The LEGO Batman Movie

Cast: (voiced by) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

Director: Chris McKay

Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington


It’s interesting how in the space of a single year we saw the release of two films about Batman that could not be more different. One is a mature, gritty thriller in which Batman is portrayed as a brutal, grizzled warrior with a severe attitude and lethal methods. The other is a light-hearted animated family picture where the Caped Crusader is a narcissistic jerk who secretly just wants a family. What really surprised me when I saw both was how much better the ‘kids’ movie understood the character than the ‘grown-up’ film. Batman v. Superman was an altogether more serious film but its characterisation of Batman suffered from an inconsistent tone and an overly complicated plot. LEGO Batman is streamlined and simplified and it has a clear idea about the approach it wants to take with its main character. Following the success of Nolan’s trilogy, there emerged this view that ‘dark’, ‘gritty’, and ‘serious’ equals ‘better’. To me this silly, childish, over-the-top romp is proof that this simply isn’t the case.

The film starts with a typical day in Batman’s life as he beats up bad guys, foils the Joker’s latest plot, and is celebrated by the people of Gotham City as a hero and an all-round cool guy. Afterwards he retreats from the exaltations of his adoring fans and returns to his solitary life in Wayne Manor. There, without any companions save his trusty butler Alfred, Batman spends his nights feasting on lobster and watching rom-coms, all by himself. As Bruce Wayne he attends the city’s gala where the new commissioner Barbara Gordon announces her plans to restructure the police force so that they might serve without Batman’s help. This announcement is interrupted some of Gotham’s most prominent (and also some hilariously obscure) villains, led by the Joker who then immediately surrenders. A suspicious Batman determines that his arch-rival must have some secret plot and sets out to stop him with the help of his accidentally adopted ward Dick Grayson.

As a film in its own right, LEGO Batman is an utterly enjoyable and hilarious movie. It doesn’t quite have the timeless quality of The LEGO Movie but its jokes are a laugh a minute and it can be surprisingly poignant in its quieter moments. As a Batman movie it works both as a parody and a tribute. The Batman canon has a long and colourful history and this film embraces every side of it, including the campier side of West and Schumacher that directors like Nolan and Snyder might have preferred to brush under the rug. It’s easy to forget that Bob Kane’s character started out as a children’s comic book action hero before writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore discovered his darker side and reinvented him for a more adult audience. This film understands intuitively what works and doesn’t work about each incarnation and pokes fun at them all in equal measure. It speaks to the strength of the character that he can be subjected to this level of satire and still be treated with a deep level of sincerity, seriousness and respect, and that’s exactly what the film does in its characterisation of Batman.

The movie’s version of Batman is the same macho, egotistic Master Builder we met in The Lego Movie who believes he’s brilliant at everything and who rejects any kind of human attachment in all of its forms. Not only does he always work alone, he refuses to even acknowledge that he and the Joker are nemeses who share any kind of a special bond. His solitude is challenged both by the unintentional adoption of the wide-eyed and insufferably annoying Dick, whom we all know will later become Robin, and by the plan hatched together by the bitterly rejected Joker, desperate to prove that the unhealthily co-dependent relationship he shares with Batman is real. As Batman recklessly pushes himself further into this pursuit to stop whatever it is the Joker really has planned, it is Alfred who must try and reel him in. It is he who observes that his rejection of attachment is driven by the same fear that compels him to dress like a bat and beat up bad guys, the trauma of losing his family.

There is a lot going in The LEGO Batman Movie with jokes being fired on all fronts and a legion of characters to balance, but the movie knows when to keep things simple. Batman wanting a family is more than enough material for an enjoyable and compelling family adventure and the film uses it well. The movie is dumb and self-aware enough that it never demands to be taken too seriously. It’s a film which understands (in the same way that Deadpool understood) that superhero movies are inherently kind of silly and that’s okay. Unlike Batman v. Superman this movie isn’t ashamed to call itself a superhero movie and isn’t embarrassed of being childish, campy or light-hearted. The movie may have more in common with Adam West’s wacky adventures than it does with Nolan’s epic saga, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of the Batman name or any less of a treat for fans. This is not the Batman movie we need; it is the Batman movie we deserve.

