Stars: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Jenny Slate, Jason Mantzoukas, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson, Billy Dee Williams, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Eddie Izzard | Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington | Directed by Chris McKay
The Age of Animation rolls on, and we’re in a pretty good place, with the accessible intellect of Pixar and the slapstick pleasures of Illumination; and now a third pillar in the form of Warner Bros’ LEGO universe, whose USPs are a soda stream of visual ideas and an irreverent, referential humour. A spin-off from surprise smash The Lego Movie, The LEGO Batman Movie mirrors the 2014 film’s frenetic pace, even if the gag hit-rate falls shorter.
The opening sequence, in which Joker (Zach Galifianakis) unleashes every villain from Penguin to “The Condiment Man” upon Gotham City, is an ADHD explosion of neon colour and editing. It’s amusingly and jarringly juxtaposed against what follows: the sorrowful boredom of Bruce Wayne’s lonely life in Wayne Manor, on Wayne Island.
Joker isn’t foiled, of course, and soon Batman is faced with the reality that his reclusive lifestyle and solo style of vigilantism won’t be sufficient to save the world. He must send the evil-doers to the Phantom Zone – via a portal in the sky, naturally – and to do so he will need the assistance of his own little Justice League: Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes).
The LEGO Batman Movie fits into the Avengers/Justice League trend for teaming up and sharing the responsibility for the massive collateral damage. This is nu-Batman. Expect the usual dead parents backstory and Batman grumpily sharing the vigilante justice, but do not expect even the merest reference to detective work. Commissioner Gordon is conspicuous by his cameo status.
The Lego Movie was riffing on nothing specific, but The LEGO Batman Movie is bound to lore. Being relatively shackled by its source texts (however expansive they have become) means visual references are limited to flashes of Batman dashing around with a fizzing bomb and glimpses of the Iceberg Lounge. To compensate, the five writers throw every possible character and sub-sub-sub-character at the screen. The result is a relentless series of miniature cameos, few of which have enough screen time to really resonate or get themselves into funny situations.
But then, LEGO movie humour isn’t situational, it’s reactive. It’s all about comedy momentum: Don’t allow time to think or even laugh before the next winking one-liner comes along. The problem with The LEGO Batman Movie is that while it’s joyously kinetic, it’s not very sharply written, so its relentlessness can feel a bit wearying. The screenwriters each seem to have written a different story, all bricked on top of each other. The plot is constructed around two or three overlong action setpieces, and it’s hard to say what was at stake, or who was fighting what. Lord and Miller are definitely missed, this time around.
It feels like a missed opportunity. The LEGO Batman Movie indulges the worst impulses of modern comic book movies – the excess of characters; the inter-dimensional portal; the messy overbusy action – far more readily than it subverts them. Presenting the Batman/Joker dynamic as a love story or portraying Bruce as a lonesome recluse lacks comedy impact because they are tropes so thoroughly explored that they’re virtually beyond parody.
The starry voice cast is a mixed bag. Will Arnett and Michael Cera nail the roles of cantankerous anti-father figure and overeager boy scout. Fiennes is flat in the role of Alfred, his tone too droll. And while there have been some great Jokers over the years, Zach Galifianakis won’t be stealing the voiceover crown from Mark Hamill any time soon.
We get a handful of jokes for adults. I enjoyed the scene where Alfred tries to snap Bruce out of his moodiness by listing the various screen incarnations of Batman throughout the years. And there’s a crafty nod to the failure of Joker’s “two ships” plot.
After the revelatory Lego Movie, The LEGO Batman Movie is a more conventional follow-up, which satisfies more as a madcap kids’ movie than a work of Bat-satire (batire?). I can’t help feeling that something more akin to the smaller-scale genre antics of Zootropolis would have served The World’s Greatest Detective better than the hyper-mega-superhero overload we get here.
The LEGO Batman Movie is out in cinemas from February 10th.