When “The LEGO Movie” was first announced, it was met with a fair amount of skepticism that it was going to be a cynical promotional tool to sell toys. And it may have been that in a way, but it was also smart, funny and far better than it had the right to be. “The LEGO Batman Movie,” meanwhile, is absolutely a tool designed to promote the “LEGO Dimensions” platform system, working no less than seven of their licensed intellectual properties into the story. Fortunately, it manages to be a highly entertaining film despite the shameless sales pitch. The absence of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in the writing and directing chairs is noticeable (they are executive producers only this time around), but this is a very fun, if a bit more predictable, ride.
Batman, a.k.a. billionaire Bruce Wayne (Will Arnett), has gotten used to fighting crime on his own, but his world is shattered when Jim Gordon steps down as police commissioner and his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) assumes the helm. Barbara would like Batman to work together with the police, rather than as a vigilante, but Batman, with his litany of attachment issues, resists. Worse, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is hurt when Batman tells him that he means nothing to him, so the Joker hatches an unusual plan, which begins with his surrender. Batman cannot stand that he wasn’t responsible for the Joker’s capture, so he devises a scheme to steal a weapon from Superman (Channing Tatum) in order to send the Joker to the Phantom Zone, the same place where Superman dispatched General Zod. The plan works, but with disastrous consequences.
There are about a hundred moving parts here, so in order to move things along, the story takes some admittedly egregious shortcuts. The manner in which Bruce Wayne adopts Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin (a flawlessly cast Michael Cera), is ridiculous, one of those hoary bits where one character, not listening to another, agrees to do something that they would otherwise never do. We hear of Superman sending General Zod to the Phantom Zone, but do you know which character we don’t see in the Phantom Zone? Yep, General Zod. Why is General Zod not in this movie? Because he does not yet exist in the “LEGO Dimensions” universe, presumably. DC can take their pot shots at Marvel all they want (in this instance, it’s Batman’s password), but there is a reason that Marvel is beating the snot out of them at the box office, and it’s because Marvel thinks this stuff through. If you’re going to mention that a character is in a place, and then go to that place, you have to show that character. It’s that simple.
The dialogue, thankfully, is a lot better than the story structure. The movie is loaded with funny lines, as well as some spot-on commentary about Bruce Wayne’s character flaws and the dysfunctional relationship between not just Batman and his enemies but between Batman and the city of Gotham. They were also wise to carry a few “LEGO Movie” tricks over, namely the manmade sound effects. The film looks great as well, though it spends a bit too long with its foot on the gas and can get overwhelming at times. The movie’s secret weapon, though, is the casting. Ralph Fiennes was an inspired choice to play Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, and Galifianakis’ Joker is not what one would call menacing, but his tone is a great fit for the material. Then there’s the second tier of voice actors, and it is positively loaded with talent. Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Rosario Dawson, Jemaine Clement and Eddie Izzard all make an impression in a film where it is very easy to be overlooked. And bonus points for letting Mariah Carey play the mayor.
“The LEGO Batman Movie” is exactly what I thought it would be: it’s not as good as its predecessor, but because Lord and Miller set up the LEGO Batman character so well, it was nearly impossible to screw up. Sometimes it’s all about managing expectations.