“The Lego Batman Movie,” for all its additional pleasures, is worth watching just because it features an hour and 46 minutes of Will Arnett mocking that absurd whisper/shout that Christian Bale tortured us with across his three dour Christopher Nolan “Batman” films.
Parody abounds — to skewer Ben Affleck’s sad sack Batman, Lego Batman’s cartoon rictus is set in a permanent glower, which is somehow still more realistic than Affleck’s actual grimace. As one always suspects with billionaires, their nights are mostly spent watching films alone in their private cinemas, snacking on reheated lobster thermidor and binging on sentimental comedies like “Jerry Maguire.” Oh, and tormenting their butlers, in this case, Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes, indispensable like his concierge in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”).
As in the endless live action reboots, Lego Batman must deal with villains new and old, major and minor, from the excellent, ketchup-and-mustard-spewing Condiment Man to the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who is less concerned with the destruction of Gotham than whether Batman hates him enough to cement his place as a leading supervillain.
Batman, in turn, has plenty of venom for his more popular counterpart in DC comics, Superman (voiced by Channing Tatum, obviously), who doesn’t invite him to chill seshes with the other Justice Leaguers. Making one of many butt hurt retreats to the Bat Cave, the Dark Knight meets Dick Grayson/Robin (Michael Cera) whose pantslessness and lack of cynicism irritate Batman to no end.
Trying to rein in the pair is new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), a graduate of the “Harvard for Police” who asks Batman to rebrand himself according to the acronym “Best At Teamwork Man.” He demurs. And, when Barbara is ready for her own super transformation, Batman says, “I’ll call you Batgirl,” for which she has the excellent rejoinder, “Can I call you Batboy?” Despite much internecine squabbling, the group makes a convincing argument that one’s chosen family can be more important than one’s birth family.
Batman’s main wish in the film is to send the Joker to a celestial prison called the Phantom Zone, though he wants this less for the safety of the citizenry than to avoid awkward conversations. Using the Phantom Zone Projector, Batman accomplishes the feat and traps the Joker with other uber-baddies from other genres and eras, like the Wicked Witch of the West, Lord Voldemort, and Sauron (this reflects, if nothing else, the vast back catalog at Warner Bros.). But, despite being controlled by a phantom gatekeeper Lego, voiced to pitch perfection by Ellie Kemper, all the bad guys are soon released back into Gotham — it’s like the climax of “The Cabin in the Woods” when every horror film trope roams at once.
While the film sometimes feels overreliant on obsessive, “Deadpool”-esque references to all things Batman, it’s nimble enough to tear off in new directions. There are charming sound effects — gunshots don’t make noise but the characters always shout “pew pew pew” as they fire — and the battles feature animated word cloud “Kapows” and “Baps” in appropriate homage to the Adam West “Batman” television series.
Director Chris McKay benefits from the fact that Legos are more satisfying to look at than regular CGI. Without the pressure to make things look real, everything can instead snap into place with kaleidoscopic shifts of landscape and costume.
‘The Lego Batman Movie’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG. Running time 1:46. Visit cinemawest.com