The best joke in The LEGO Batman Movie is an admission that Batman is bad at his job. This LEGO Movie spinoff is set in a candy-colored brick-laden Gotham City where the residents live in a time bubble of continuity, leaving them a been-there-done-that populace yawning with memories of tonal whiplash (aware of every iteration, from Snyder to Nolan, Schumacher, Burton, the Animated Series, 60’s camp and so on back to the original pulp comics and serials). This gives the residents a blasé attitude to the latest supervillain eruption from Arkham Asylum. Batman, you’ve been at this for nearly 80 years, they say. And Gotham is still the most crime-ridden city in the fictional world. Isn’t it time to hang up the cape and cowl and let someone else try to fix the problem? The fun in this silly whirligig is watching Batman realize he should work with the people of Gotham instead of showboating with gadgets before hiding out in his cave for the next call on the bat-phone. In the words of Barbara Gordon, the new police commissioner fresh from “Harvard for Cops,” ”We don’t need a billionaire vigilante karate-chopping poor people.”
A manic tumble of in-jokes, meta-winks, and hectic LEGO action, this everything-is-awesome approach is continually cranked up to eleven. It’s a cute conceit. At best, the whole project has a loose goofy charm rat-a-tat-tat-ing silly voices and quick quips. Will Arnett returns with a narcissist’s growl as a Batman craving attention, but shrinking from connection. He’s surrounded in the soundscape by a who’s-who of distinctive, warm voices in iconic comic book roles – Michael Cera as naïve Robin, Ralph Fiennes as dry Alfred, Zach Galifianakis as needy Joker, and Rosario Dawson as Batgirl. The movie blasts forward on pep and cleverness, piling on neat commentary about Batman’s most boring plot ticks and thematic obsessions in between drooling geek deep cut references and kids’ movie bright colors and careening sentimentality. The style, a breakneck faux-stop-motion CG swoosh, stops for nothing: no emotion, no thought, no moment to catch a breath or your bearings. The cuts are fast. The pop music is loud. The explosions are plumes of colorful blocks. The guns go “pew pew pew.” For a giddy hour and change in a movie theater, you could do far worse.
Still, there’s something a little off-putting about the mechanized joy of the enterprise. Director Chris McKay (Robot Chicken) and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) aren’t Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the man-boyish kings of threading the needle between product and meta-product in their string of unlikely successes: not just LEGO Movie (in which everything really was awesome, or near enough) but the stoopid/clever Jump Streets and their comic masterpiece Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, as well. They have the alchemy, the gee-whiz earnest commitment to serving up corporate brand deposits with winning grins. Here, though, we have their imitators making a double product placement: for a comic book franchise and for a toy company. The whole thing is plastered from beginning to end with reminders of the ledger sheets and advertising budgets at play behind the brisk bright nonsense. Think of it as feature length LEGO commercial also working as a calculated pressure valve for DC’s dour live-action slogs. Sure, it’s basically fun, and a reasonably good time, but the hollow production’s highs fade fast and leave little worth lingering over.