The Lego Batman Movie - a semi-critical review (with some spoilers) from someone who loves Lego
The term AFOL (Adult Fan of Lego) is becoming more prominent, and certainly there seem to be more of us around now. Gone are the days when I would wonder round the Lego Shop in town looking sheepishly at all the lovely Lego sets and hoping no one thought I was a weirdo for not having kids in tow. Lego is now a semi-respectable hobby for grown ups too.
A lot of this is down to The Lego Movie that came out a couple of years ago and catapulted Lego back into the wider public eye. I thought The Lego Movie was a great film, and it would probably make it into my top ten animated films that even people who don't like cartoons would like. But it did that off a funny script, an interesting storyline, and the right number of in-jokes - not too many to make non-Lego fans feel like outsiders, but enough to make me smile to myself. Benny's broken helmet strap, the blink and you'll miss it references to Fabuland, that sort of thing.
Batman was one of the surprise supporting characters from The Lego Movie. He was a funny version of the well-known comic book and movie character. His comment about only building using black or very dark grey and his love of his self-penned thrash metal squeezed the pips of humour out of the Batman mythos, but all in the service of The Lego Movie's story.
As a result, I was looking forward to The Lego Batman Movie. But this is a case of where a supporting character can't really carry a whole movie. Cathy has told me of a conversation she had with our friend Tom about this, where they talked about the lower quality of the film Minions in comparison to Despicable Me where they first appeared. The Minions are funny little sideshow characters in Despicable Me. They struggled when carrying a whole film. And in this case Batman suffers the same fate.
The film is funny. There are moments that really amused me. The way they trawled the DC Comics archive for all the stupidest villains for a villain ensemble was funny. Calendar Man, anyone? Kite Man? The Eraser, who looks like a pencil? These are all real and really hilarious. There was a flashback sequence with tableaux from almost all the Batman films in franchise history, which was very cool. Alfred dons an Adam West era outfit and says he misses the sixties. At one point Batman warns Robin they are going to hit the bad guys so hard that words will appear in the air, and sure enough TV Batman style 'KA-POW' explodes into life when he punches a baddie. There's a can of shark repellent. All good gags. All made me laugh.
But there was still a hollowness to it. At the end of the day this was just a mickey-take of Batman - something that has been done before many, many times. We know the story of Batman. Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson. Barbara Gordon. These are all people we know. When Batman appeared in The Lego Movie, he was a new kind of Batman, He was Lego Batman. And we didn't know him. He was WildStyle's unreliable boyfriend and a bit of a douche. But he was a new character to learn about and relate to.
Batman in The Lego Batman Movie isn't new. He isn't even the Batman we knew from The Lego Movie. He's an amalgam of all the Batmen we have known before. Gotham City isn't new. It's just Gotham City made out of computer generated Lego. The Joker isn't new. We've seen him before and he was more interesting when he was played by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger or Jared Leto.
There is a break with tradition in that the Joker enlists some other villains trapped in the "Phantom Zone"; all of them villains with a Warner Bros licence. It is amusing watching Sauron as the lidless eye rampaging through Gotham, or the great white shark from Amity Beach recruited to the cause of evil.(But is 'Jaws' evil? That's a conundrum worth discussing. It's just a shark doing what sharks are reputed to do.) But we have seen unlikely team-ups before, in The Lego Movie, for example, with cameos from Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, and Gandalf and Dumbledore sitting next to each other.
Overall, what made The Lego Movie work was it was about Lego, but also about a whole lot more. The Lego Batman Movie isn't really about Lego. It's just using Lego as a medium to poke affectionate fun at a franchise that has been pastiched to death in recent years, and whose own 'serious' films are bordering on self-parody now. No amount of clever in-jokes, smartly done animation or witty lines delivered in perfect comic timing by Will Arnett could raise this film to the level of The Lego Movie.
It certainly doesn't suck, but The Lego Batman Movie needed more Lego and less Batman.