2017 has been an unequivocally weak year for animation. There wasn’t a new Laika movie, although strong GKIDS titles like “The Breadwinner” helped fill the void. There wasn’t a new Studio Ghibli movie (although the forthcoming “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is the next best thing). There were two offerings from Pixar, one of which was totally solid, and the other of which was “Cars 3.” By the summer, the situation was already so dire that something called “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” was considered a merciful reprieve from the endless trash parade of soulless corporate dreck like “Despicable Me 3” and “Smurfs: The Lost Village.”
And yet, amidst all of this darkness, there was a glimmering bright spot. And that bright spot… was something even darker. Black. “All important movies start with a black screen.” Those are the first words we hear in Chris McKay’s “The LEGO Batman Movie,” the first joke in a brilliantly manic film that feels like it’s packed with a thousand good ones. Graced with a running commentary from the Caped Crusader himself (a gravel-voiced Will Arnett), the opening titles alone are more enjoyable than almost any other animated feature this year.
As IndieWire’s review put it back in February: “‘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.” Believe it or not, even after “Justice League,” that assessment still holds true.
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And it deserves to be one of the films nominated for Best Animated Feature in this year’s Oscar race. In truth, Warner Animation Group’s late winter hit should be a shoo-in for serious awards consideration — especially in such a weak field — but after “The LEGO Movie” was snubbed back in 2015 (who could forget Emma Stone holding a LEGO Oscar during the Academy Awards as a show of silent protest?), this sort of thing can’t be taken for granted. With that in mind, here are five reasons why “The LEGO Batman Movie” deserves to be honored on Hollywood’s biggest stage.
1. It’s the Best Superhero Movie of 2017
All due respect to “Wonder Woman” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” but they don’t even come close to this distinction. There’s a tightness to the storytelling in “The LEGO Batman Movie” — a sense of purpose — that separates it from the pack. Yes, this may be an unrepentant parody, but it makes fun of superhero pathologies with such love that it becomes a stellar example of the very thing that it exists to mock. It’s a vintage Batman story about loneliness and the perils of letting someone into your life, but one in which everything is constantly commenting on itself and cranked up to 11 (or nine, if you’re counting Bruce Wayne’s abs).
The plot of “The LEGO Batman Movie” is essentially what might happen if someone remade “Heat” as a hyperactive Saturday morning cartoon. Batman, “the greatest orphan of all time,” has used his ego to wall himself off from the rest of humanity; his mansion-fortress is both literally and figuratively an island, and he laughs at the idea of loving another person because, deep down, he knows that he’d be too afraid of losing them.
The Joker, always one step ahead of the Caped Crusader, appreciates that the two men — hero and villain — are locked in a beautiful hate-hate relationship that gives each of them a sense of purpose. When Batman tells his arch-nemesis that he means nothing to him, it kickstarts a gripping adventure of personal growth that results in Batman learning that life is best when it’s shared. As he finally admits to the Joker: “You’re the reason why I get up at four o’clock in the afternoon and pump iron until my chest is positively sick.” It’s okay, you can cry.
It’s a touching moment, one that epitomizes how the film remains focused on its central friendships even when the Phantom Zone begins hemorrhaging iconic characters from outside the DC universe and throwing them into the (very well-blocked) battle for Gotham City. “The LEGO Batman Movie” is exhaustingly dense with stuff, but Zack Snyder would kill for this kind of emotional clarity; this isn’t just a film where the Kraken from “The Clash of the Titans” accidentally blinds the Eye of Sauron, it’s a film where the Kraken from “The Clash of the Titans” accidentally blinds the Eye of Sauron in a way that galvanizes the bond between Batman and Robin (a magically guileless Michael Cera). When such chaos is so beautifully controlled, the jokes are really just icing on the cake.
2. It’s a Perfect Example of How to Use Copyrights for Fun and Profit!
We live in a cynical world, one in which even a child’s sense of wonder can be driven by corporate interests. In the dark age of cinematic universes, when it took an army of studio lawyers to arrange a playdate between Spider-Man and the rest of the Avengers, it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie that has so much fun with the fact that it’s ultimately just a product. Whatever legalistic wizardry was required to get Voldemort to share the screen with Count Dracula, Bane, Renee Zellweger, and the Gremlins, it was worth it; their presence is invaluable to a plot that already feels like the kind of thing that a kid might invent as an excuse to play with all of his action figures at the same time.
