The cheeky new LEGO Batman Movie pulls off two things incredibly well. The first is artistic; the second is a little more subversive. Let’s start with the first one. As a follow-up to 2014’s surprise hit about a shiny, happy “Everything Is Awesome!!!” plastic-brick universe where nothing trumps the power of friendship and teamwork, The LEGO Batman Movie avoids the trap of being just another cynical, watered-down retread. It’s very much its own thing, with a mostly new cast of pliable polymer characters and a story that spins off in an entirely different direction. As for the second, well, it’s a bit more devious.
After hijacking the first movie with his heavy, rock-tumbler whisper and bonkers throwaway gags, Will Arnett’s hilariously humorless Batman turns out to be the fun-size star of what’s basically a comic-book movie for kids who are too young to see comic-book movies. It’s a stealth recruitment video for the hearts and minds of future consumers of DC product, a diabolical gateway drug posing as a harmless kiddie flick about Danish playdate action figures with crescent hands and helmet hair. Good thing that beneath all of the semi-Dark Knight propaganda is an irresistibly clever and visually intoxicating adventure that once again shows why it’s more fulfilling to play with friends than brood alone in your Batcave.
Set in a crazy-colored interlocking version of Gotham City, LEGO Batman pits our narcissistically morose cowled hero against his insecure merry-prankster nemesis, the Joker (a winkingly needy Zach Galifianakis), and an army of herky-jerky C-grade supervillains (like the ketchup-and- mustard-spewing Condiment King). In order to save the day, vigilante Bruce Wayne has to lighten up, stop admiring his nine-pack abs (“That’s right, I have an extra ab!”), and join forces with enthusiastic orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, so bubbly he’d wag his tail if he had one), police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson in plucky junior-feminism mode), and his loyal butler and surrogate father, Alfred (a deadpan and dry-as-vermouth Ralph Fiennes).
Seventy-five percent of the film’s carpet-bomb campaign of pop culture meta punchlines will ricochet over the target audience’s head, but parents dragged along for the ride will no doubt be grateful for Arnett’s rat-a-tat send-ups of Adam West and superhero clichés. Directed by Robot Chicken’s Chris McKay and produced in part by the first film’s dynamic duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, LEGO Batman revs so fast and moves so frenetically that it becomes a little exhausting by the end. It flirts with being too much of a good thing. But rarely has corporate brainwashing been so much fun and gone down with such a delightful aftertaste. B+