"The Lego Batman Movie" Brings The Fun, Tapers Off In Homestretch

Spun off from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 2014 mega smash “The Lego Movie,” the just as pragmatically titled “Lego Batman Movie” is here to make your blocky little heart soar – for an hour. Killer jokes, stunning animation, Easter eggs aplenty for comic book fans, and then a Lego brick wall. Action movie tedium sets in, accompanied by a noticeable downtick in sight gags. The final 45 minutes aren’t half as enjoyable as the first 60, seeing the picture lumber along until it ends almost exactly where it began. But its heart, if not the entirety of its screenplay, is in the right place.

The utterly divine duo of “Arrested Development” alumni Will Arnett and Michael Cera as the voices of Batman and Robin, respectively, is reason enough to check in. Then there’s the retina-bursting animation and loving assemblage of DC villains, from the notorious to the completely obscure (here’s looking at you, Condiment King). Even more delicious.

Director Chris McKay quickly, shrewdly parachutes us into the middle of a massive action scene. The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has unleashed all of Gotham City’s villains onto the populace, setting into motion a plan that will see the nefarious clown purposefully taken into custody. McKay and the movie’s five screenwriters bring Batman and the Joker face to face early on, perfectly realizing the symbiosis between hero and villain. Intentionally evocative of Chris Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” the scene is a welcome assurance that the movie has more on its mind than just madcap hilarity. It’s intent on using its self-reflection (there are direct references to every other big screen Batman movie) for thematic muscle as much for laughs.

Regrettably, the movie never quite returns to the heights of that first Batman versus Joker confrontation.

This is, in part, because we’re not yet privy to the monotony of Galifianakis’ Joker. His is, unsurprisingly, the least compelling big-screen incarnation of the character by the length of several Batcaves, with the comedian struggling to mine any charisma from the clown prince of crime. Initially, his take works because of the baggage we, the audience, have brought to the table. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s brilliant interpretations are burned into the brains of comic book and movie fans everywhere, so good that they permeate every iteration of the character, page or screen. So it takes a while to figure just how bland Galifianakis’ take is.

Rosario Dawson’s Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) is similarly stale, taking over as Commissioner for her father early in the film but never carving out a purpose in the story at large. Moreover, the procession of celebrity voice cameos is more distracting than entertaining.

Ralph Fiennes’ Alfred Pennyworth is the lone exception among the supporting cast, bouncing nicely off Arnett’s Batman, underscoring just how lonely his de facto ward has become. When not gliding through Gotham as a giant bat – or shelling adoring young fans with a merch gun – Bruce Wayne approximates a manic depressive. In his isolation are some of the pic’s biggest laughs, a refreshingly twist on the reclusive Batman that’s become the standard-bearer for Bruce Wayne on film. That is, until the distracted billionaire unwittingly adopts orphan Dick Grayson.

With his Robin unintentionally in place, Batman’s movie whooshes forward on the chemistry of the leads, the laughs coming fast and furious. Eventually, as if demonstrative of the idiom “nothing gold can stay,” the screenplay ties its own hands, finding all of Batman’s foes locked up. Sidelined. This forces the writers to bring in a surplus of non-comic book villains and an anemic Superman storytelling device (interdimensional prison the Phantom Zone); here, the aforementioned tedium sets in.

For diehard Batman fans, the biggest stumbling block of all might be the picture’s place as the silliest Bat film since Joel Schumacher’s reviled “Batman & Robin.” “Lego Batman” is relentlessly goofy, beginning with self-referential voiceover from the Dark Knight himself and ending with a music video. And yet here, unlike in Schumacher’s two similarly screwy day-glo nightmares, it feels willful and goodhearted, even when the monotony sets in.

If not quite as much fun as “The Lego Movie,” Chris McKay’s movie holds its own as a unique place in animated film history. It admirably functions as a major property within a major property, delivering the kinds of accessible laughs that would make most live action comedies jealous. The hope is that the inevitable “Lego Batman” sequel fully realizes the breadth of what can be done with the full stable of Batman villains – instead of expending them on an extended intro sequence – and find a story that can carry to feature length. The foundation is in place.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 10, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Chris McKay
Screenwriter: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Zach Galifianakis, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes
MPAA Rating: PG (for rude humor and some action)