Each of these bonus characters is given a moment to shine, while all of them — from King Kong to Medusa — only help strengthen the feeling that Batman and the Joker belong to each other. From opening credits that riff on the RatPac logo, to closing credits that play over a song that’s transparently “designed to make parents and studio executives happy,” “The LEGO Batman Movie” is the rare Hollywood film that fully internalizes its message of self-acceptance.
3. It’s Hilarious
“The LEGO Batman Movie” isn’t just the best superhero movie of 2017, it’s the best parody of superhero movies of any year. In much the same way that Snyder’s “Watchmen” film ostensibly came out at the perfect time, subverting genre tropes just as multiplex audiences were beginning to understand them, “The LEGO Batman Movie” pew-pew-pewed into theaters at the precise moment when people were ready to take a step back and laugh at the absurdity of this thing they love.
Arriving in the wake of “Civil War” and “Batman v Superman” (aka “Martha-Gate”), Chris McKay’s manic opus couldn’t have been more perfectly positioned to mock the self-seriousness that was threatening to suffocate the biggest superhero franchises. And yet, it’s only because the film is so funny that we forget how risky it must have been for Warner Bros to release a movie that skewers the grimness of Ben Affleck’s Batman and describes the Caped Crusader as “an unsupervised adult man karate-chopping poor people in a Halloween costume.”
But it’s really funny. If anything, it’s too funny. “The LEGO Batman Movie” so dense with jokes that it’s hard to process them all your first time through — laughing at one means missing the next two. You’d have to go back to the legendary “Not Another Teen Movie” or vintage ZAZ classics like “The Naked Gun” to find a feature-length comedy that’s this overstuffed with gags, that doesn’t let a single millisecond of screen-time go by without squeezing in some kind of quip or reference or barely audible aside.
The dialogue is magnificent. (Robin: “My name’s Richard Grayson, but all the kids at the orphanage call me Dick.” Batman: “Well, children can be cruel”). But it’s the constant barrage of interstitial stuff that makes this such a work of art. Case in point: The best part of that scene where the Kraken destroys Sauron isn’t when he shoots the massive fireball, it’s when the gigantic sea monster slinks away from the damage and mutters “Nothing to see” in his guttural Kraken voice. Even Krakens feel shame.
Also, not for nothing, but “The LEGO Batman Movie” did the “Iron Man sucks” password bit before “Thor: Ragnarok” got there, and “The LEGO Batman Movie” did it better.
4. It’s Gorgeously Animated
Most CG animation is very, very ugly. It may not be the worst of the legacies we’re leaving behind for our children and grandchildren, but future generations will have every right to hate us because of how we’ve forsaken the expressiveness of hand-drawn cartoons for, uh… this:
And yet, these LEGO movies are the exceptions that prove the rule. It helps, of course, that the basic premise of these films requires the sort of photo-realistic design that only computer-generated animation can provide, but “The LEGO Batman Movie” doesn’t rest on its laurels. The incredibly tactile world that McKay has created is as full of life as it is dense with jokes; from the cavernous halls of Wayne Manor to the cosmic light of the Phantom Zone, every block of space feels like it was built for real and shot in impossibly fluid stop-motion.
Best of all, the characters are more vividly detailed than many of their live-action counterparts. Look at the stitching of Batman’s cape, or the way that light moves across his stubby little arms, revealing the tiny nicks in the plastic from previous wear and tear; it’s things like this that allow audiences to believe in this world, and buy into the story even while they’re laughing at the scenario.
5. “You Had Me… at Hello.”
You’ll know it when you see it, but “The LEGO Batman Movie” includes what is obviously the single greatest scene of any animated feature this year. In a film full of spot-on references, one cuts deeper than all the rest, as McKay uses a certain moment from a certain (live-action) ’90s classic to surmise everything that’s broken inside Bruce Wayne, and everything that’s brilliant about this version of him. This bit alone should be enough to earn “The LEGO Batman Movie” an Oscar nomination, and there’s still 90 minutes of goodness left to go from there.