You can practically hear the beans being counted as the first of a gazillion shiny, brightly colored spin-offs goes through the motions, while never approaching the mad genius of 2014's plastic-fantastic smash The LEGO Movie. These days, franchising isn't so much a corporate strategy as a reflex. What Hollywood doesn't understand is that lightning in a bottle can't be bottled and sold.
The LEGO Batman Movie starts promisingly enough, with a black screen and Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) gruffly informing the viewer, "All important movies start with a black screen." Within seconds, though, the movie takes a turn for the decidedly not important. The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and his minions launch a generic attack on Gotham. The Caped Crusader mops the floor with them despite being preposterously outnumbered, a gag that killed in Hot Shots! back in 1991.
All in a night's batwork, suggest director Chris McKay (2wks, 1yr) and five — count 'em, five — screenwriters, none of whom worked on the original. Then it's home to the empty vastness of Wayne Manor, where our hero eats a lonely lobster dinner and gazes longingly at photographs of his slain parents. He may refer to himself as "the greatest orphan of all time" (his nonstop bragging is a running joke), but in his heart gapes a hole as big as the Batcave. You see where this is going.
Where the first film offered a dazzling display of fresh, funny pop-culture riffs and formula-free inventiveness, this busy by-product mimics its look and manic pace while telling what turns out to be the most conventional of stories. Over the years, we've been served up Batmen who dance and Batmen who brood. We've even been offered a Batman with nipples on his costume (George Clooney is still apologizing for that one). Courtesy of McKay and company, now we get a Batman who craves the comfort of family.
The makers of the movie throw in everything but the kitchen sink — though, if Warner Bros. owned the rights to a superhero called the Kitchen Sink, it's a safe bet they would've thrown him in, too. The film's a jarring jumble of product placement. When the rapid-fire jokes stop landing, roughly 15 minutes in, viewers have little left with which to occupy their minds. Though there are two pressing questions: what exactly characters as random and unrelated as Godzilla, the Eye of Sauron, Voldemort, King Kong, Gremlins, the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz and Siri are doing in Gotham, and how the resulting mayhem could possibly prove as ho-hum as it does. If they'd all come for a Supernatural Movie Character Convention, watching them attend would have been more fun.
Which brings us back to Bruce Wayne's empty batnest. Sure, it's borderline touching to watch the Dark Knight adopt dorky Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and take him under his wing — he eventually becomes Robin. And to see Batman find LEGO love with the new police commissioner (Rosario Dawson) — she eventually becomes Batgirl. But watching them become a happy little superfamily is a pretty tame and tired payoff, compared with the mind-blowing meta-twist that capped the original.
Original. That's more or less what it comes down to. The first film was. The follow-up isn't. Most of The LEGO Batman Movie's 104 minutes are devoted to action scenes, and audiences are likely to exit the cineplex baffled by their unrelentingly boilerplate quality. In this first of a great many planned LEGO spin-offs, everything is far from awesome.