What’s it going to take for “The LEGO Batman Movie” to redeem the franchise with an Oscar nomination after “The LEGO Movie” was snubbed in 2015? The movie will need to get more respect for its brick animation style, inside-out take on the Caped Crusader, and self-reflexive wit.
Of course, it didn’t help that the Annie voters left “The LEGO Batman Movie” off its list of best animated feature nominations on Monday, but there’s still time to coax the Academy into an Oscar nomination. IndieWire critic David Ehrlich passionately argued his case, but nobody gets more animated about “LEGO Batman” than director Chris McKay.
What LEGO Does Best
“We look for things that other movies can’t do,” McKay said. “That’s our job in making a LEGO movie. What story can you only tell with this medium? And I wanted to do an emotional story about Batman’s interior life with jokes and with big action.”
And McKay has succeeded admirably. Even though it’s a spoof, “LEGO Batman” is more engaging than the recent live-action DC movies. That’s because it actually digs deeper: it’s unafraid of exploring the Dark Knight’s fear of intimacy and exposing his symbiotic relationship with Joker.
Thus, when Will Arnett’s Batman tells Zach Galifianakis’ Joker that he means nothing to him, setting off an existential crisis, the super baddie has nothing left to do but destroy Gotham and humiliate his foe.
“There’s not a lot of upside in Batman fixing his problem because then you maybe don’t have a sequel,” McKay added. “And the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movies were about the villains. And so was the TV series. And the Christopher Nolan movies were about Gotham City. Our movie was about attacking his central problem. We talked about people having a trauma happen to them or being cautious in relationships. Our Batman doesn’t want to take off his cowl to go to a party.”
Building a Bigger Gotham
McKay upped Sydney-based Animal Logic’s game, keeping the stop-motion aesthetic but loosening up the LEGO rules while expanding the scale. He wanted to make us think that we were really in Gotham: a large, naturalistic, tactile world filled with eye-popping colors. The animators also added atmospherics (fire and rain) to enhance the believability.
“Working in Sydney, you get this crew from around the world,” McKay said. “I had stop-motion animators and regular CG animators and game people. And it was great to have all these different influences on the movie because they’ve allowed us to make it look and feel different from other animated movies and ‘The LEGO Movie’ itself. I wanted you to think that the Batman in Gotham City has been around for all of these stories and he is the accumulation of all of these things.”
Looking to “Famous Monsters” for Inspiration
The idea of exploring Batman’s troubled psyche for fun and for seriousness centered around the metaphor of being stunted and getting stuck. “Not to get too meta, but sometimes our movies are stuck telling the same story about this character again and again with new window dressing,” said McKay.
“The trick was we wanted to make it acceptable to Batman fans of all ages. And part of that was looking at our color palette. And it was important to me that this could’ve just as easily been Nolan’s Batman movie as it could’ve been an animated movie.”
For inspiration, McKay and his team looked to illustrator Basil Gogos, who did the “Famous Monsters” covers, and who passed away earlier this year. They incorporated the dark shadows and saturated colors. It played right into the LEGO brick aesthetic. “We were staying true to the operatic roots of the Batman comic books and it could feel at home in the Adam West world and the Frank Miller world,” McKay said.
Getting Under Batman’s Skin
McKay wanted to keep the stop-motion vibe from “The LEGO Movie” while going further with the animation. Outside of the parody humor, this was in keeping with Batman’s emotional arc. “I wanted all the facial stuff to mimic a real human being as much as possible,” he said. “That’s why after the opening heist scene, I wanted the movie to suddenly change. And that’s why we did that shot where Batman’s watching the microwave and very subtle ticks. Because I wanted to signal to the audience right away that we’re going into this guy’s interior life and you’re going to see a kinder performance.”
This required an adjustment to the performances with McKay advising the animators to study faces more intensely. “I told them to look at their partners and bring those details back to the animation,” said McKay.
But it wasn’t easy with Batman’s glowing eyes. So they created a center spot within that glow for the animators to move around and highlight his pupils. “We needed to get these honest moments between these characters and the animators had to dig in to find an organic performance,” McKay said.
It might be LEGO, but there’s nothing small or insignificant about the animated achievement.