3.5 out of 5 stars

There’s a new Batman film out, but don’t get despondent because Zack Snyder has nothing to do with it. Forget about Batman v Superman’s murky visuals and apathetic characters, or Christopher Nolan’s bloated storytelling, and certainly Joel Schumacher’s bat-suit nipples… because, this time, the Dark Knight’s three centimetres tall and made of plastic.

Who would have thought that DC Comics would finally raise their game with a spinoff to The LEGO Movie (2014)? It was inevitable that overwhelmingly successful animation would spawn sequels (The LEGO Ninjago Movie is due September), but few would’ve thought The LEGO Batman Movie could so easily upstage blockbusters like Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman. This isn’t achieved through darker tones, stronger biblical references, or apocalyptic action — it’s thanks to an exhilarating, joyous ride where self-aware LEGO figures poke fun of everything from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. It somersaults from fight scenes to musical numbers, never afraid of appearing camp, silly, or plain absurd.

This time, writer-director Philip Lord and Christopher Miller, step aside as directors, allowing for The LEGO Movie’s co-director of animation Chris McKay to call the shots. The responsibility, obviously, was titanic, and McKay deserves credit for handling his directorial debut so well. Nevertheless, the benchmark set by his predecessors is high: if the frantic succession of gags doesn’t distract you too much, it won’t take long before you start realising that, beneath all that likeable noise, there’s a fair amount of dust being swept under the carpet.

Completely centred on the DC superhero (who had a scene-stealing supporting role in The LEGO Movie), LEGO Batman Movie plays like a hilarious but unremarkably plotted parody. The story follows self-obsessed Bruce Wayne (Will Arnett), the costumed hero of Gotham City at night, and lonely billionaire by day. The murder of his parents set his transformation into egomaniac superhero Batman in motion, but also filled him with anxiety and made him completely unable of sustaining normal human relationships.

The only person who’s there for him is his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), whose attempts at getting Master Bruce out of the bat cave to build a new family are constantly being deflected. Well, Alfred’s the only person if we don’t count The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), the psychotic supervillain who can’t get over the fact that Batman won’t accept him as his greatest foe, and Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), the orphan boy Bruce inadvertently adopted at a gala with new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson).

The movie’s focus is split between the fight against The Joker’s evil plan, which involves destroying Gotham City (what else?) with the help of a huge army of irresistible villains, and Bruce’s struggle to cope with his emotional and personal shortcomings. The family-friendly message couldn’t be more obviously hammered in: a lack of ingenuity that weighs considerably on the narrative, making it drag in more than one place. Parents taking their children to the cinema, take note: if the tone and subject of The LEGO Movie hit close to home, Batman will aim lower. It’s content with pleasing you through its outstanding soundtrack and vocal talents, blatant self-serving references, and a few well played jokes that’ll fly over children’s heads. The kids will nevertheless be utterly hooked by the irresistible feast of slapstick and bricky explosions, anyway.

However, The LEGO Batman Movie fails to really celebrate what sets it apart from every other cartoon: being a LEGO movie. It sure works as a superhero parody, and it’s definitely a funny and entertaining Batman flick, but what does it really have of LEGO? Actually, close to nothing. There’s very little observation on the spirit of LEGO as a product (particularly its ethos and unique ability to foster creativity), which is a real pity, as it would have been very fitting in a story focusing on a character that likes to live/play on his own.

After all, Bruce Wayne constructed his own alter ego to play the nocturnal hero, just like we all used to do when creating a new world for our LEGO figures. Would LEGO Batman Movie work in the same way if it was a traditional hand-drawn or computer-animated cartoon? The sad answer is ‘yes’, and that feels like a regrettable missed opportunity.

Cast & Crew

director: Chris McKay.
writers: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington (story by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on characters created by Bob Kane & Bill Finger).
voices: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Mariah Carey & Jenny Slate.