It was only a decade ago when Hollywood executives looked to the toy aisles to extend their intellectual property, not vice versa. Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, countless and sundry X-Men – any big-screen franchise could live forever on store shelves, no feature-film venture required. But thanks to the astounding success of Michael Bay's first Transformers film (he's up to 16, I think), it is now the toy companies that are taking on the multiplex.
M.A.S.K., Action Man, Micronauts – these are all vaguely familiar playthings currently prepping big-screen properties in a weirdly symbiotic industry relationship, in which toy makers exploit movie studios to sell more product, and movie studios look to toy makers to compensate for a dearth of original blockbuster ideas. Yet none of these projects will likely be as clever or successful in navigating this queasy alliance as one Danish family's 85-year-old behemoth: Lego.
In 2014, the company, famously protective of its family-friendly image (no Michael Bays allowed) partnered with Warner Bros. to deliver The Lego Movie, a surprisingly gratifying collision of commerce and storytelling.
On the surface, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's animated film was simply a very expensive, very colourful ad disguised as a movie, similar to any Autobots or G.I. Joe adventure – watch it and hum along to Everything Is Awesome, but don't forget to stop by Toys "R" Us after the end credits rolled. Dig a little deeper into the directors' treasure chest, though, and the movie reveals itself as a savvy and subversive ode to the overwhelming power of nostalgia, and why it remains so difficult to put childish things away, even if you endeavour to do so brick by brick.
All that, and The Lego Movie earned almost half a billion dollars at the box office, not counting home entertainment and, of course, toy sales. A sequel, or three, was inevitable. So while a direct follow-up to The Lego Movie isn't set to arrive until 2019, and The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn't hit theatres until September, Warner's The Lego Batman Movie is here now, a cinematic snack to tide over hungry moviegoers with toddler-like appetites (and just plain ol' regular toddlers, too).
A spinoff of sorts to the original movie – in which Batman popped in every now and then to remind audiences what a poor job Zack Snyder was doing to the character over in Warner's live-action division – The Lego Batman Movie is pure, glossy fun. The film opens with the Dark Knight (voiced with gravelly glee by Will Arnett) having the time of his life, fighting every member of his rogues' gallery while showcasing his nine-pack (he's so buff he's got one extra ab).
But then along comes The Joker (Zach Galifianakis, giving Jared Leto a serious run for his money) with another one of his grand plans to burn Gotham City to the ground, which forces ol' Bruce Wayne to learn some important lessons about responsibility and family.
Basically, it's a standard-issue Batman narrative – arguably better than 50 per cent of history's other Batman films – that just happens to take place in a Lego-fied world.
Along the way, director Chris McKay (editor of The Lego Movie) and his army of writers (five people!) toss in a ridiculous number of other Warner-owned characters, from Lord of the Rings' Sauron to Harry Potter's Voldemort, like a gaggle of sugar-fuelled children lost in the blissed-out haze of a YouTube unboxing video.
And the expected pop-culture references fly fast and furiously, from visual homages to Total Recall and The Twilight Zone's Nightmare at 20,000 Feet episode to digs at Jerry Maguire and even Warner's own Suicide Squad. (There's also an opening credits scene that's as meta as Deadpool's, except funny.)
It all makes for an entertaining, occasionally delirious ride – especially the opening sequence, which lovingly riffs on The Dark Knight Rises' sky-high prologue – and the voice acting is superb across the board, with Arnett's one-time Arrested Development co-star Michael Cera a particular standout as a gee-whiz Robin. (One geeky quibble: Why employ Ralph Fiennes to voice loyal butler Alfred, but then have Eddie Izzard play Voldemort, a role Fiennes originated? That's some bad magic right there.)
Yet no matter how funny it is to hear Batman complain about his frenemy Superman, or to see Bane and Poison Ivy mix it up with Daleks and King Kong, the film cannot help but remain in the shadow of Lord and Miller's work. The pair's original film so deftly hit the animation sweet spot – highly refined nostalgia mixed with expert pop-culture homage, all wrapped in a surreal meta packaging – that nearly anything to follow was bound to suffer in comparison.
To its credit, The Lego Batman Movie doesn't aspire to any of its predecessor's philosophical underpinnings (remember, that film questioned the very nature of reality), merely aiming to tell a comic-book story that isn't weighted with dread. And it is breezy and clever enough that it should do gangbusters – perhaps even matching the box-office heights of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. (Or, at the very least, Joel Schumacher's entries.) But its sense of familiarity to the tropes of children's film – the life lessons, the safe endings – keep it grounded in a way that The Lego Movie promised to extinguish.
None of this kept my preview audience from applauding The Lego Batman Movie, though; nor from humming its decidedly less-awesome theme song on the way out the door.
Be prepared, then, for a future of blockbusters built entirely from those nifty, if feet-destroying, multicoloured bricks. Playtime has just begun.