★★★★

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Cast: (voiced by) Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Matthew McConaughey

Director: Travis Knight

Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler


American animated movies at their best can be smart, creative and enthralling, but they don’t often treat their audience with the maturity and seriousness that Studio Ghibli’s movies do. This is one of the qualities that I found to be the most impressive in Kubo and the Two Strings, a movie that is absolutely teeming with Ghibli’s influence. As well as being smart, creative and enthralling, Kubo is subtle, complex and poetic. It can be joyful and light-hearted in some moments and then dark and frightening in others. It is a grand, epic adventure but it is also an intimate, bittersweet story. This movie offers Western children an illuminating insight into an entirely different culture while still depicting a story that they can identify as being classically universal: the hero’s journey. I am always astounded when a film can accomplish so many different things at once and can appeal to a great variety of people. Kubo and the Two Strings astounded me.

In ancient Japan Kubo, a one-eyed boy living in a cave with his ill mother, spends his days in the nearby village where he magically manipulates pieces of paper into origami shapes to tell stories. These stories he tells are those of his late father, the legendary samurai warrior Hanzo. Kubo must however leave as soon as the sun starts to set for if he ever stays outside at night, his grandfather the Moon King will find him and come to take his remaining eye. While attending a ceremony where he hopes to speak to his father’s spirit, Kubo stays outside for too long and is found and chased by his mother’s Sisters. Kubo’s mother uses her remaining magic to send Kubo away while she stays behind to fend off the Sisters. Kubo awakens in a desolate place where his only companions are Monkey, a wooden charm brought to life by his mother’s magic, and Beetle, Hanzo’s samurai apprentice. With their help Kubo must find his father’s lost weapon and armour and use them to defeat the Moon King.

The film throws a lot of weighty material at children but trusts that they are able to handle it and refrains from patronising them. There is on one level an epic quest taking place that takes Kubo to a great many places, both wonderful and scary. The threats he faces are both great (like the colossal skeleton) and menacing (like the chillingly designed Sisters), the obstacles he must overcome are immense and the lessons he must learn are difficult. Thus we also get a deep, profound story of love and loss. With his father gone and his mother slowly fading away, Kubo has never really known what it is to have a family. The loneliness he feels is heartrending in its melancholy, but that makes his strong resilience all the more admirable. He finds this strength not only through his companions but also through the stories of his mother and father. Kubo and the Two Strings is a testament to the power of stories and their capacity to move us, bind us and preserve us.

Laika has done much impressive work in stop-motion animation before in films like Coraline and The Boxtrolls, but Kubo outdoes them all. The beautiful colours, the incredible designs and the masterful craftsmanship, these are all employed to astonishing effect in this visually breathtaking film. Kubo warns us on the outset not to blink and I tried my hardest to comply for fear of missing a second of the spectacle. Complementing the visuals is Dario Marianelli’s stunning, expressive score, which truly shines in the sequences that accompany Kubo’s stories as he plucks his shamisen. The voicework in this film is also splendid. Parkinson turns in the right kind of childish determination as Kubo, Theron is sublime as his dedicated, no-nonsense guardian and Mara brings a cold detachment to her role as the Sisters. McConaughey also brings some welcome goofiness to the film but the light-hearted banter between Beetle and Monkey can sometimes be out of place and corny.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvellous achievement in modern animation. I can only imagine the number of hours it must have taken to create these visuals in all of their splendour and painstaking detail. The film’s merits are far more than technical though; Kubo boasts of incredible action, compelling characters and strong emotional resonance. The film will astonish the children just as much as it will move the adults. The story it tells is a bold one that shows how cruel and vicious the world can be as Kubo struggles with the pains of loss, loneliness, guilt, doubt and vulnerability. It is also a story that showcases the redemptive and commemorative powers of storytelling, leading to a deeply profound ending. After some of the stupendous works that have been produced over the past five or so years, the standard for children’s animation has never been higher. Kubo and the Two Strings triumphantly exceeds those standards is to be sure one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

★★★★★