REVIEW: The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

DC’s live-action division get a wake up call in this LEGO offshoot. Oscar swoops in to give us his verdict. 

While it’s not uncommon for the comedic side character of a hit movie to get his or her own spin-off, the chances of success vary. However, in the case of The LEGO Batman Movie, Warner Bros. Animation pulls it off with a crowd-pleasingly fun action comedy that is both a celebration and a satirical case study of the iconic DC character.

Three years after saving the LEGO Universe with Emmet and Wyldstyle, Batman (Will Arnett) continues fighting crime in Gotham City. During a mission to prevent The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) from destroying the city, Batman hurts his arch-rival’s feelings by telling him he’s not as important to his life as he seems to think, leading The Joker to exact revenge.

The following day, Batman attends the city’s winter gala as his alter-ego Bruce Wayne to celebrate the retirement of Commissioner Gordon and the ascension of his daughter, Barbara (Rosario Dawson), as the Gotham City PD’s new police commissioner, but is infuriated when she announces her plans to restructure the city’s police to function without the need of Batman. The Joker crashes the party with the rest of Gotham’s villains, but has all of them surrender to the police. Batman suspects that Joker has an ulterior motive and decides to stop him by banishing him to the Phantom Zone, a prison for some of the most dangerous villains in the LEGO Universe. As he plots to steal Superman’s Phantom Zone Projector, Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes) intervenes and advises him to take charge of Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), whom Bruce had unwittingly adopted as his ward during the gala. After a little persuasion from Alfred, Batman takes on the task of training Dick as his protege, Robin. Batman now has to complete his crusade with the over-eager Boy Wonder, unaware of The Joker’s master plan.

All of the voice acting ranges to good to spot-on brilliant. Arnett effectively cements himself as a Batman in his own right, balancing the comedic, serious and decidedly earnest scenes very well, and he is easily the reason this film succeeds. Fiennes is another inspired bit of casting, matching the dry wit and sophistication of other famous Alfreds, and serving as the perfect straight man to Batman. Despite my initial concerns from the trailer, Cera gives a genuinely funny and heartfelt performance as Dick Grayson/Robin, and has great chemistry with Arnett’s Batman. Dawson was fine as Barbara Gordon as another straight “man” character to the more manic superheroes, but she doesn’t stand out that much. Galifianakis is very funny and a great comic foil to Batman (as any Joker should be), exploiting the often bizarre relationship Batman and The Joker have had throughout their history, somewhat softened to fit a more family-friendly setting. A swath of recognisable voice actors and celebrities get brief cameos as famous Batman villains such as Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn, Billy Dee Williams (finally!) as Two-Face, and key players include Eddie Izzard and Jemaine Clement in amusing turns as a duo of undisclosed fantasy villains from other WB properties. (Also, anyone partial to podcasts may recognise the likes of Doug Benson, Jason Mantzoukas and Riki Lindhome.)

The animation is highly-detailed and maintains the level of credulity as seen in The LEGO Movie, with some nifty additions. The cinematography has great depth of field and a striking colour palette, with bright oranges and reds juxtaposed against black, retaining a degree of faithfulness to pre-Frank Miller Batman books. Taking full advantage of the animated medium and the near photorealism of the LEGO characters and settings, it really becomes cinematic at many points in the film, and is a good contender for any of the set-pieces in the live-action Batman films. During the first sequence, the comedy comes in many forms from visual jokes to one-liners, leaning on the fourth wall and self-deprecating humour, and it goes by at such a fast clip that you may find yourself easing into the LEGO setting easily.

The score by Lorne Balfe lends itself well to the heroic action beats, channelling the best aspects of Hans Zimmer’s work for The Dark Knight trilogy whilst still having a lot of zest and energy to it, even sprinkling in references to the Adam West Batman theme. This is mixed with original pop music new to the film, akin to The LEGO Movie’s “Everything is Awesome.” It’s the kind of music that makes you grin and laugh along with the film.

Much of the comedy comes from Batman’s narcissism and childish obsession with being the best superhero of all time, taken to a more cartoonish degree. Heck, his own brand of immaturity is a great juxtaposition with his live-action counterparts, making for amazing comedy with Alfred, playfully jabbing the father-son dynamic the pair have in the movies and comics. That same theme of fathers and sons extends to Batman’s relationship with Robin. Grayson’s hyperactive and overbearing optimism never comes off as annoying because he’s used sparingly. Cera’s innocence and unbridled joy as the Boy Wonder is pitched perfectly. They even succeed in justifying the very idea of a Robin for Batman to have under his wing, and the result is a very charming dynamic duo. In fact, we might as well call it now: this is the best film version of Batman and Robin!

It is also a great satire of Hollywood Batman, not just the character from the comics, pulling no punches at the 60’s series, the Burton/Schumacher franchise, the Animated Series, and even the Nolan and Snyder iterations. Fans will pick up on plenty of references to put a smile on that face, but they don’t feel like cheap gags that exist just to appease “mature” audiences – they actively inform Batman as a character within the LEGO Universe. At its most extreme, LEGO Batman has the same problems the first film did, being rapid and super zany. There are a few jokes that don’t really land, such as the beatbox scenes, as they felt a bit tacked on and awkward. But that didn’t stop the audience laughing along.

The film even manages to pack an emotional punch at times, particularly when Batman sees just how isolated he has made himself, including everyone from friends to enemies, and he just can’t bring himself to change his ways. The film asks us to question whether Batman is unable or unwilling to move on from his tragic past, despite the necessity to do so. The film has its deeper downtime moments, but they aren’t as well spread out or have the same impact as the ones in The LEGO Movie, with greater emphasis on the action and comedy. At their worst, I can say the underlying family themes come across as a bit repetitive after a while, but the effort is appreciated.

The third act is one of those crazy awesome climaxes that throws everything including the kitchen sink into the fray, as The Joker’s plan comes to fruition. Pop culture fans will get a kick out of the many surprise cameos. There are some missed opportunities, though, with the heroes facing off against the villains, such as pitting certain heroes against certain villains, or indeed certain villains against other villains, and a decided lack of screen time given to Gotham Rogue’s Gallery. The Justice League were not as prominently featured as they were in the promotional material, but that allows the focus to remain where it should be: Batman and his family. Granted, with a franchise as open to expansive creativity and freedom as LEGO, it’s not easy to refrain from fanservice-y moments and jokes, so I can’t hold it against the finished product.

Ultimately, it’s a well-rounded family-friendly take on the Caped Crusader, easily appreciated by both children seeking action and comedy, and adults seeking a well-crafted story and good characters. On that note, bring on LEGO Superman and LEGO Justice League whenever you’re ready!

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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