“It must be great to be Batman.”
So says one character in Warner Brothers/DC Entertainment’s newest animated opus The LEGO Batman Movie, and I gotta say I’m inclined to agree. I mean, how can it not be? The man has the moves, the money, the adoration of millions, and the sickest man-cave ever conceived. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” indeed.
In the film’s action-packed opening scenes, Batman (Will Arnett) is doing the two things he loves most – one, being Batman, and two, being unable to shut-up for two seconds about how great he is as Batman. When his arch-nemesis, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), tries to screw up Gotham’s day for the umpteenth-millionth time, it doesn’t take long for Batman to swoop in for the save, and look fabulous doing it (you’ll know what I mean when you see it). Now, we all know what happens next. Yep, cue the outrageous action and let the quips fly fast-and-furious. And boy do they fly.
However, right as the action reaches its apex, something a little unexpected happens. Batman breaks the Joker’s heart. His heart? That can’t be right. You mean his legs, right? Nope. His arms? Negative. Really, his heart? Yep. It seems Batman doesn’t exactly share Joker’s view of what their relationship is all about, and as the bricks settle and the opening act comes to an end, Batman zooms back to the Batcave apparently unfazed with having just wiped the smirk off Joker’s face for real. Poor Joker. I was actually feeling bad for the poor clown. But don’t worry, he’ll be back in form soon enough.
And what happens next? Long story short, a lot. It seems our favorite caped crusader may be missing the one thing that money can’t buy and LEGO can’t build – a family (we all know his story by now). Dick/Robin (Michael Cera) eventually shows up, as does Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Rosario Dawson), and just about every flippin’ character in the DC Universe, the Warner Brothers Universe, and half the movies from the last 40 years or so. It gets very crowded folks, and I’m not even going to try to explain how they all end up in the mix. This is quite possibly the largest gathering of trademarked characters in a single movie ever. Is it cool? For much of the time, yeah. However, a lot of what makes this movie successful also ends up damaging it and preventing it from soaring to the lofty heights it could have easily reached.
Let’s start with the jokes. There are a lot. Are they funny? Yeah, a lot of them are. Hell, some of them are downright hilarious – Batman’s password to the Batcave had me cramping up every time he used it, Bruce asking for champagne blindsided me and resulted in my biggest laugh-out-loud moment in quite a while, I’ll never be able to use or hear the word “abs” again without smiling and/or snickering, and a playful poke at the Batmen that came before is pure genius. I’m talking classics here. Brilliant stuff.
However, it didn’t take long for a particular problem to reveal itself. This problem didn’t really have to do so much with the quality of the jokes, but rather with the quantity. There were so damn many of them that it was hard to keep track at times. It seemed the writers were throwing everything they had, plus the kitchen sink, at the screen. I appreciate the effort, but things needed to be slowed down a bit. Maybe cutting a few of those jokes that didn’t work so well would have improved things, a little pruning can do a lot of good sometimes.
And speaking of too much of something, let’s talk about the pop/movie/comic culture references. Listen, I love seeing shout-outs to other movies and characters, but it was damn near insane here. I can understand the parade of DC villains and heroes, but Jaws? King Kong? The Kraken? Gremlins? I was getting whiplash from looking back-and-forth on the screen trying to identify all of them as they flew back and forth the screen. I enjoyed them, but like the jokes, it was often too much of a good thing. For a good while, I had Voldemort confused with Palpatine from Star Wars. The two do resemble each other, and that wand looked a hell of a lot like a lightsaber.
A lot of these characters have little if anything to do in the movie, and a good many of the appearances are fleeting. I often felt like the filmmakers were testing me, challenging me to spot and name as many characters as possible. It was fun at first, but I tired of it pretty quickly, as it’s really not good when the game becomes a distraction. Add to that the feeling that you’re sometimes missing something, and it becomes a bit annoying.
The overabundance of jokes and characters aside, there was one other wee complaint. The movie is full of frantic action – like a good LEGO movie should be – but it does lag a tad in the middle when Batman starts pondering the emptiness in his life. It’s not badly done, and it actually ties into the end of the movie nicely, but it does kind of interrupt the flow of the movie a bit.
If I seem to be overly harsh here, I apologize. As critical as this review might appear to be, I do recommend you head to the theater and give it a go. It is a film that both adults and kids can enjoy equally, has a ton of laughs, tugs at the heartstrings on occasion, and features some crazy action scenes and fun cameos. The voice acting is stellar, in particular Will Arnett as Batman. His absurdist, narcissistic take on the character is one for the ages. Zach Galifianakis is a funny and touching surprise as the Joker, and Michael Cera as Robin manages to toe that fine line between being annoying and hilarious without nary a misstep. Great work by all of them, and everyone else involved.
The look of the film and the design work were very nice and director Chris McKay (Robot Chicken) did a truly fine job considering this is his first crack at a big screen feature. I look forward to seeing more from him down the road.
I know we often complain that movies don’t give us enough, but the opposite actually happened here. The LEGO Batman Movie is a good film that could have been great. Glorious even. With a few cuts here and there, a tightening up of the middle portion, and a less-is-more approach to the jokes and characters, this could easily have been one of my favorites in the animation genre. For now, it’s somewhere in the middle. I had a good time with it, and I will laugh when I look back on much of it, but I will also frown when I think of what it could have been.
Because it came close. Really, really close.
Starring Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington
Directed by Chris McKay