Three years ago, “The LEGO Movie” was unleashed upon audiences to spectacular acclaim. It was a fun and exciting ride, and even though it had a somewhat basic plotline, it was still very much entertaining thanks to its boundless imagination (a rather fitting analogy for the building blocks themselves). The film also enjoyed a very successful awards run, claiming multiple trophies for Best Animated Feature right up until its shocking snub at the Oscars, where it seemed certain to win as well. Meanwhile, it dominated at the box office, topping the charts for four weeks in a row and pulling in nearly half a billion dollars worldwide. Because of all this, there was absolutely no doubt that we would be seeing another LEGO film of some sort, but instead of a straight sequel, the studio opted to go with a spinoff instead, bringing us to the simply-titled “The LEGO Batman Movie.”
As the film opens, the city of Gotham is once again in great danger as The Joker (Voice of Zach Galifianakis) tries to blow it up with the help of several other notorious villains (The Riddler, Bane, Catwoman, etc.). Of course, this is something that Batman/Bruce Wayne (Voice of Will Arnett) can’t allow, leading to an epic confrontation that ends in Joker’s inevitable defeat. Shortly after, Bruce attends the retirement party for Commissioner Jim Gordon (Voice of Hector Elizondo), where he learns that Barbara Gordon (Voice of Rosario Dawson) will be taking over his duties. The problem is, she wants Batman to fight side-by-side with law enforcement as opposed to the vigilante style he always uses, a prospect that doesn’t sit too well with The Dark Knight. However, things become quite strange when The Joker suddenly appears at the celebration and surrenders himself, along with his fellow villains, to the new Commissioner, seemingly putting an end to major crime in Gotham.
Meanwhile, without even knowing it, Bruce has agreed to adopt a young boy by the name of Dick Grayson (Voice of Michael Cera), leading to further complications when he comes home to live at Wayne Manor. The situation is only further exacerbated when Bruce’s butler, Alfred (Voice of Ralph Fiennes), lets the boy into the batcave. Pretty soon, Dick finds himself tagging along with Batman as he tries to discover what The Joker’s true plan is, for just like Barbara, he finds it completely impossible that his self-declared biggest enemy would throw in the towel out of the blue.
The first thing that will inevitably catch the viewer’s eye is the absolutely gorgeous computer animation that brings this wacky and wild LEGO world to life once more. Though this second film deals with well-known comic book locations and characters, the filmmakers have made them their own, bringing fascinating little details to places like Gotham City, Wayne Manor, and Arkham Asylum, in addition to icons like Batman, Alfred, and so on. Just like its predecessor, it’s amazing to see it all come alive, from simple character interactions to the large action sequences that are somehow able to maintain the underlying fact that everything is made of blocks.
Another highpoint, which would also be a continuation from the original, is the smattering of amusing humor found throughout the film. This time around, the film ends up being the most successful in this aspect when it’s making self-referential jokes about the long-running “Batman” franchise, tossing in quips regarding practically every incarnation of the character, including “Batman v Superman,” “The Dark Knight,” “Batman” (1989), and “Batman” (1966). Aside from these, the jokes are rather spotty at best, sometimes landing with a mild chuckle, while at other times landing with a loud thud. Luckily, the film references the franchise quite a bit, so at least we can say that it’s mostly successful, though it’s doubtful that kids will be able to appreciate it at this level.
If we were just looking at the film’s beautiful animation and amusing bits of humor (we can even through in the great vocal cast), then this latest LEGO outing would be just fine, but unfortunately all of these elements are let down by a storyline that was in need of a little retooling. What makes this such a disappointing outcome is the fact that it has some potentially great emotional currents running through it (Bruce dealing with his loneliness, opening up to Dick, and learning to work with a team, etc.), but these end up getting buried under the film’s seemingly-endless actions scenes and other uninteresting plot twists. With more concentration on the emotional foundation, this could have been a great animated adventure to rival its predecessor, and probably even surpass it, but with a focus that’s more on the flashy action, it ends up being a somewhat plodding experience.
Was it a good idea to go with a spinoff as opposed to a direct sequel in the first place? Perhaps not. A sequel would have reopened the limitless possibilities that the original presented, while a spinoff like this merely starts to limit what can be done. “Batman” is a treasured franchise that has been done great justice in the past by filmmakers like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, but that’s because those were dark interpretations, as the character was always intended to be (West’s Batman worked for entirely different reasons). A Batman film for kids could work, but again, the story would need to be worked out to the point where it’s not just about being flashy. Perhaps it is silly to complain about this for a film that is primarily aimed at young children, who will be more than happy with the film just being bright and occasionally amusing, but the previous film had taken both sides and done some pretty incredible things with them, so why settle for a spinoff that tips a little too far in the wrong direction? 2.5/4 stars.