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D: Chris McKay / 104m

Cast: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Hector Elizondo, Jenny Slate, Channing Tatum, Jason Mantzoukas, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson, Billy Dee Williams, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Jemaine Clement, Ellie Kemper, Jonah Hill, Adam Devine, Mariah Carey

A black screen. And then… “Black. All important movies start with a black screen. And music. Edgy, scary music that would make a parent or studio executive nervous. And logos. Really long and dramatic logos. Warner Bros. Why not Warner Brothers? I dunno. DC. The house that Batman built. Yeah, what Superman? Come at me bro. I’m your kryptonite. Hmm, not sure what RatPac does but that logo is macho. I dig it. Okay, get yourself ready for some… reading. If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change. Hoooo. [attributed to Michael Jackson] No, I said that. Batman is very wise. I also have huge pecs and a nine pack. Yeah, I’ve got an extra ab. Now lets start the movie.” …and that’s just the first couple of minutes.

After the success of The LEGO Movie (2014), it was inevitable that a spin-off movie featuring the Caped Crusader would eventually hit our screens. Above all the other superheroes in that movie, it was Batman (Arnett), and his wonderfully egotistical repartee that grabbed the audience’s attention (“Bruce Wayne? Uh… who’s that? Sounds like a cool guy”). Now, he’s back, and this time he faces his biggest challenge. No, not the Joker (Galifianakis), or Catwoman (Kravitz), or Scarecrow (Mantzoukas), but… accepting he’s part of a family.

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After foiling another of the Joker’s dastardly plans to destroy Gotham, and flatly denying the Joker’s assertion that he is Batman’s greatest enemy, the (brick)Bat heads back to the Batcave and a lonely evening at Wayne Manor (now on Wayne Island). The next night, at a gala to celebrate the retirement of Commissioner Gordon (Elizondo), his successor, his daughter Barbara (Dawson), announces that she intends to restructure Gotham’s police force to function without Batman’s help. The Joker turns up unexpectedly with all the other Gotham villains, and surrenders. Batman is immediately suspicious that the Joker is up to something, and aware that his arch-rival Superman (Tatum) banished General Zod to the Phantom Zone, decides this is what should happen to the Joker.

Before he can acquire Superman’s Phantom Zone Projector (PZP from now on), Batman is reminded by his butler, Alfred (Fiennes), that while he was at the gala, he inadvertently adopted an orphan (“My name is Richard Grayson. The other kids call me Dick.” “Well, children can be cruel.”). Batman allows “Dick” to help him and his young ward takes on the superhero identity, Robin. Together they steal the PZP from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and visit Arkham Asylum where they use it on the Joker. The new Commissioner reacts badly to this, and she has both Batman and Robin locked up. But Harley Quinn (Slate), the one villain who didn’t surrender, steals the PZP and uses it to free the Joker. In turn he uses it to free all the villains trapped in the Phantom Zone, a group that includes Lord Voldemort (Izzard), the Daleks, and the Eye of Sauron (Clement) (but strangely, not General Zod).

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With Gotham once again facing terrible ruin and destruction, Commissioner Gordon (or Babs as Batman calls her) realises she needs Batman and Robin’s help, and the three of them team up with Alfred to take on all the super-villains now loose in Gotham. Attacked on all sides, the quartet manage to see off the Eye of Sauron (and an embarrassed Kraken) before making it to Wayne Island and a showdown with the Joker. But Batman can’t risk losing the three people who now mean the most to him, and so he tricks them, and faces the Joker alone. But his plan quickly backfires on him, and the Caped Crusader finds himself in the Phantom Zone, while his new “family” do their utmost to try and save him…

The LEGO Batman Movie, like its predecessor, crams an awful lot into its running time, but although the plot thickens at a fast pace, and the jokes come even thicker and faster (a second viewing is practically unavoidable if you want to “get” all the in-jokes and references to previous Batman movies and comics), but thanks to a script by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern and John Whittington that defies the idea that “too many cooks spoil the broth”, the storyline is easy to follow, and the main subplot involving Batman not going it alone is stressed over and over (in fact, a little too much). It also provides one of the best Batman/Joker story arcs seen for quite some time, as the Joker’s need to be hated by Batman casts their adversarial relationship in the light of an unrequited bromance.

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But while the script adds layers that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a semi-sequel animated movie, it certainly doesn’t skimp on the comedy, and like The LEGO Movie, it’s a riot of visual gags, verbal one-liners, and sit-com moments that all gel together into a splendidly anarchic whole. It also takes as many opportunities as it can to poke fun at previous Batman movies – at one point, Alfred chides Batman’s behaviour as something he’s seen “in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966 (cue LEGO versions of Batman’s previous big screen outings; well, except for that weird one) – while taking a few sideswipes at other superhero movies. If anything, there’s a greater success rate here than in 2014, and the writing team should be congratulated for making this feel as fresh and as appealing as its forerunner.

Of course, the cast have a lot to do with it as well, with Arnett now in a position to lay claim to the title of Best Batman Voice Artist Ever. Whether he’s being arrogantly charming, obtuse, horrified by Robin’s liking for disco music, or struggling to say the word “sorry”, Arnett’s performance is immensely entertaining, and it’s clear the actor is having a blast. This is reflected in the performances of the rest of the cast, with Galifianakis, Cera, Fiennes, and Slate all on top form, while Dawson is unfortunately stuck with being the straight (wo)man to Arnett’s comic embellishments. The movie looks wonderful as well, with the LEGO sets combining beautifully with the CGI elements, and there’s a level of inspired visual invention that you can only get from an animated movie. If there’s one criticism to be made in this respect, it’s that some of the super-villains – the Daleks, the Gremlins, and the Kraken in particular – don’t look as good as most of the others do. But when a movie is otherwise as visually and comedically ingenious as this is, then what’s a few dodgy character designs between super-villains?

Rating: 8/10 – in amongst all the vivid action and the crunching noise, The LEGO Batman Movie is a good-natured, entertaining… movie that doesn’t waste a frame or the chance to put a smile on its audience’s faces; better by far than its live action brethren, it does more with the character in one outing than ever before, and does so in a way that’s still respectful of the source material, even though said material is being pulled around and twisted out of shape in the pursuit of gags, gags, and more gags.

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