“Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” The LEGO Batman Movie

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Everything is (almost) awesome” in The LEGO Batman Movie, a spinoff from the 2014 surprise critical and box office hit The LEGO Movie. While LEGO Batman never quite achieves the warmhearted, dizzyingly progressive whimsy of its predecessor, it compensates with a bonkers absurdity that wouldn’t have been misplaced in a Road Runner cartoon.

Will Arnett returns to gravelly-voice the titular anti-hero, a Trump-esque (by way of Alec Baldwin) billionaire egomaniac whose idea of a good time is fighting (alone) an endlessly looped (and loopy) war on crime where the criminals never actually get locked up and the Batman soaks up a debatably earned shower of community accolades.

Arnett is a one-note hoot, and the filmmakers (director Chris McKay working with a mixed grab-bag of screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington) wisely supplement his singular focus with a sweet-natured supply of supporting characters.

Cast MVPs include a sparklingly feminist Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon (later dubbed “Batgirl,” who quips to Arnett, “Does that make you BatBOY, then?”), a gleefully earnest and utterly over-caffeinated Michael Cera as Dick Grayson (relishing every glimmering, discofied sequin of his admittedly peculiar but comic book accurate “Robin” costume), and a dry-as-a-martini Ralph Fiennes as Bruce Wayne/Batman’s dutiful, shaken-but-not-stirred majordomo Alfred Pennyworth.

Like The LEGO Movie (and just about any children’s movie made. ever.), The LEGO Batman Movie posits a primary thesis that family is everything, even if that family is made up of a collection of well-intentioned, mentally-suspect oddballs (so it’s a fact-based film). Arnett’s Batman comically resists any and all overtures by his friends (and enemies) to connect, collaborate, and love, driven in part by a lightly-touched-upon reference to Batman’s origins losing both of his parents to a gun-toting mugger in Gotham City’s aptly named “Crime Alley.” Alfred cautions Master Bruce, “You can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself.”

This sets up a tortured bromance between Batman and his (sometimes) chief nemesis The Joker, voiced with consummate crazed sweetness by an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis. The Joker just wants Batman to acknowledge that they have a special bond, but the Dark Knight’s cuddly sociopathy prevents him from admitting that they truly need each other. “I don’t currently have a bad guy. I’m fighting a few different people. I like to fight around,” Batman dismisses a lip-quivering, weepy-eyed Joker.

The Joker then sets on a path to flip this script, bringing a spilled toybox rogues’ gallery of delightfully random villains (King Kong, Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, The Wicked Witch of the West and her Flying Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Dr. Who‘s Daleks, Clash of the Titans‘ Medusa and Kraken, Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors, Dracula, Joe Dante’s cinematic Gremlins, and a bunch of glowing skeletons) to destroy Gotham City, reclaim Batman’s attention, and re-establish their dotingly dysfunctional affection for one another.

What made The LEGO Movie such fun was its childlike ability to (s)mash-up incongruous genres (and intellectual properties), much like little boys and girls do with their actual toy collections, wherein it might not be uncommon for Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and Barbie to team up against Captain America, He-Man, and Papa Smurf. It was nice to see this bit of anarchic, cross-promotional foolishness continue from one film to another.

For middle-aged comic books buffs, there are Easter Eggs galore. We get obscure Batman villains rarely seen in print, let alone film (Calendar Man? Crazy Quilt? Zebra-Man?!). There is a SuperFriends house party, hosted by Superman (Channing Tatum’s adorably frat boy-ish take on the character continued from The LEGO Movie) at his “Fortress of (Not-So) Solitude” complete with a DJ-ing Wonder Dog, a groovy Martian “Dance”-hunter, and an “It’s a Small World”-esque conga line of Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, El Dorado, Samurai, and the Wonder Twins. Perhaps most impressively, The LEGO Batman Movie manages to telescope nearly 80 years of Bat-history (comics, television, film) into a handful of nifty and very funny montages, simultaneously justifying LEGO’s iconically cracked take on the character while honoring all that has come before.

