“The LEGO Batman Movie” is this year’s only worthwhile story about a manic, self-obsessed, profoundly unloved cartoon billionaire who lives in an isolated fortress of his own design, resents the people that he’s entrusted to protect, and receives money from (executive producer) Steve Mnuchin. It is also arguably the most enjoyable Batman movie ever made, and certainly the funniest.
Neither of those are particularly high bars to clear, but Chris Mckay’s exuberant — and exhausting — new film is nevertheless a worthy spin-off of 2014’s “The LEGO Movie,” grafting a warm-hearted parody of the Caped Crusader onto an animated franchise that’s as malleable as the plastic bricks for which it’s named.
The relentless pace and irreverently self-aware tone are clear from the very start, as Batman — voiced to gravelly perfection by Will Arnett — offers a running commentary on the various studio logos that precede his latest adventure (imagine “Deadpool,” but funny). Once the story begins in earnest, McKay sets the tone with a hyper-active orgy of crazed action and silly jokes, “LEGO Batman” quickly becoming so frantic that it makes “The LEGO Movie” feel like a Béla Tarr film by comparison.
The opening sequence alone manages to squeeze in a massive fight scene, a zillion different villains of the classic (The Joker, a mundane Zach Galifianakis) and not-so-classic (The Condiment King), and even a full-blown musical number in which our egotistic hero regales the citizens of Gotham with a song about his own gloriousness. It would only be slightly overstating the case to say that more happens in the first 10 minutes of this delightful sugar rush than in the entirety of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. And it wouldn’t be overstating the case at all to say that this film’s surprisingly lovable Bane improves on Nolan’s version in every way.
But “LEGO Batman,” much like the movie that spawned it (and on which McKay served as editor and animation director), uses its amphetamine-addled approach as a means to an end. Like a particle accelerator that generates visual gags at a faster and faster rate until they achieve light speed and reveal the film’s sub-atomic sentiment, McKay’s gorgeously animated film blends decades of comic book mythos into a heartfelt (if inoffensively hackneyed) story about the power of family.
More photo-real than its predecessor — and more amusing for that, given that the LEGO characters are still limited to their jerky sudden movements — it revolves around a Bruce Wayne who fights crime as an excuse to get out of Xanadu for a few hours every night so he can stop staring at the photo of his parents that was taken just seconds before they were murdered while walking down Crime Alley.
Severed from the rest of the world (he lives on an island both figuratively and literally), “the greatest orphan of all time” spends his days microwaving whole lobsters, ignoring his butler/surrogate father (Ralph Fiennes, continuing his hot streak), and cackling at the end of “Jerry Maguire” by himself in the Wayne Manor movie theater. “I don’t need anyone,” he boasts early on, breaking the Joker’s heart and inspiring the supervillain to prove that Batman can’t exist without him.
Right around the same time that Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) replaces her father as the new police commissioner and Bruce accidentally adopts a kewpie-eyed kid from the local orphanage (Michael Cera), The Joker decides to smuggle himself into the Phantom Zone — Superman’s favorite maximum-security space jail — and unleash scores of very recognizable inmates upon Gotham City.
This is when Warner Bros’ lawyers allow “LEGO Batman” to find its full potential, as the movie is allowed to run wild with several of the studio’s most valuable copyrights. Like a kid staging epic battles with all of his various toys (provided that all of his toys share the same parent company), McKay swells the usual squad of Batman villains by adding the likes of King Kong, Voldemort, and even the Wicked Witch of the West to the mix. Alone, they’re mildly amusing, but together they earn a handful of solid laughs; the bit where Godzilla slinks away after accidentally blasting the Eye of Sauron with his fire breath is worth the price of admission.
If the giddy display of corporate masturbation never becomes insufferable, that’s probably because McKay (and his five credited writers) never miss an opportunity to mock the franchises they’re permitted to play with. The whole movie gently skewers the self-seriousness that has always characterized its title character, but that doesn’t stop it from laughing at very specific moments from Batman’s big screen history; it feels like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” bears the most biting of these jokes, but perhaps that’s only because any mention of that disaster feels like a sick burn.
Needless to say, mileage will vary when it comes to audience enjoyment. Kids will be love-drunk on the sheer velocity of this thing, but — when it comes to older viewers — the film is definitely geared towards people who’ve spent enough time in Gotham to know that shark repellant isn’t as useless as it seems.
More fun than funny, more clever than smart, “LEGO Batman” moves too fast to acclimate audiences to the world it so eagerly dismantles and rebuilds (and too fast to make them want to stay there for a minute longer), but it serves as a frenzied reminder that laughing at the things we love is sometimes the best way to remember why we love them. Can Batman ever be happy? It’s hard to say. But, for the first time in a long time, at least his fans can be.
“The LEGO Batman Movie” opens in theaters on February 10th.