'The Lego Batman Movie'
Rated PG: 104 minutes
Three stars out of four
Turns out, Batman can take a joke. Hundreds, actually.
It's not the simplest thing to take a character as embedded in our culture as Batman and make wickedly irreverent fun of him while simultaneously paying tribute to his storied past and keeping him likable for the next round.
If a kids movie can do all that AND get in a perfectly placed clip from "Jerry Maguire" — and you know which one we're talking about — well, then, you had us at hello, "Lego Batman Movie."
The laughs at the Dark Knight's expense start early in director Chris McKay's manic romp of a movie — in the first seconds, actually, with a very husky Christian Bale-like voice opining on the importance of starting a superhero movie with a black screen.
That gruff voice again belongs to Will Arnett, expanding on a supporting role in the popular 2014 "Lego Movie" (clearly this self-important superhero was not pleased with a mere supporting role). Arnett's Batman is not a happy guy, weighted down as he is by a limitless sense of self-grandeur. Since nobody can do what he does, he has to do everything alone.
And one, as the soundtrack tells us, is the loneliest number. Sure, the bat cave is amazing — but what's a superhero to do after a long day saving Gotham? He comes home to a few trivial pieces of mail — one of them a coupon for Bed, Bath and Beyond. His only companion is his computer voice (voiced by Siri, of course!) His loyal butler, Alfred (a silken-toned Ralph Fiennes) has left some lobster thermidor to heat up in the microwave. Alone in his cavernous abode, he munches on his crustaceans, plays a little solo guitar, and watches one of his favorite chick flicks, er, movies — yup, "Jerry Maguire."
We all know that Jerry ends up with a family at the end, but will Batman ever have a family to, um, complete him? A photo of young Bruce Wayne and his ill-fated parents is a sad reminder of his childhood.
Batman is being challenged on several fronts. First, old nemesis Joker (Zach Galifianakis, delightful), is up to his usual destructive mischief. But there's something else Joker craves, even more than flattening Gotham: recognition. He wants to be Batman's ONLY bad guy. Thing is, Batman's just not that into him. "I don't do 'ships" — meaning relationships — he says. "I like to fight around." Even worse: "Batman and Joker are not a thing." Joker is devastated.
Then there's Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), Gotham's new police commissioner. She's highly qualified — heck, she graduated from "Harvard for Police" — and has sensible ideas about fighting crime. After all, she points out, Gotham is still crime-ridden. Maybe relying on a masked vigilante savior isn't the best strategy; it's gotta be a team effort. Batman does NOT like this idea.
Meanwhile, two key people are trying to soften Batman up, in a personal sense. One is Alfred, attempting to bring out the emotions he knows are there somewhere. (A highlight for us old folks is when Alfred reviews the many iterations of Batman over the years, including a precious black-and-white clip of Adam West in the '60s.) And young orphan Dick Grayson (the future Robin, voiced by Michael Cera) manages to get Batman to adopt him — inadvertently. Gradually, our superhero warms to the idea of being a dad.
To a point, anyway. The essential struggle of the movie (besides the constant battling of returning criminals — too many to mention — and defusing of apocalypse-threatening bombs, of course) is Batman's struggle with his own loneliness, and his thorny path toward accepting the help — and companionship, and maybe even love — of others.
Will he get there? Perhaps that's obvious. But the fun comes in seeing how it all clicks together.