‘The LEGO Batman Movie,’ clever humor but sappy morals

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 2/21/17 12:00am

The first few minutes of “The LEGO Batman Movie” are some of its funniest. As the audience stares at an empty screen waiting for the film to start, Batman (Will Arnett) informs us in a voice-over that all great movies start with a black screen and edgy music that makes parents and studio executives feel uncomfortable. He proceeds to comment on the varying degrees of epicness inherent in each of the studio logos as they appear on screen. I had yet to see a single LEGO brick, and I already thought the movie was hilarious. We then jump right into the middle of the action as literally all of Batman’s villains attempt to destroy Gotham City. The police are evidently helpless until the Dark Knight arrives on the scene, cues his own background music and starts unleashing havoc on his enemies. The first half of “The LEGO Batman Movie” is exactly like this: nonstop breathless fun filled with witty satire. It’s only a shame that the film decreases both in speed and in quality as it approaches its finale.

Is there anything that sounds like more of a corporate shill than a spinoff of “The LEGO Movie” called “The LEGO Batman Movie”? Yet, like its predecessor, the film is so charming that it completely makes us forget that we’re watching a feature-length advertisement. This time though, the film actually embraces its roots as a giant media franchise — two, in fact: LEGO and Batman. Most of the film’s funniest jokes are clever references to previous on-screen incarnations of Batman which, if you’re a huge fan of the character like myself, make for some hysterical moments. Here, Batman is not brooding and noble but a massive egotist, who behaves like an emo man-child desperately seeking attention. And, of course, he needs to learn how to form relationships and work with a team.

Which brings us to the film’s one major pitfall. Like “The LEGO Movie,” this film wants to be more than just a comedy by including an emotional center and a touching moral. Unlike “The LEGO Movie,” though, it just doesn’t work here. I promise I’m not a cold, heartless critic who believes kids’ movies should never have a good moral, but it needs to be well-integrated and, most importantly, not shoved down our throats. The second half of “The LEGO Batman Movie” spends so much time hammering in its message about teamwork that I got sick of it. What’s worse is that Batman was infinitely more funny when he was a selfish jerk who didn’t want to cooperate with anyone.

But there is a bigger problem related to the concept of the film’s target audience. If this film were intended for 5 year olds, then I could probably forgive the manner in which the message is handled. However, during the screening I attended, the majority of the laughter was coming from adults, not children. This makes sense because, like I mentioned earlier, most of the humor relies on references that will fly over kids’ heads. Which is not to say that I think kids are stupid; it’s just that I doubt they’ve had the cultural exposure necessary to appreciate jokes made about something like the ’60s “Batman” TV show, starring Adam West as the titular character. The result is a disconnected movie, one half meant to appeal to the adults who will understand the jokes and one half meant for kids who need to learn the importance of teamwork. This is an odd combination, and it sometimes feels like a product made simultaneously for everyone and for no one.

Despite my criticisms of the execution of the film’s moral lesson, I will admit that the catalyst for the moral is brilliant. We, the audience, first realize that Batman needs to open up and form relationships with others when he refuses to acknowledge the Joker as his greatest enemy. You see, the Joker imagines their connection in an almost romantic manner and is desperate for Batman’s validation. Over the years, many fans have speculated that Batman and the Joker have a strange obsession with each other, and this movie uses that aspect of their dynamic to brilliant effect. As a result, the resolution to their subplot is just about the only satisfying emotional moment in the movie.

That being said, all this talk of emotions and moral lessons undermines how genuinely funny “The LEGO Batman Movie” is. It’s exceedingly difficult for me not to share all my favorite jokes, and trust me, there are a solid dozen that I can think of right off the top of my head. This is largely because the speed of the animation recalls the insanity of “Looney Tunes” cartoons — every second has 10 jokes, nine of which you’ll probably miss the first time through.

At one point in the film, a character comments on the legacy of Batman, which spans over 75 years, to which Bruce Wayne quips, “I have aged phenomenally.” It plays as just a quick cut away gag, but it is inadvertently one of the film’s pivotal moments. It serves as a reminder that Batman is timeless, and his legacy will doubtlessly outlive any single interpretation. Critics have been commenting on what this film does well in comparison to last year’s immensely disappointing “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” And indeed, this is a far superior adaptation of the character despite its tongue-firmly-embedded-in-cheek approach. But I’m honestly not sure if comparing this film to previous Batman films or even the source material really matters. Batman will survive all the ups and all the downs, and his fans will doubtlessly find something worthwhile in every iteration. My advice? In the words of LEGO Batman, “Crank up those subwoofers, dude” and check out “The LEGO Batman Movie.” Despite all its flaws, it’s still a decidedly fun time.

Rating: 7/10