Saturday, February 18, 2017

'The LEGO Batman Movie' review

The LEGO Movie is one of the greatest animated films ever made, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. With Phil Lord and Chris Miller at the helm, we honestly should have expected more from the 2014 film. And yet, most people viewed it as a shallow cash grab, a quick excuse for Warner Bros. to capitalize on a recognizable IP. Nobody knew that the film would turn into a mini cultural phenomenon, a breakout smash that combined clever filmmaking with great characters and resonant themes for an incredibly appealing package. Who knew that a kids movie about LEGOs could evolve into a brilliant love letter to creativity and individuality and a total rejection of mass consumer culture? The reviews were initially great, but I was still taken totally by surprise when I saw it, and I absolutely fell in love with the humor, visual energy, and originality of the story. Lord and Miller have always managed to surpass expectations at every turn, and in the process, they created a classic.

With $469.1 million in worldwide box office receipts, it also became abundantly clear that Warner Bros. had a new franchise on their hands. They immediately slated The LEGO Movie 2 for a release date (unfortunately, it was recently pushed back to February 2019), and they also began preparations for a Ninjago spin-off and a LEGO Batman film. Three years after the release of Lord and Miller's breakout hit, the latter is arriving into theaters, and it's pretty much everything you could want from the most openly comedic Batman flick in years. After years of the grimdark style of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, Chris McKay has flipped things around, creating a witty, frenetic rendition of the Caped Crusader with The LEGO Batman Movie. While McKay's spin-off doesn't hold a candle to its predecessor, there's still plenty of fun to be had with this wacky adventure. It's sharp, insane, and moves at a mile a minute, creating a movie that appeals to both kids and adults. The LEGO universe showed huge potential in 2014, but with this standalone feature, Warner Bros. and the creative team behind these films prove that the franchise is here to stay.

In a bubbly LEGO rendition of Gotham, no hero is more beloved than Batman (Will Arnett). The Dark Knight is an arrogant vigilante who firmly believes in his own brilliance, and while he's a popular celebrity, he lives a lonely life of solitude at Wayne Manor. He eats lobster, watches Jerry Maguire, and still essentially acts like a billionaire child. With Jim Gordon's retirement on the horizon, his daughter, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), is preparing to take over the police force. She unveils a new vision of the Gotham Police Department, one where the force works together with the Caped Crusader, instead of simply flashing the Batsignal in the sky. Batman works alone, and Bruce is aghast at the idea of having to work with Barbara and the rest of the GPD. But even with Batman's resistance, it's clear that times are changing in Gotham.

At the same time, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) pushes Bruce to face his greatest fear- being part of a family again. He adopts an orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), and while the young Robin is clearly excited to be living at the Manor, Batman sees him merely as an opportunity. Superman (Channing Tatum) starts stealing some of his glory by putting Zod in the Phantom Zone, and Batman wants to respond by putting the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) in there as well. He employs Robin to steal the Projector from Superman's Fortress of Solitude. But thanks to his "brilliant" idea, things start to go terribly wrong. The Joker crafts a plan of his own, and finds a way to unleash every major villain known to mankind on the unwitting citizens of Gotham City. As chaos reigns in his hometown, Batman will have to team up with Robin, Barbara (Batgirl!), and Alfred to save the city and solve the unresolved issues of his past.

Batman was obviously one of the standout characters of The LEGO Movie, and giving him a standalone movie was a no-brainer. The LEGO Batman Movie provides an opportunity to both expand the LEGO universe and de-construct one of the most iconic superheroes of all time, parodying the Caped Crusader in his various forms. Director Chris McKay and the massive team of screenwriters (seriously, it took five people to write this thing) fully embrace both of these ideas, giving us more entertaining characters while also taking several jabs at the history of DC Comics' most brooding, moody hero. Nobody in the history of the Batman universe is spared in this one- McKay takes shots at Christopher Nolan, Adam West, Zack Snyder, and even more as they go through the entire lifespan of the Dark Knight. They even manage to get a Suicide Squad joke in there ("Assembling a team of bad guys to fight the bad guys? How stupid is that!").

And yet, what's most surprising is how The LEGO Batman Movie mocks the character without ever veering into parody, maintaining a sense of reverence and a surprising amount of insight. This film goes into some truly emotional territory, and that caught me off-guard. It never clicks long enough to leave a lasting, resonant message, but there was a scene that nearly brought a tear to my eye. The LEGO Batman Movie understands the character of Bruce Wayne on a fundamental level, and after the over-the-top rendition of the icon in the original LEGO Movie, it was nice to see the filmmakers recognize the nuance and humanity of the hero. The great thing about this film is that kids will absolutely adore the breakneck pacing and humor, while adults and Bat-fans alike will get a kick out of this unique portrayal of the character.

But make no mistake- adults and fanboys will have a blast with this film's near-constant stream of jokes as well. The LEGO Batman Movie moves at a faster pace than any movie I've seen in a long time, and that sense of breakneck energy is both its greatest asset and biggest flaw. From the negative point of view, it moves so quickly that it's hard to catch everything, allowing the story and strong emotional angles to be drowned out by the non-stop visual dazzle. It's almost overwhelming at times, working as a crazy kind of sensory overload. But at the same time, The LEGO Batman Movie gives you everything you could possibly want from this kind of film. The pacing allows for a plethora of clever references and jokes, accompanied by some gorgeously kooky animation and visual effects. It's simultaneously sly and whip-smart, quietly clever and outrageously funny. McKay and the actors clearly love to poke fun at the intensity of Hollywood blockbusters, and there were some moments that made me howl with a kind of nerdy glee.

Just like its predecessor, The LEGO Batman Movie embraces a spirit of irreverence and unpredictability, enhancing the comic impact while also making the whole film that much more thrilling. I was a tad disappointed that they didn't utilize the meta connections between LEGOs and the real world like Lord and Miller did, but there's enough fun to be had that I was willing to overlook that shortfall. They bring in a bunch of characters that you would never expect to show up in a LEGO Batman film, and the steady stream of pop culture in-jokes makes for a certain kind of nerdy nirvana. Everybody in the cast is game as well, and they all deliver superb vocal performances. Will Arnett might just be the best version of Batman we have right now, and he gets to expand on the character he created in an exceptional way. Michael Cera and Ralph Fiennes are great additions to the LEGO universe as well, and I found much to enjoy in Zach Galifianakis' goofy portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime.

No, The LEGO Batman Movie never reaches the heights of The LEGO Movie. If that's the bar you've set for these films, they'll never match up. Lord and Miller work on another level, and even a massive team of writers can't match their unique sense of brilliance (remember, these are the guys that turned two movies based on an 80s TV show into some of the best comedies of the decade). That being said, The LEGO Batman Movie is absolute blast from start to finish, a fun continuation of this potential cinematic universe and a stellar examination of the character of Batman himself. Chris McKay packs so much into such a short amount of time, creating a flashy, visually sensational comedic feast. It's funny, it's endlessly witty, and it has plenty of heart. To put it simply, it has everything you could possibly need.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                               (8/10)

Image Credits: IMDB

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