Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Still Awesome: “The LEGO Batman Movie” a witty, gag-a-minute barrage of fun


The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
106 min., rated PG.

On the big screen, the LEGO brand seems to bring out the wit and ingenuity that sometimes goes missing in a lot of live-action comedies. Spearheaded by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (this generation’s “ZAZ”), 2014’s “The LEGO Movie” was deliriously paced, brilliantly funny and unexpectedly touching, embracing imagination and thinking outside the box for a film ostensibly aimed at children. It made toy building bricks made of plastic awesome again and found a special place in the hearts of parents. As an offshoot to a commercial and critical success that one wouldn’t think could be equaled, “The LEGO Batman Movie” is just as awesome. Lord and Miller only serve as producers this time, but the efforts of director Chris McKay (TV’s “Robot Chicken”) and screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington are affectionate, playfully inspired, and relentlessly rib-tickling.

Having Christian Bale’s gravelly Batman voice down to a science in “The LEGO Movie,” Will Arnett delightfully reprises the role of the DC Comics crime-fighter. (Even before the film proper begins, Arnett is already goofing on one’s expectations of movie logos, “Mystery Science Theater 3000”-style without the bottom-screen silhouette.) When he isn’t Batman, Bruce Wayne is a loner in Wayne Manor on Wayne Island, nuking and eating his Lobster Thermidor alone, watching and laughing at “Jerry Maguire” in his personal movie theater alone, and swimming with his pet dolphins alone. At the same time, Bruce isn’t lacking self-esteem, being placed on a pedestal by his city and priding himself on his modesty, even while bragging about his nine-pack abs. He doesn’t even need a foe in The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), who is saddened to tears when learning that Batman doesn’t do “ships,” as in relationships (“I am fighting a few different people. I like to fight around”). As The Joker gathers the Rogues Gallery of villains (including the silly ones, like Calendar Man and Condiment King) to take down Gotham City, Bruce makes an appearance at the retirement party of Commissioner Jim Gordon (Hector Elizondo), who is passing the key to the city to his daughter, "Harvard for Police" grad Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson). The party is interrupted when The Joker and his posse crash it, but the crime clown unexpectedly surrenders. If Barbara’s plan to rid Gotham City of all crime is already underway with every criminal mind locked up, do the people of Gotham have any use for the vigilante crimefighter anymore?

There is more plot where that came from, finding time for Bruce/Batman to adopt orphan Richard “Dick” Grayson (Michael Cera), who later realizes he has two dads; the hero’s plan to get the projector from Superman's Fortress of Solitude to send The Joker and his band of bad guys to the Phantom Zone; and the playboy/superhero’s self-realization that it’s okay to accept help from family, including butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes). That would seem like an overstuffed structure to balance, but “The LEGO Batman Movie” sees all of its plot threads satisfyingly tied off, and even with the jokes firing fast and furiously and Easter eggs being laid left and right, it always seems like the journey is building to something. The setup of Batman having a fear of “snake clowns” even gets a cute payoff before the credits.

With director Chris McKay and the five writers carrying the buoyant sensibilities of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s film over to this one, “The LEGO Batman Movie” is easily the most fun in the Batman canon. A savvy and knowing montage covering Batman’s decades-spanning phases—2016, 2012, 2008, 2005, 1997, 1995, 1992, 1989, and all the way back to the shark-repellent days in 1966—will not go unnoticed by those well-versed in the superhero’s motion picture legacy, as well as the joke that Batman has “aged phenomenally” for all those years. Fairly obvious references are still cleverly integrated, right down to the giddy recognition of iconic villains from other properties (including Sauron from “The Lord of the Rings,” Lord Voldemort from "Harry Potter," and the gremlins from “Gremlins”). A trip to the Fortress of Solitude allows for Batman to walk in on Superman throwing a party with plenty of guest cameos by the Justice League. The film also gets priceless comic mileage out of our manly hero’s love for romantic comedies and a “cosplay” revolving door before Dick Grayson becomes Robin. There are sneaky sight gags, too, like “Crime Alley” in the background of a photograph with Bruce and his parents, or Batman's smart jab at the plot of "Suicide Squad."

Boasting city blocks of inspiration and breakneck energy, “The LEGO Batman Movie” delivers twofold as an irresistible, gag-a-minute barrage of comedically golden humor and a reverential adventure for the Caped Crusader. Full speed ahead, it is always moving but making sure every detail gets its attention and almost every vocal performer in a cavalcade of talent gets in a line or two (let's give a shout-out to Ellie Kemper as a chipper floating brick that checks in bad guys in the Phantom Zone). The look of the animation is, once again, intentionally jumpy and still dizzyingly executed, and a freshly amusing touch is the recurring sound effect of the voice actors saying, “Pew! Pew! Pew!” when a gun is fired. For a film so lighting-fast in its pacing that it could induce whiplash, yet knows exactly when to settle down, the final stretch overextends itself a bit more than one would like. It’s almost too exhausting in one sitting, but so much of the film is a hoot that one can’t be too hard on it. While “The LEGO Movie” worked on an extra-special level for adults in terms of emotional heft, “The LEGO Batman Movie” still has plenty of heart that's sweet and sincerely felt. Heck, even Zach Galifianakis brings an almost-adorable vulnerability to The Joker.

Grade: B +

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