Thursday, 20 April 2017

Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)



Even though it’s only a little over three years old now, it is quite possible to understate the impact that The LEGO Movie had when it first came out. Aside from being one of the two biggest surprises of 2014, the other being Guardians Of The Galaxy, it also latched directly onto the audience mindset like very few films before it have managed. Starting out as a project where audiences had no real idea what the film would even be like, it resulted in an incredibly astute satire of the Hollywood blockbuster formula as well as being a very entertaining action-adventure in its own right, complete with an acknowledgement of the creativity that made LEGO the household name that it is. Me personally, while I did enjoy it immensely, I was somewhat off-put by the quite literal and jarringly realistic turn it took during the final reel which ended up souring it a bit for me overall. Naturally, when news hit of a spin-off film coming out, this time helmed by LEGO Movie head animator and Adult Swim legend Chris McKay, all the petty misgivings in the world couldn’t stop me from watching it. Computer batteries to power, keyboard to speed; this is The LEGO Batman Movie.

The plot: Batman (Will Arnett), the dark defender of Gotham City, is called to action once again as the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) enlists Batman’s entire rogues’ gallery to help him take over the city. With his accidentally adopted son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), his butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and the new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) doing their best to help him, it seems that the threat the Joker poses for the city is even greater than any of them could have predicted.

Given both the previous film’s cast list and the pedigree of voice work attached to shows like Robot Chicken, the high-profile actors on call here is hardly surprising. It is also hardly surprising that the acting is this damn good across the board. Arnett may be playing a comically exaggerated version of Batman but, through the impossibly gruff voice and deftness of inflection for both comedy and drama, he still feels like a Batman worthy of standing next to the lauded greats. Galifianakis makes for a surprisingly solid fit as this more bromantically-tinged version of the Crown Prince of Crime, resulting in some very funny exchanges between him and Arnett; Cera is awkward and geeky but never once reaches the point of being annoying, a testament to his previous work in indie dramedies; Dawson, considering this is the first real depiction of Batgirl we’ve gotten on screen (no, Alicia Silverstone doesn’t count), makes for a pretty good dramatic foil for Batman’s antics, same with Fiennes as an unexpectedly kick-ass Alfred. Then we get into the villains of the film and… okay, there are simply too many highlights to bring up because not only are they all rather recognizable names like Jonah Hill, Seth Green, Billy Dee Williams (in a pretty awesome call back to his role in Tim Burton’s Batman) and Eddie Izzard, they all hold up to the many standards connected with this film’s production.

One of the big initial reasons for the success of the first film was the truly inspired animation work by Aussie studio Animal Logic. Sure enough, anything and everything that worked there is here in spades. The crispness of the texture quality, the choppy editing to make it look like stop-motion, the willingness to look at the inherent freedom allowed by not only CGI but also the LEGO system itself, even down to the fingerprints and scuff marks; this is quite phenomenal. Not only that, we also get that sure-fire sign of the animation legends: Sight gags! As much as I don’t make it a habit of watching most films more than once (with how many I see per annum, there just aren’t enough hours in the day), it’s films like this where I’m willing to make the exception because the gags I did pick out were pretty funny like the signage on the various Bat vehicles (I should not be laughing so much at a ‘Bat-tleship’ pun, but that’s the kind of movie this is). Of course, with how high the joke ratio is in the dialogue already, you’ll probably be too busy laughing to catch all of them anyway. Not only that, the action scenes are positively gorgeous, giving an incredible sense of scope and grandeur to every locale we’re seen, as well as personality to every figure we see fighting in them.

Considering our main star here, what version of Batman are we getting this time around? Well, it’s actually one that I don’t think has ever been shown on screens before. It takes the Grant Morrison approach of having literally everything Batman has ever done be in-canon, meaning that anything you have ever seen or read or heard or even played involving Batman gets some lip service here. It also means we’re dealing with a 90-something-year-old crime fighter who still acts like a 90’s stereotypical dark loner. Given how we got not one but four appearances by Batman in cinemas last year, getting a fresh take on the character is definitely needed. As for how he is presented, we basically get a surface-level look at what it means to be the almighty loner that is Batman, with all the hard-nosed brooding that comes with it. Now, while this may not be as compelling as the creative spirit of the first film (misgivings with the third act aside), it actually shows a better understanding of Batman than most film iterations of the character. Bear in mind that this is the same character who, in the world of the printed page, has every single hero and villain’s weaknesses on file in case he needs to exterminate any of them permanently. That paranoid air, as interpreted by this film, results in the kind of deconstruction that the character has been given quite a few times before… but it might actually serve a far greater purpose.

My comic book history isn’t all that up to snuff, but here’s what I’ve been able to gleam: At some point between the 90’s and the early 2000’s, the status quo for what makes a good superhero story drastically changed. Instead of heroes fighting villains as they had for several decades, they started to turn their gazes towards each other and writers starting delving deep into what makes each hero different from each other. As a result, no matter what medium you may partake in, you’ve no doubt come across a narrative that is more about seeing heroes throwdown with each other than the actual bad guys. This has also brought on a very heavy sense of bleakness that permeates far too many superhero flicks and comic books to give them the same edge that they once had. I brought up similar points back with Return Of The Caped Crusaders, and that same point gets brought up here only in a less obvious way. For one, this film features team-ups across all sides, with villains aiding heroes and vice versa, and we even get to see… well, let’s say ‘other’ villains join the fight as well. For another, through Batman’s character arc, we get a general message that fighting off all of the city’s crime one-handed may look cool, but even the best need help. It’s a far better thing to see heroes team up than for them to seclude themselves because “this is why Superman works alone”. Given the increasingly dark tones that modern superhero films are taking, this is the kind of message that will never not be timely, and thankfully, it’s included in a film that will get far more coverage than Caped Crusaders.

All in all, in so many ways, this is a superhero film that needs to exist right now. Along with continuing the LEGO Movie level of brilliant animation and outstanding voice acting, the writing not only embraces every nook and cranny of Batman’s long and colourful history but also highlights the sense of fun and joyous rapture that is becoming far too infrequent nowadays when it comes to superhero films. Commentating on what everyone else is doing wrong by doing it absolutely correctly through the kind of fanfiction-style creativity that Robot Chicken is best known for; it’s almost impossible not to recommend this. It’s better than Passengers, which may seem obvious but bear in mind that I’m apparently one of the few people willing to give that film a chance. I may better appreciate that film’s darker moral tones, but the ending definitely weakened it a fair bit; here, I’m genuinely at a loss for picking out any singular aspect of this film that doesn’t work. However, I still don’t consider this to be as good as Split, which harder for me emotionally and also built on one of my all-time favourite films. I may like the first LEGO Movie but not that much.

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