"THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE" — 3½ stars — Voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis; PG (rude humor and some action); in general release
Three years ago, "The Lego Movie" introduced us to a perfectly wonderful, self-aware world where Batman can fight pirates and hitch a ride on the Millennium Falcon with Han and Chewie to go out for pizza afterward. Now, with "The Lego Batman Movie," we get a return trip that is every bit as fun, funny and thoughtful as the first go-around.
For a movie that you could dismiss as a blatant product placement, "Lego Batman" is a riot. It's more of a spin-off than a sequel to 2014's "Lego Movie," though it does make references to the earlier film's Master Builder concept on a couple of occasions.
The film, naturally, is built around a goofy, Lego-version of the Caped Crusader, voiced by Will Arnett. As the movie opens, Batman singlehandedly saves Gotham from an all-star assault of super villains, led by the Joker (Zach Galifianakis).
With all his nemeses behind bars, Batman starts having a bit of an identity crisis, and it doesn't help when he finds out that Superman (Channing Tatum) is holding regular Justice League get-togethers without him. Luckily the Joker proves to have a bigger plan in mind. Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate), the Joker's girlfriend, was able to slip through Batman's dragnet and is set on unleashing a who's-who of pop culture bad guys from Superman's Phantom Zone prison to get rid of Batman once and for all.
The additional characters, whose identities will be kept secret here, ramp up the pop culture content and chaos of "Lego Batman" considerably. But underneath the spectacle, we get a more character-based setup: Batman is lonely, so determined to wall off the rest of the world that he won't even accept his longtime rivalry with the Joker as a legitimate relationship. Thus, "Lego Batman" is about Batman getting a new family, and Warner Brothers empties the toy box to get it for him.
Fans of "The Lego Movie" will be happy to find that "Lego Batman" delivers the same kind of nonstop zaniness and sharp sense of humor that defined the earlier film. This Batman inhabits a universe that includes all of the previous incarnations of the character in the canon, which leads to numerous in-jokes for longtime fans.
Often there are jokes layered upon jokes, such as when Batman stares wistfully (can Lego characters stare wistfully?) at a picture of himself and his parents at the theater, and just over their shoulders you can see a street sign marked Crime Alley. Other jokes rocket by so fast you get the feeling most fans will have to sit down with their own copies a few months from now, watching with their fingers on the pause button just to make sure they've caught everything.
Of course, the film's prime humor device is the goofy and awkward nature of the Legos themselves, and the animation team has delivered a wildly entertaining product that maximizes the comic potential of its subject. The story slows down a little bit around the two-thirds mark, but it's hard to imagine any audiences coming away disappointed.
You could argue that the "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to characters makes a mess of things, but that is actually one of the things that makes "Lego Batman" feel so genuine. Director Chris McKay never loses track of the fact that his characters are toys, and his film is a reflection of what it feels like to play with all those toys.
Kids will love the spectacle, but "The Lego Batman Movie" may be most adored by the adults who remember what it was like to be a kid. "The Lego Batman Movie" may not be the sharp and witty heartwarming animated cultural satire we deserve, but it's absolutely the sharp and witty heartwarming animated cultural satire we need.
"The Lego Batman Movie" is rated PG for rude humor and some action; running time: 104 minutes.