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THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE: An amusing venture that understands Batman

The LEGO Batman Movie successfully taps into Batman’s complex, twisted psyche in a light-hearted, off-the-wall manner without undermining its emotional depth.

During another daily havoc by some usual villains, Gotham City is, again, saved by its beloved hero Batman (Will Arnett). Confronting Joker (Zack Galifianakis), The Dark Knight lands the ultimate blow to his arch-nemesis: “Batman and Joker are not a thing”, leaving the Clown Prince of Crime emotionally devastated. Still, night after night, Batman’s lonely routine is weighing down on both him and his loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). In a shocking (only to Batman) announcement – by the new Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) – of a plan to protect the city that will not rely on Batman, Joker arrives with all of Gotham’s bad guys only to declare their surrender to the police.

Suspecting the villain’s motive, Batman plans an elaborate heist to “borrow” the Phantom Zone Projector from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude with the assistance of Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who he accidentally adopts during the gala. The Dynamic Duo succeeds. They break into Arkham Asylum to send Joker into the Phantom Zone but are then locked up by Babs. Harley Quinn retrieves the Projector and releases her Puddin’ along with LEGO-verse’s many powerful villains, and Batman must now rush to save Gotham all the while facing his greatest fear: intimacy.

Batman, alone in his mansion with food and Jerry Maguire

The LEGO Movie caught us off guard back in 2014 with its family-friendly style, charming wit, and heart, despite being snubbed by The Academy in Animated Movies category. It established a whole new world of figs and bricks, utilizing a wide range of properties from pop culture into a vast universe of its own creative philosophy. With its financial success and critical acclaim, Warner Animation Group and other producing companies announced the second installment: The LEGO Batman Movie, before expanding to a sequel and two other scheduled spin-offs.

Having acknowledged the name of the game, this movie finds its footing in the comedy genre by cleverly serializing a vast number of in-jokes that poke fun at Batman (especially him), the superhero genre, and the film industry. As his legacy spanning over almost 80 years through many eras of innovative changes in tone, humor (like his ridiculously diverse rogue gallery, especially The Condiment King) is incorporated into the Batman mythos – though for once or twice, it gets overblown to the point of perplexity.

The ensemble of Batman’s rogue gallery with familiar faces

Straight from the adventures in The LEGO Movie, Batman (the LEGO version) is now back in Gotham City to continue his nights of vigilance. Even though the film is a sarcastic take on one of the most prominent characters in the history of comic books, this might also be the most satisfying case in recent memory on how to write a cinematic Batman. Here, Batman/Bruce Wayne is the central character in a personal story about his mental state, not his usual violence-induced fan-service fight for justice anymore.

This achievement is accomplished by a bevy of animated comedy writers, most notably Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (American Dad!), and Jared Stern (Wreck-It Ralph). Seth-Grahame Smith (Abraham Lincoln: The Vampire Hunter) also contributes his part to the fast-paced, bonkers adventure, which makes DC fans wonder what might happen if he had stayed on DCEU’s The Flash project (yes, I also longed for Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man).

SPECTACULAR VISUAL: ANIMATION AND LIGHTING

With The LEGO Movie’s directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller stepping back to producing, this spin-off was helmed by Chris McKay from Robot Chicken and Moral Orel. The result was a stream of (mostly) tireless sketch-like sequences, translating the script’s wacky vibe into a fun, captivating visual experience.

The Australian VFX company Animal Logic (Moulin Rouge!, Happy Feet, The Great Gatsby), who previously had worked on the animation for The LEGO Movie, was still in charge this time. Ergo, architectural designs retain LEGO’s trademark granularity on every piece while the superb lighting is full of vim and vigor, contrasting dark blocks with the oversaturation of explosions and Gotham’s realistic rain, smoke, and steam under various illumination (the sun, chandeliers, street lights).

Astonishing visual style by Animal Logic combined with wide landscape shots

Many audiences find it shocking that the movie was done on 3D animation instead of the “obvious” stop-motion style. Little did they know that the (hypothetical) practical LEGO brick setting for this movie would be overwhelming even for Hollywood-scale capability (Gotham City alone comprises about 220 million bricks – let that sink in for a while). And in spite of limitation to stay true to the realistic functionality of LEGO pieces, Animal Logic’s animators got a little more of creative freedom with physics on the 1.5-inch mini-figs as they made use of replacement animation on body parts. This proved to be the most useful in swapping facial expressions – one that was utilized by Laika in Kubo and the Two Strings. The LEGO Batman Movie, as a huge product placement, also remembers to display LEGO’s mechanics on several occasions, effectively adding amusement in the midst of crisscrossing combats.

The LEGO Batman Movie starts off with chaos in Gotham, and it pretty much rides this wave for most of the first and second acts (minus the scene when Batman is brooding over his life his mansion). The bombardment of sketches and references presents an imminent compromise to the narrative structure, but it remains entertaining enough for the movie’s target audience (i.e family group) nevertheless. It welcomes devoted Batfans as well as kids who just want to see talking toys flying around on screen.

Some might hate the continuous blasts of high-octane fights with distracting supervillains and lambast that they could prevent viewers from relishing the build-up of Batman’s emotions, but this mayhem actually sets a ground for the Caped Crusader to really embrace his suppressed idea about having a family. Only through such conflicts – under mortal threats – can Batman be convinced to give up his toxic lone wolf lifestyle. It proves that his friends are competent, and most crucially, he needs them just as much as they need him. These developments reach the end point of Batman’s character arc by keeping the push on three plot beats – with Alfred, Dick, and Barabara’s firm belief and determination against Batman’s gradually weakened denial and uncertainty.

Robin (Michael Cera) in his first mission with Batman (Will Arnett)

The cast tied up everything with their outstanding display of comedic skills. Will Arnett is just perfect for this role, channeling the depressed narcissism from his own BoJack (BoJack Horseman) into Batman’s manifold layers of will power, conceit, and fear. He also re-created the chemistry with Arrested Development alum Michael Cera as Batman and Robin. Fans of the exceptional comedy series must have gone nuts knowing that Arnett and Cera were forming a similar Gob/George-Michael dynamic, as Batman irresponsibly leads a naive Robin, who looks up to him, through a series of selfish misadventures.

While Ralph Fiennes voiced Batman’s trustworthy butler/father figure Alfred Pennyworth (not Lord Voldermort) with a calm, honorable, yet acerbic fashion, Rosario Dawson added proper flavor and discipline to Barbara/Batgirl. The insecure Joker, of course, seems less intimidating than other versions, but Galifianakis brought out the sensitive side that was rarely seen before to win over our empathy. Arnett, Galifianakis, and Dawson were also allowed to work side by side to empower the genuine feeling of direct conversations AND to improvise their lines. That is part of the reason why the humor hits its right notes – with both timely plan and appropriate spontaneity. The rest of the cast are a diversity of familiar faces in the entertainment industry, with Mariah Carey as Mayor McCaskill, Channing Tatum as Superman, Conan O’Brien as The Riddler, Jemaine Clement as Sauron, and  Billy Dee Williams “reprising” his Batman 1989’s role as Harvey Dent, just to name a selected few.

Will Arnett, director Chris McKay, and Zack Galifianakis in a recording session

The LEGO Batman Movie still paints its protagonist as the arrogant, self-centered Master Builder, who lost his girlfriend to Emmet, as we know. Withal, it taps into Batman’s complex, twisted psyche in a light-hearted manner without undermining its sentimental depth. Thus, audiences are in for a colorful and zany joyride that arrives at a surprisingly heartfelt third act. This depiction is both the Batman we deserve and the one we need right now.