Phil Lord and Chris Miller have made a career out of making the wrong thing work. They did it with 21 and 22 Jump Street. They did it with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. They did it (to an extent, at least) with The Last Man on Earth. And, perhaps most audaciously, they did it with The Lego Movie, a film that had no business being as good or funny or thought provoking as it turned out to be. We saw with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 that taking a Miller/Lord project that shouldn’t have been good but was and revisiting it without Miller and Lord threatens to have the bad idea side of it win out. So, from that perspective, there could be a bit of apprehension with the concept of spinning off one of the more enjoyable aspects of The Lego Movie, the blustery, entirely perfect and thoroughly insecure Batman as voiced by Will Arnett, without Lord and Miller involved in anything beyond an Executive Producer category. Trying to go back to the well can be a fool’s errand, and Arnett’s Batman is the sort of character that could easily prove grating when he becomes the center of attention for a 100 minute film. The good news is there is some continuity between The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie in the form of director Chris McKay, who served as the animation director of The Lego Movie and was a vital creative ally for Lord and Miller.
His input proves vital, as it’s clear from the film’s beginning that The Lego Batman Movie has the same anarchic spirit as its predecessor. Before the film even begins, Batman (the returning Arnett) starts his narration, commenting on the fact that all good movies open with a black screen before taking some potshots at the standard studio and production house logos that follow before the film starts proper. It kicks the film off with a decidedly meta tone, something that was certainly present in The Lego Movie, but becomes even more central to the tone and humor of this spin-off installment. Quite a few of the jokes and gags are aimed squarely at long-time Bat fans, delving deep into the caped crusader’s extensive and often ridiculous rogue’s gallery (the likes of Crazy Quilt and The Condiment King make appearances alongside the more recognizable Banes and Poison Ivys and Penguins, with a character stopping the action to reassure the audience that yes, these are all real Batman villains, and you should Google it if you doubt them), everyone given their own meticulous and unique minifig. The story, such as it is, focuses on the Bat’s legendary loner personality, which finds him more and more isolated in the giant, cavernous Bat Cave with trusy butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes) as his only companion. He covers up that pit of loneliness in his heart by overcompensating on his bravado even further, which raises the ire of The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) when he downplays their status as archenemies, sending Joker into a rage that leads him to once again threaten to destroy Gotham City.
So yes, the entire city of Gotham is imperiled due to what essentially boils down to the circus mirror reflection of a lover’s quarrel. This is the sort of irreverent and absurdist comedy that The Lego Batman Movie dishes out in droves, with a script (credited to Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern and John Whittington, takes a more-is-more approach, shooting out jokes and gags with a machine gun’s pace, faster even than THE LEGO MOVIE did (which is no small feat). Not everything works, which is understandable but the joke hit rate hovers around 80% (that percentage will probably fluctuate based on your personal knowledge of Batman’s history in both movies and comics), and that’s a better rate than most studio comedies. The animation style is essentially identical to The Lego Movie, though the fine details of the bricks in explosions and water effects are a little diminished, taking away a bit of the whimsy of The Lego Batman Movie’s progenitor. Still, the volume of creativity in the writing belies the boatload of writers who touched the script; it truly feels like the work of one voice.
Despite all the frivolity, there is still a story here, with Batman coming to grips with his loneliness by reluctantly joining forces with people who care about him; Alfred, new adopted ward and Robin-to-be Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, with all the energy of a child who inhaled 10 pixy stix right before getting into the voice over booth) and police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) seek to break down his icy exterior in a similar way The Joker does, searching for acceptance and showing the benefits of actual working relationships, giving the film a nice moral for the kids out there, especially those who might not have a family that fits into the standard mold. In this respect, The Lego Batman Movie is more traditional in its story structure than The Lego Movie; it may have just as many, if not more, meta jokes, many of which are at the expense of a certain dour Zack Snyder franchise (indeed, this is the film Deadpool tried and failed to be), but it is fully self-contained in a way its predecessor wasn’t. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, as it’s possible the thin sketching of the world of Lego Batman might have cracked under the pressure of a more sophisticated narrative, but there are parts throughout the film, and definitely in the third act, that feel a little too conventional for all of the zaniness that surrounds it. The Lego Movie had plenty of sentiment, so it’s not a stranger to this style of film, but the implementation in The Lego Batman Movie suffers a bit.
It’s not too much of a surprise that The Lego Batman Movie is not as good as The Lego Movie. It had quite a mountain to climb in order to reach the first film’s heights, but it’s rather surprising just how close it got even if it does fall short. The stakes are pretty low, and its comedy is a bit on the disposable side, but this is film that is undeniably breezy fun, a delightful jaunt through a buffet of nonstop puns and pop culture gags that will slap a smile on your face and keep it there from beginning to end. You can’t ask for much more, really.