"...does an arguably more succinct job than just about any other "Batman" film in getting to the heart of who he is."

Best Batman Movie in Years

(021217) Although not as good as the brilliantly subversive The Lego Movie, the feature directorial debut of Chris McKay (TV's "Robot Chicken") is bursting with imagination, dizzyingly acerbic and consistently clever without evoking an off-putting "too-cool-for-the-room" vibe. What's missing here from the 2014 first Lego offering is the philosophical battle over the blocks themselves — are they better as meticulous, step-by-step model construction or a playground of creativity? — into a metaphor for the pleasures of nonconformity and free discovery. It's replaced here with the typical frenetic pace that we get from every other major studio animated film. However, screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith (2012's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter") and Chris McKenna ( tv series, Community) & Erik Sommers make the very act of creating a new movie about the Caped Crusader look so easy one has to wonder why the various adaptations have been so hit-or-miss over the years. Setting the story in a universe where all of Batman's previous exploits coexist, from the 1966 Adam West television series ( of which, there is a surprisingly large dollup of love thrown ), to Tim Burton's brooding 1989 and 1992 films, to Joel Schumacher's garishly punny 1995 and 1997 installments, to Christopher Nolan's gritty 2005, 2008 and 2012 trilogy, to Zack Snyder's divisive 2016 iteration, was a wisely inclusive choice that allows its makers to dabble in different tones and styles while avoiding the alienation of its wide swath of fans.

The party kicks off to a wildly amusing start with a portentous black screen and an intense orchestral arrangement rising on the soundtrack during the Warner Bros., DC, and RatPac Entertainment logos—all the better, as Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Will Arnett tv series, Arrested Development ) opines in voiceover, to immediately announce its importance. As the plot proper gets underway, Gotham City is once again under siege by a motley crew of recognizable villains, led by an attention-starved Joker (Zach Galifianakis, 2009's The Hangover) whose biggest life goal is for Batman to openly acknowledge his hatred for the clown-faced baddie. Vigilante crime-fighter Batman, emotionally unavailable since a childhood tragedy took his parents away from him, refuses to give his archenemy the satisfaction. He may be more concerned with his own vainglorious pursuits, but he still strives to keep his city safe. This time, however, in order to defeat the Joker, his girlfriend Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate, 2016's Zootopia ), and the rest of the costumed villains, Batman will have to step out of his comfort zone and finally accept the help of his allies: faithful butler/father figure Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes, 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel ), spirited orphan Dick Grayson/Robin (Michael Cera, 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and no-nonsense police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson, 2005's Sin City ).

Working on two separate enticing layers—as a punchy critique of overly serious, self-important, ultra-masculine superhero movies, and as a compelling, straight-forward "Batman" story in its own right—"The LEGO Batman Movie" is both spoof and legit action-adventure. The film's kitchen-sink approach is treated with such unabashed cheerfulness it almost avoids feeling cluttered. Going a long way in keeping viewers engaged is the treatment of Bruce Wayne/Batman himself. When he's not saving the day in his black rubber cowl or changing into a suave suit to attend Gotham City's Winter Gala (complete with a children's chorus performing Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror"), Bruce sulks around his lonesome mansion, warming up a lobster dish in the microwave before retiring to his home theater to ironically laugh at "Jerry Maguire." In between admiring his 9-pack of abs (yes, he has an extra one in the center), he wistfully stares at the last photograph taken of him with his parents, moments before they were gunned down in Crime Alley. As inflated as Bruce's ego is, there is also a reason why he turned out this way, and the film does an arguably more succinct job than just about any other "Batman" film in getting to the heart of who he is.

Gravitating within Batman's orbit is an entertaining trio of fellow protagonists. There's Barbara Gordon (the future Batgirl), who supports Batman's mission statement but sees room for improvement in the superhero he currently is; Alfred, who remains Bruce's steadfast mentor but isn't afraid to dish out some patriarchal tough love; and Dick Grayson/Robin, whom Bruce inadvertently adopts (he agrees to it while preoccupied gazing upon Barbara) and then reluctantly trains as his sidekick. Meanwhile, the Joker continues his dogged pursuit of capturing Batman's attention, a damaged lunatic who wants nothing more than the ire of his sworn enemy. Secretly, the Joker probably loves Batman. Without the Dark Knight, he's nobody. Will Arnett's (2016's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows") committed, gravel-toned performance is a comedic revelation, proving even the most broad of roles can be three-dimensional. If there is a weak link in the voice talent, it might be Zach Galifianakis' Joker. But, I suppose, Mark Hamill is tough to top.

The revelation that Batman and Robin share a love of the magical 2001 John Cusack-Kate Beckinsale romantic comedy "Serendipity" is single-handedly all the evidence one needs to realize "The LEGO Batman Movie" is worthy of admiration. Playing on an elevated level that transcends that of many kid-centric animated pics, the film proves smart, slyly knowledgeable of its superhero subgenre, unexpectedly warm-hearted, and very, very funny. Even as iconic Warner Bros. properties topple upon each other—Superman (Channing Tatum), Lord Voldemort (Eddie Izzard), the Wicked Witch of the West, and even Gremlins figure into the action—director Chris McKay keeps the focus on telling a solidly developed story with the kind of emotionally true character arc only the best comic book tales achieve. A tighter edit could have made a strong film even better—at 106 minutes, it begins to overstay its welcome during the bloated third act—but if length is its greatest foe, it must otherwise have done a whole lot right. A visual wonder with an assortment of Easter eggs hidden in the nooks and crannies of each frame, "The LEGO Batman Movie" rests on nary a laurel. It's conceptually ambitious. It's insatiably energetic. The writing is abuzz with shrewd wit. Best of all, it triumphantly stakes a claim on the legacy of Batman while standing apart as its own singular entity.

Directed by:  Chris McKay
Written by: Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington from a story by Seth Grahame-Smith
Starring the Voices Of:   Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson
Released:  021017
Length: 104 minutes
Rating:   Rated PG for rude humor and some action

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE ©  2017 Warner Bros. Animation

Review © 2017 Alternate Reality, Inc.