Upon Robin’s first joy ride in a hot rod-drawn-on-the-back-of-a-Trapper-Keeper version of The Batmobile, Batman turns to him, with his nails-on-a-chalkboard growl, and warns, “Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” And that is likely the most important message in these LEGO movies. Life is going to hand you a lot of lemons, so use your imagination and your inherent sense of joy to keep things fulfillingly messy … and, along the way, feel free to pour lemonade over the heads of anyone who tries to make you follow their arbitrary rules. Make your own rules, and break them freely and often.

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From my personal collection. Yes, I’m nuts.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Nature is out of balance: Disney’s The Lone Ranger

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Perhaps I am just contrary. Often, when all of humanity looooooves a movie (see: Titanic, Dances with Wolves, The English Patient, Top Gun), I can’t stand it. And when a film is vilified to box office extinction (e.g. John Carter, Daredevil, Speed Racer, and The Golden Compass), I actually think it’s pretty good.

Maybe my expectations are just suitably lowered by the anti-hype. Maybe the public has an unfair axe to grind with these particular “flop” films. Maybe I always root for the over-marketed, over-budgeted underdog kicked around the Hollywood playground. Maybe all of the above.

(In defense of my admittedly dodgy tastes, I am united – in at least one instance – with all moviegoers, all film critics, and anyone with a pulse in loathing Ryan Reynolds’ godawful Green Lantern.)

This brings me to The Lone Ranger, akin to John Carter, Disney’s latest attempt to create a blockbuster tent pole franchise from a radio serial property. Hollywood execs, just an observation, but this particular strategy never works – and, while I adored The Shadow, The Phantom and the marginally financially successful Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon, the cash and Oscars weren’t exactly flying at those pictures either.

But let me say this: I liked The Lone Ranger. I mean, I liked The Lone Ranger A LOT! I thought the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, made by the same troika of Gore Verbinski/Jerry Bruckheimer/Johnny Depp, were over-baked, shrill, and much-too-self-indulgent (especially everything after the first entry). I did not have the same issues with The Lone Ranger.

Yes, they could have trimmed about 20 minutes (what summer movie couldn’t this year?), but I thought that pairing Armie Hammer (this poor guy, like his cinematic “older brother” Jon Hamm, can’t seem to catch any real starring success on the silver screen) and a beautifully understated yet madcap Johnny Depp, as the Lone Ranger and Tonto respectively, was perfection.

The film slyly turns the dutiful Native American sidekick trope on its square, fuddy-duddy head, positioning Depp’s Tonto (who has been working this deadpan schtick since the insipid Benny & Joon) as a wry, world-weary, rubber-jointed Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin anti-hero.

The animal-lover in me winced at a few odd choices, like cannibal rabbits that make a very brief appearance salivating at the campsite fire of Tonto and the Ranger. Or the requisite horses falling over and over. (I really hate that about Westerns.) However, I do know that these choices all were to support some theme that the filmmakers were exploring about nature being out of balance. (Nearly every character appears to give voice to some derivation of this idea at least once.)

In fact, the film sets as its backdrop the industrialization of America (as represented by the marvelously understated villainy of Tom Wilkinson and the not-so-understated but equally fun hijinks of William Fichtner and Barry Pepper), literally driving train tracks through the untouched beauty of Native America homelands in the West.

The twists and turns in the plot are as predictable as those in a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner short, but the journey is a big, dumb summer delight. For once, in my view anyway, Depp’s zany-hat-wearing, fey eccentricities are actually in service to the narrative (unlike another hit film I hated, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland). Some critics have unfairly labeled his performance boring and dull; I would counter that, for the first time in a long time, he is stealthy and nuanced, deriving humor organically from situation (and only a pratfall or two).

I liked that the film layered in messages about respecting our history, our environment, our culture, and our world. In a movie called The Lone Ranger, released over a Fourth of July weekend with tie-in toys available at Subway, those themes ain’t gonna be too deeply explored … so just give these blockbuster kids a break, willya?