Three years ago, “The LEGO Movie” surprised everyone by being very good despite having the flimsy premise of “What if we made a movie based on a toy?” What we feared would be a cynical feature-length commercial turned out to be a joyful, self-aware comedy about teamwork and imagination in which the word “Lego” was never spoken. The spinoff, “The LEGO Batman Movie,” continues in that vein — spoofy, zany, self-referential — without sustaining the same dizzying level of energy (which is kind of a relief, actually).
Once again computer-animated to look like everything was built out of Legos, the new film casts Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) as a self-centered, beatboxing egotist who sings songs about how awesome he is while saving Gotham but goes home every night to an empty mansion. His faithful butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), is his only friend, and he’s more like a father figure (albeit one Batman doesn’t listen to). Batman says he doesn’t need anyone else, but secretly he’s afraid of being part of a family again.
His lone wolf, “I don’t need anyone” attitude upsets the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), whose feelings are hurt when he realizes Batman doesn’t consider him his greatest enemy. (“Whoa, whoa, I don’t have a bad guy. I’m fighting several bad guys right now.”) Then there’s the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who says Gotham needs active, involved citizens, not an unaccountable vigilante who has destructive battles with supervillains but never seems to catch them.
In the middle of this, almost accidentally, Bruce Wayne adopts an eager orphaned teen named Richard Grayson (Michael Cera) who becomes Batman’s sidekick without realizing Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person. (The film gets a lot of mileage out of that.) This conflicts with Batman’s “I work alone” policy … but so does belonging to the Justice League, which the film is keen to overlook.
The story isn’t exactly flawless, and there’s a stretch in the middle where the laughs and energy are diminished as the plot chugs along. The promising idea of using Superman’s Phantom Zone as a depository for villains from all universes fizzles, as it turns out Lego doesn’t have the rights to as many interesting bad guys as we thought (save for Batman’s innumerable nemeses). Call me crazy, but maybe a cartoon about superheroes doesn’t need five screenwriters?
But when it’s on, it’s on, directed by Chris McKay (a veteran of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim) with affectionate enthusiasm. On one level, there are clever meta-jokes about the superhero genre and previous incarnations of Batman. On a more basic level, there are wonderful details, like the fact that Barbara Gordon went to “Harvard for police,” suggesting that this could all be the product of a kid’s imagination. The handful of belly laughs and consistent cheerfulness are more than enough to compensate for the addled, overstuffed story. And how bizarre that the semi-parodic Batman is the first of all the movie Batmans to make us feel an emotional connection to the character. Legos — is there anything they can’t do?
B (1 hr., 44 min.; )