Like a miniature universe made entirely of millions of tiny plastic bricks, “The Lego Batman Movie” looks and feels like it could only have been put together by a roomful of mad geniuses, moving in a ballet of well-choreographed creativity: It’s simultaneously epic and humble.
From the pew-pew-pew that accompanies the animated movie’s make-believe gunfire – the same serviceable but phony-as-heck sound effect that your 6-year-old might use when firing his (or her) finger at bad guys – to the roster of deliriously ecumenical villains recruited from every corner of pop-culture literature for this clever mash-up of comic books and construction toys, the new animated film is the definition of fantastic. What’s more, it is that rare sequel that outdoes the original (no small feat, considering that the 2014 “The Lego Movie” has a 96 percent “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer).
Give credit where credit is due: The movie was directed by Chris McKay (known for his work on TV’s subversive “Robot Chicken” and “Morel Orel”), from a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern and John Whittington that is simultaneously snarky, sweet and encyclopedically quick-witted. The screenplay they have devised – one that punctures the tired pretensions of superhero movies even as it celebrates their guilty pleasures – is characterized by the satirical gaze of the slightly superior outsider and the irony-free devotion of the true believer.
Although the movie opens with the voice of Batman (Will Arnett), riffing on the tropes of Batman movies – black screen; scary music; the solitary, brooding hero; and a last-minute rescue – it is not all archly self-aware deflation of cliche. There is a plot, too, and a point, having something to do with Batman’s unhealthy tendency to work alone and the efforts of the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) to get under his skin. It’s also something of an origin story, with Robin (Michael Cera) just establishing himself as the Caped Crusader’s earnest Boy Wonder, protege and thorn in the side of his pompous mentor.
Other members of the excellent voice cast include Rosario Dawson as new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon/Batgirl and Ralph Fiennes as Alfred the butler. Additional villains – and what is a Batman movie without an army of them? – include such franchise favorites as Riddler (Conan O’Brien) and Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams), along with such extracanonical reinforcements as Voldemort (Eddie Izzard) of “Harry Potter” and the Daleks from “Doctor Who.”
Never heard of them? “Ask your nerd friends,” cracks Batman in one of the movie’s frequent asides addressed to the audience. Like a bratty child, “Lego Batman” keeps setting up a structure of bricks, only to kick down the fourth wall with destructive delight. Other crossover cameos feature Dracula, the Gremlins from “Gremlins,” a flying monkey from “The Wizard of Oz,” King Kong and Sauron from “The Lord of the Rings.” (“Ow, my eye!” he cries, when he takes a hit in his giant glowing peeper.)
There are explicit allusions to every “Batman” movie, as well as to the 1960s television series with Adam West. You may not catch every one – they fly by as fast as throwaway jokes in a “Simpsons” episode – but it’s not necessary. Who, other than “Batman” nerds, recalls “that time with the parade and the Prince music” (a reference to a scene in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” film with Jack Nicholson as the Joker)? It’s icing on the cake if you do.
Notwithstanding the long lineup of villains, “The Lego Batman Movie” is more about the evil within Batman than any external corruption. The film has a message about selfishness that adds substance to the satire.
That’s one vice that no one can accuse the filmmakers of. A touch of self-absorption, maybe. But there’s a spirit of collaboration that characterizes all the best play. It’s a story with heart, heady humor and action – parts that snap together, with a satisfying click, like, well, you know what.
Four stars. Rated PG. Contains rude humor and some action. 104 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.