There’s something that I wanna give The Lego Batman Movie a lot of awesome credit for right out the gate and that’s being the first theatrical Batman movie since Tim Burton’s 1989 film to introduce a new incarnation of the Dark Knight himself and yet not feeling obliged to have to recreate his origin story (Even if you consider Burton’s and Schumacher’s films to not be the same series, Batman Forever has a recreation of that fateful alley scene). I’m sure Thomas and Martha Wayne are being tired of being shot to death outside of theaters. The Lego Batman Movie has enough trust in its audience to figure they know the origin story of arguably the most popular superhero movie came from.
There’s also a lot more to give The Lego Batman Movie credit for in its writing, but sadly not as much as I want to and that’s from a very distinctive authorial voice being replaced – the genius duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writers of the first Lego Movie (along with Dan and Kevin Hageman). Lord and Miller had already made a career out of turning can’t win high concepts into wholly creative and entertaining comedic filmmaking (especially on the animated side) since their wonderful television show Clone High came about (apropos of nothing, Lord is a Miami-native like yours truly and I’ve heard it rumored he actually went to the same middle school as I did, but I can’t really confirm that). With The Lego Movie, they turned an idea that sounded like an product placement scheme into an ode to imagination and ingenuity and teamwork.
Turn around to The Lego Batman Movie, which follows specifically the already primary character of Batman (voiced by Will Arnett in the most appropriate usage of his GOB voice and persona since Arrested Development) and focuses more on his own inability to connect with anyone, and we have Lord and Miller replaced by a rogues’ gallery of names that promise rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Admittedly 4 out of the 5 names on the writing credits – Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington – ring no bells in my head, but one particular name Seth Grahame-Smith (who is credited for the overall story) made one post-modern novel I enjoyed when I was in high school (and I’m not sure I’ll have the same sentiment on a re-read) and promptly went on to write nothing that impressed me. Not only was it a downgrade from Lord and Miller’s genius, it was an alarm.
Fortunately, The Lego Batman Movie pleased me and not necessarily in spite of its script. The humor is not as energetic and fun as the others and it happens to abandon a sort of gleefully jolly on joking about the Batman franchise by its halfway mark (in fact, the middle twist of the movie is a clear sign that Grahame-Smith and co. may have been more eager to abandon the resources available to them simply from the source material), but the story of Batman learning to stop being an island with the help of his trusty butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), the accidental adoption Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), and the new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), is a touching and impressively drawn one. It’s not reinventing the wheel about isolation turning into teamwork turning into family, but it’s aided by four fantastic cast performances (and a fifth by Zach Galifinakis voicing the most down-to-earth version of the Joker yet) and has a heart that sneaks up on us once the movie stops deciding to be about BATMAN the property and focus on this Batman as an individual. So yeah, well done, motley crew of writers.
There is another great big authorial presence that has been abandoned in the development of this film that can’t be ignored and that, indeed, is Phil Lord and Chris Miller – the directors. For obviously, they directed the first Lego Movie and moved on later to bigger things like making a Han Solo solo movie. In their replacement is a kind of unknown named Chris McKay, who was already attached to the previous film as an animation co-director for the Australian company Animal Logic. And while McKay isn’t a match for energetic humor and visual comedy, what he clearly is an upgrade in is outright beauty. You wouldn’t think there’s a way to massively improve an animation aesthetic that’s deliberate rigid and simple in movement and surfaces, but McKay clearly wants you to remember just how distinct the physicality of the characters and settings, even in the uniform toy world of Lego, can be. And that’s without even touching on the lighting effects which are so fluid and jaw-dropping in their illuminating rays that I couldn’t help but wonder if they physically had lights moving around Lego playsets, especially in a scene at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude involving lasers and party lights. And that’s just on top of the mapping of Batman’s more ambitious fight scenes, namely the opening round-up of all his famous villains to a metal earworm by Patrick Stump.
Anyway, it’s phenomenally animated and sincere, even if it’s nothing eye-popping beyond that. I’m not sure I can even say the humor is all that fresh against the Dark Knight since Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders came out last year, but that’s also one of the throwaway Warner Bros. Animation Straight-to-DVD films. The Lego Batman Movie is a straight up feature and a hell of a promising animation debut that happens to be a worthwhile time. Even if my expectations on a sequel to The Lego Movie and a new Batman film were a bit too high, nothing about The Lego Batman Movie‘s first 3/4 is dissatisfying in the least and the finale is quick enough to bow out before everything ends up ruined. Batman knows how to make an exit after all. He’s Batman.