Friday, February 10, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie: A delightfully sassy genre mash-up

The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.10.17

This film doesn’t merely break the fourth wall; that invisible structure between viewer and on-screen action is virtually shattered ... into thousands of little LEGO bricks.

When newly minted Gotham City Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon suggests teaming
up with Batman, the resolutely lone-wolf vigilante is at a loss for words ... but only
brieftly. His answer: "No."
Rarely have a genre, franchise and stable of characters so cheekily, hilariously and relentlessly indulged in winking, nudging and self-parody. In its own gleefully warped way, this may be the best big-screen Batman movie ever made. It’s certainly the funniest and most consistently entertaining.

That said, the approach taken here by director Chris McKay — and a veritable army of scripters — is vastly different than the gentler touch that characterized 2014’s The LEGO Movie. That first film charmed audiences, in great part, because of its unexpected innocence and sense of discovery: a tone that was essential to the story’s climactic “surprise reveal.”

The first film also was instructive, in the sense of establishing its LEGO universe, the structural rules therein, and the unexpected quest that gave humble construction worker Emmet Brickowoski his opportunity for greatness.

This sequel takes all that for granted ... meaning, for starters, that you’d better already know the significance of being a “master builder.” More to the point, aside from the chuckles constantly prompted by the brick-y look of these characters and their surroundings, McKay and his writers don’t really exploit the “LEGO-ness” to any significant degree; this film probably would have been just as much fun in any animation style.

The first film was more intimate, at an individual brick level, which made it rather sweet. This sequel is more cinematic, operating on a much larger scale that frequently obscures its LEGO qualities.

Instead, the story gets its momentum from colorful pizzazz, warp-speed editing, self-referential gags, bad puns and an irreverent sense of humor: all qualities that I’d expect from an animation director who made his rep on snarky Adult Swim TV shows such as Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum.

The result is akin to a Mystery Science Theater 3000 feature, if mocking commentators Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Gypsy were, themselves, part of the film they were dissing.

On top of which, this film’s primary story credit goes to novelist Seth Grahame-Smith, who was responsible for the genre-mangling mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. About which, no more need be said.

McKay establishes this cheeky tone before the film even begins, with an off-camera Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) making fun of the Warner Bros. banner and all those silly production company logos that proliferate the screen these days. Batman then continues to narrate his own exploits, as they take place before our eyes, layering his cool, buff awesomeness with an unapologetically immodest grandiosity second only to a certain real-world Commander-in-Chief’s high opinion of his superiority.

Arnett’s somber, deep-cellar, gravel-voiced introspection is a stitch all by itself: an immediate, dead-on distortion of the brutally grim readings that various live-action actors have given the character, over the years. Indeed, as this film progresses, it misses no opportunity to reference various Dark Knight detectives, going back to “that aberration” in the 1960s.

As this story kicks off, Batman makes quick work of the Joker’s (Zach Galifianakis) newest attempt to blast Gotham City to smithereens. Having his plot foiled doesn’t bother the Clown Prince of Crime all that much, but he’s crushed when Batman refuses to acknowledge their arch-nemesis-ness. Batman shudders at the very thought; that sort of understanding implies a relationship — of sorts — and he doesn’t do relationships.

At all. Never. No way.

Back home in the massively stately — and empty — Wayne Manor, Bruce prepares to enjoy another lobster thermidor dinner by himself, not quite able to face the actual reason for his self-imposed isolation. But loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes) knows: He sees it every time Bruce stares forlornly at the family photograph that was taken, purely by chance, moments before his parents were murdered in Gotham’s Crime Alley.

Bruce can’t stand the thought of caring about somebody else — in any fashion — lest he be subjected to the same sense of loss. And, so, he derives a different sort of satisfaction, basking in the superficial limelight as Gotham’s much-lauded hero.

Ah, but the times, they are a-changing.

