The Lego Batman Movie is a thing of wonder – review

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The Lego Batman Movie
The Lego Batman Movie
Dir: Chris McKay
Starring: Will Arnett, Rosario Dawson, Michael Cera, Zach Galifianakis, Mariah Carey, Billy Dee Williams, Ralph Fiennes (voices)
U cert, 104 min

Don’t tell Ben Affleck – he seems sad enough already – but the actor has just been made surplus to requirements by one and a half inches of moulded plastic. Of course I mean Lego Batman, whose debut solo feature, spun off from a propitious extended cameo in The Lego Movie three years ago, arrives in cinemas almost everywhere next week. 

Followers of the current batch of live-action DC Comics films may not be stunned to hear it’s immeasurably more stylish, spectacular, deftly written, thematically rich, visually ravishing and generally delightful than anything yet to feature the latest, Affleck-essayed incarnation of Actual Batman.

The Lego Batman Movie

Oh, and it’s funny too. Frantically and relentlessly so, in that way you can feel your brain lurch and grab at punchlines as they whistle past your head. While it never achieves, or even reaches for, The Lego Movie’s unexpected profundity and emotional bite, in purely logistical terms, The Lego Batman Movie is a thing of wonder. There are around four (great) films’ worth of action and jokes here, crammed into a story so streamlined it might have been assembled in the Lockheed wind tunnel.

It also offers a fresh and arguably topical spin on its title character. Voiced again with gravelly self-importance by Will Arnett, here Batman is a spoilt hereditary-billionaire narcissist with a persecution complex, whose self-styled tough stance on law and order has kept Gotham mired in perpetual chaos.

Things change with the appointment of a new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who immediately unveils a progressive criminal justice policy agenda that threatens to make the Caped Crusader redundant. (There is a slyly hilarious sequence in which Batman attempts to mansplain, or perhaps Batmansplain, how crime works to the female chief of police.) 

Then enter The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who uses Batman’s subsequent Bat-huff to get one over on his age-old foe, largely because their goodie-baddie relationship’s ongoing lack of exclusivity, in a world not short on C-list evildoers, has started to hurt. “I don’t currently have a bad guy,” Batman feebly explains to him, before adding, with a twist of the knife: “I’m fighting a few different people.” Ouch. 

The Lego Batman Movie

This sets the stage for a catastrophe the like of which it’s fair to say Gotham has never seen before, although to reveal exactly who’s involved would give away the film’s single most joyous barrage of comic surprises. (As you watch, listen out for some inspired voice casting that only enriches the joke.) But even from the start, the film’s rogue’s gallery is impressive: almost every Batman villain you can think of puts in a fleeting appearance in its luxuriously OTT opening set-piece.

Writers Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers have plumbed the Bat-catalogue for lesser-known nemeses, from unlikely kid-friendly versions of noirish fiends such as The Red Hood and March Harriet to half-forgotten loons like the 1960s TV series’ King Tut and The Eraser, a man disguised as a rubber-topped HB pencil.

In fact, the whole film dives deep into Batman lore without ever losing its lightness. Tableaux from every previous Batman film are recreated in Lego form, as is an exhaustive array of historical Batsuits and Batmobiles – although some of the, ahem, snazzier costumes both admired and modelled by the completely adorable pair of Robin (Michael Cera) and Alfred the Butler (Ralph Fiennes) are all-new.

The Lego Batman Movie

Director Chris McKay plainly knows what he’s doing: as well as serving as director of animation on The Lego Movie, he worked on the stop-motion pop-culture comedy series Robot Chicken, with which The Lego Batman Movie shares a knack for low-key absurdity. (For instance, Gotham City’s mayor is voiced by an immediately recognisable Mariah Carey.) 

And as with the first Lego film, the animators’ ingenuity in rendering, via computer graphics, everything the story demands in trademarked plastic bricks is both a creative triumph and a masterstroke of brand extension. There’s no grand entreaty this time to rebuild the world around you rather than settling for a life lived by the instruction book. But its portrayal of the joy of collaborative play remains as fluorescently persuasive as ever. I watched, I laughed, I ordered the sets.