After his scene-stealing turn in “The Lego Movie”, it was only natural that the first spin-off would feature the brick knight himself. While it’s not entirely clear if this is the exact same Lego Batman who appeared alongside Wildstyle and Emmet, there’s no doubting this is “The Lego Batman Movie”.
The town of Lego Gotham is rife with crime, and that’s just how Batman likes it as he busts heads and foils schemes from his extensive rogues’ gallery. But when the Joker and all his partners in crime unexpectedly surrender to the new Police Commissioner, Batman finds himself purposeless. But an accidental adoption and a nagging suspicion that The Joker is up to something means Batman will need to change his ways if he’s to come out on top.
Whereas “The Lego Movie” took individuality and imagination versus conformity as its theme, this movie has its sights set firmly on ‘family’, using Batman’s long and chequered past from both stage and screen to mine both humour and pathos. It plays out its central theme of the importance of relationships through the funniest sex metaphor in a kids’ movie since “Toy Story” characters bemoaned the last time they were played with as The Joker takes it personally when Batman refuses to reciprocate the ‘special’ nature of their relationship.
For the first hour or so, the film barrels along at a frenetic pace, cramming the screen with colour and spectacle while Will Arnett growls his way through the very best of the dialogue. There are nice shouts outs to the entire history of Batman but it’s interesting that when it comes to Superman, it’s the Donner version that’s heavily referenced, pointing to a lack of conviction and confidence at the heart of Warner Bros’ attitude to their current DC output.
The action is frequently hyperactive and the screen overstuffed with imagery to the point of overload; it’s often too cluttered to really follow what’s going on, marrying the visual discipline of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” unhappily to the aesthetic of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman And Robin”. There’s such a frantic pace over that first hour that it’s quite jarring as the film runs out of jokes (and steam), finding itself with nothing left to do but resolve the remaining plot.
It’s at this point that the film’s unpleasant aspect can’t be disguised any longer. It’s an obvious, extended commercial for the Lego Dimensions toy/ video game line hence the otherwise inexplicable inclusion of Lord Voldemort, Sauron, Gremlins and (ahem) some iconic ‘British robots’. But it’s a far bigger and more distastefully blatant advert for Apple iPhones, even going so far as to give Siri her first credited feature film role. I can’t really make up my mind whether the fact the ultimate danger is once again a big swirling vortex in the sky above the city is a sly bit of Meta commentary or just lazy screenwriting but by the time it manifests, the film has already lost much of its satirical edge.
The rest of the voice cast are pretty good, though and had Will Arnett been allowed to bring a little more of his Horseman to this Batman in the latter half of the movie, it probably would have helped even out the whole thing. Zach Galifianakis is a perfectly serviceable Joker but I found myself pining for Mark Hamill’s version, which Galifianakis leans on heavily. Michael Cera strikes just the right note as peppy orphan Dick Grayson, Ralph Fiennes is a great, long-sufferingly tolerant Alfred (although is bafflingly replaced by Eddie Izzard to voice Voldemort) and Rosario Dawson is fine as Barbara Gordon. Beyond them, the cast is packed with big name cameos but nobody really gets a chance to shine thanks to most of the characters being given blink-and-you’ll-miss-them screen time.
The tremendously entertaining first half is let down by a sluggish third act and it’s hard not to suspect a more judicious editing job could have trimmed this fairly hefty 105-minute film down to a trim and pacey 90-minute fun fest. It’s still 2017’s best animation so far and a step above the direct to DVD animated DC Lego adventures but in blunting its edge, it falls far short of the high brick mark set by “The Lego Movie”.