Police Commissioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo) announces his retirement, turning the reins over to his daughter, Barbara (Rosario Dawson). As a Harvard-educated woman with a greater understanding of modern enforcement methodology, she has less use for a lone-wolf vigilante who fancies himself above (or beyond) the law; she therefore suggests that Batman temper his methods and learn to work with Gotham’s police department.

Batman shudders at the thought ... even though, as Bruce, he goes ga-ga over Barbara.

At the same time, the Joker and the rest of Batman’s “Rogue’s Gallery” — The Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and dozens more — announce that they’ve abandoned crime, and turn themselves in for incarceration. As just one example of this film’s rapid-paced sight gags, this roster of villains also includes hilariously lesser (but authentic) Batman baddies such as Calendar Man, Egghead and The Condiment King ... the latter equipped with his trademark mustard and ketchup sidearms.

With all of them behind bars, Batman has ... nothing to do.

And while the Dark Knight is certain that the Joker is up to something — and he most definitely is — it can’t be proven. Nor will Commissioner Barbara Gordon tolerate any stealthy efforts at late-night detecting.

Dismayed and distracted by this unlikely turn of events, Batman has overlooked the fact that, as Bruce, he inadvertently agreed to adopt cute-as-a-button orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). This wide-eyed naïf has been bouncing (literally) around Wayne Manor for days, and when Bruce fum-fahs on what to do about it, Alfred forces the issue by letting Dick in on a, um, Rather Big Secret.

Joker, meanwhile, has been learning everything he can about a certain nasty device — the Phantom Zone Projector — carefully stored within the bowels of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

The first LEGO Movie drew some of its humor from genre cross-pollination, with guest appearances by characters from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and the DC Comics universe, including, yes, Batman. This sequel ups that ante, augmenting Batman’s realm with bad guys, super-villains and monsters from pretty much everything imaginable: Lord Voldemort, King Kong, Sauron, Dracula, Medusa and scores of others.

And with all of them behaving like their usual selves, the inevitable anachronistic clashes are exploited to full satirical potential.

The voice acting also is a stitch. Arnett is well supported by Cera, whose Dick Grayson is wheedling and wincingly sugar-sweet: a hilarious riff on the morally proper orphans who populated so many early Hollywood melodramas. Fiennes is terrific as the urbane and mildly scolding Alfred: perhaps the one “straight” character in this chaos.

Galifianakis elicits some actual pathos with this unexpected version of the Joker, who — despite his nasty side — views himself as Batman’s unspoken black-sheep brother. Galifianakis makes the argument sound logical: After all, what would either one of them do, without the other?

Dawson’s Barbara Gordon is resourceful, intelligent and delightfully bad-ass: a level-headed advocate of the sort of teamwork ridiculed by the narcissistic, isolationist Batman. Channing Tatum has fun as a true-blue Superman, who views Batman as something of a heroic wet blanket.

Jenny Slate gets in a few zingers as Joker’s lady love, Harley Quinn, but all the remaining villains are a blur, regardless of stunt casting; with perhaps one or two lines each, you’d never recognize Billy Dee Williams (Two-Face), Conan O’Brien (The Riddler), Zoë Kravitz (Catwoman), Seth Green (King Kong), Jonah Hill (Green Lantern) or Eddie Izzard (Voldemort).

At 104 minutes, this might be too much of a good thing; toward the end, the relentlessly paced jokes and sight gags become exhausting, and the all-stops-out climax doesn’t have the effervescent sparkle of the earlier acts. The story’s character component builds to a warm emotional resolution — always good to have a strong moral center — but it begins to feel like McKay & Co. are repeating themselves too much.

A bit of judicious editing, and more actual LEGO-inspired humor, would have been nice.

Even so, it’s hard to complain about a romp that is, for the most part, consistently enjoyable. The LEGO Batman Movie demands the repeat viewing — just to catch stuff you missed the first time — that’ll make it a winter hit.

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