I don’t know at what point an hour and a half of near constant hyperactivity suddenly qualified as storytelling, especially in regards to family films. But whenever it happened, the makers of 2014’s The Lego Movie, and now those of 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, have hopped onto that bandwagon and are milking it for everything it’s worth. This would include their presentations in 3D. I guess it’s working; the 2014 film not only received critical acclaim and high box-office grosses, it also garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Feature Film.
For my part, I stubbornly cling to the hope that children still possess a sense of wonder and imagination, that they want to be entertained and delighted rather than pandered to.
Is The Lego Batman Movie better than its predecessor? Yeah … in the same way that a broken finger is better than a broken neck. I’m compelled to admit that there were select gags I thought were funny, most notably when the Lego version of Alfred Pennyworth (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) tries to point out to the title character that he has gone through very moody phases in 2016, 2012, 2008, 2005, 1997, 1995, 1992, 1989, and even a strange period in the ‘60s. Look up the cinematic history of the Batman franchise on IMDb if you don’t get it. I also appreciated that the Lego version of Batman, once again voiced in monotone grumbles by Will Arnett, narrates all opening cinematic devices, from the black screen to the studio logos.
But for the most part, the film is just plain exhausting. It works in much the same way as a bouncy ball, energetically leaping from one throwaway juvenile gag to the next. Every time it does stop to take a breath, it’s to work in the message that self-imposed loneliness stemming from a fear of personal loss in no way compares to togetherness, be it through family, professional teamwork, or even an adversary. Perhaps this was included in the spirit of parody, although given the clunky sentimentalism with which it’s presented, I confess that I have my doubts. Is this the way that the film is supposedly meant to speak to children? Teach them an important life lesson between extended bouts of silliness? I don’t think it works that way.
The silliness involves Batman/Bruce Wayne, in a moment of distraction, adopting the orphaned Dick Grayson (voiced by Michael Cera), a plucky, doe-eyed boy who will eventually don his famous red and green suit and yellow cape and take the superhero name Robin. Batman will also have to try and actually work with someone else, namely new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson). Despite Batman’s fear-driven reservations about not working solo, it’s going to take more than one person to bring down the Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), who abandons his criminal cohorts on Earth and teams up with the baddies in the Phantom Zone. It’s all in an effort to get Batman to see that the two are true arch enemies and have something special going on. Incidentally, yes, it’s the same Phantom Zone of Superman fame, and yes, the Superman character does make a brief appearance.
Many of the baddies in the Phantom Zone come from other stories and movie franchises, and I have to admit, I was amazed the filmmakers managed to get permission to feature them all. There’s the shark from Jaws, King Kong, Sauron from the Lord of the Rings saga, Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter novels, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, just to name a few. Obviously they, and every character in this movie, are bound by the literally blockheaded laws of the Lego universe, which is to say their box-like bodies, cylindrical heads, and C-shaped hands make for very exaggerated movements. It’s funny, up to a point. What isn’t quite as funny is the fact that these baddies are included more out of merchandising opportunities than out of genuine narrative significance.
While we’re on the subject of merchandising, I was dismayed to learn that The Lego Batman Movie is but one of several planned sequels/spinoffs of the 2014 film, by which I mean that the filmmakers have created a cinematic franchise to be packaged and sold – yet another to join all the rest of the franchises we have right now, just about all of which stem from comic books. This is really getting out of hand. I’m well aware that franchises have existed almost as long as movies have – the Andy Hardy films, the Road pictures, the Thin Man movies, the Frankenstein and Dracula sequels – but you have to wonder where storytelling stops and feeding into audience demand in order to make money begins.