Comics’ Silver Age insanity, seeing the likes of Clock King and March Harriet is a Pavlovian thrill. It’s not all inside baseball though – there’s plenty of bombast for the younger set, and some dry absurdity for the adults – the simple act of microwaving a lobster thermidor is rendered hilarious.
The production design is, as expected, exquisite. Lego as a creative medium lets the film really go big – we get the most impressive Batcave yet committed to screen, even if it is built out of bricks, and the overall “gothic meets toyetic” aesthetic is really something. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the film is at times too busy, visually speaking – there’s so much going on in the frame, so much detail to drink in, that it’s hard to track. But hey, as we said, that’s what re-watches are for.
All up, The Lego Batman Movie, is a droll, affectionate riff on a beloved pop culture icon, and a reminder, intentional or not, that Batman doesn’t have to be dark ‘n’ gritty to be worthwhile. Fans and families alike should have fun with this one.