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It’s impossible to escape. It’s right there in the title. A movie in which all the characters, settings, the entire world is made of a branded product. It might just be the biggest, most high-profile piece of branded content—certainly the one with the highest quality actor roster—ever made in the history of brands or content.The company estimates that kids around the world spend 5 billion hours a year playing with its toys and it has tripled its sales since 2007. Add directors and writers Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street), and producer Dan Lin (Sherlock Holmes) to the mix, along with names like Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Alison Brie— you get the point—and you have a star-studded, thoroughbred of an animated blockbuster. What you also have is the potential for a 90-minute monument to crass consumerism. This was something both Miller and Lord were keenly aware of when they signed on four years ago.
"It was definitely an issue for us," says Miller. "Right from the start we were skeptical about doing it because people could see it as a giant commercial and that wasn't something we were interested in doing. Luckily, the people at Lego felt the same way. They didn't need a movie to boost sales. If anything, making a movie had much more downside. So they had the same philosophy as us, which was to use Lego as a medium rather than a product to sell." The approach paid off, as early reviews of the film are nothing short of glowing. At the very start of the process, Lin and Lego vice president for global licensing and entertainment Jill Wilfert, put together a manifesto that they sent to everyone—the filmmakers, the studio, the company, everyone. And in that document is the line, "We are not making a commercial for the toys." "There was a handshake deal with Lego that, contractually they had certain rights, but at a certain point they had to give those up and believe and trust in Phil, Chris and myself," says Lin. "We got the contract done but then put it aside, we never wanted to have to look at it again.
And we never did." There were three main areas of concern the brand had when it came to the content of the film bearing its name. Language, violence and… kissing. "We learned that parents didn’t like it when Lego characters kissed," says Lin. "We thought it was pretty funny, characters with 2-D flat faces trying to kiss, but we ended up cutting it out." Beyond approvals and licensing, Lego was an integral member of the filmmaking crew. "They helped us design vehicles, characters, and environments, and their expertise was really necessary for us," says Lord. "We went to Denmark early on in the process and obviously spent a lot of time with the designers, which was a huge inspiration. Lego was founded on high quality and inspiring creativity in children and eventually we started to think about how to translate the principles of the brand into a story." The filmmakers’ time with the brand's designers in Denmark was spent in daylong brainstorm and building sessions. In the morning Miller and Lord would pitch a general idea like, "we want the coolest pirate ship anyone’s ever seen."
Then meet the Lego team of 20 worldwide designers, who would build their own versions of that idea all day, then present to the filmmakers at the end of the day. The ideas that stuck would then turned over to the animation team in Australia to take the ideas and see how they could translate into film. "It’s a hybrid movie that’s part CG, part real bricks, so we had to actually build things," says Lin. "If you had 15 million pieces of Lego, you could build this whole movie." Miller says the limitations of the bricks and how people came up with solutions is part of the charm of it all. "You can imagine seeing a Lego pirate ship on water but we wanted it to be on a Lego ocean that's built from thousands and thousands of undulating bricks," he says. "So it was about making things that no one has seen before." One thing no one has ever seen before is a movie teaser in which Morgan Freeman refers to his own voice as rich molasses. The charming Behind-the-Bricks featurette was a conscious wink-wink from the filmmakers to let us know they know what we might be thinking about something so overtly branded.
"You have to convince the skeptics that there is something more here," says Miller. "It was about making something neat and funny that would get across how this is actually a funny movie and not a soul-less cash grab." Adds Lord, "We want it to be a soulful cash grab." Never miss a story. I'd also like to receive special Fast Company offers MovieBob Reviews: GET OUTMovieBob Reviews: THE GREAT WALL (2017) The LEGO Movie proved that you can make a complex work of satire and a heartfelt ode to the power of imagination and ingenuity out of something that was -literally- a feature length toy commercial slash exercise in brand management. The LEGO Batman Movie sets out to prove that a one-joke supporting character from that same toy commercial can carry their own feature in the same basic vein. Next up, The LEGO Ninjago Movie will try to prove that trick will work when the comfort zone of nostalgia being appealed to only dates back about 5 or 6 years. If that one works, too, this whole thing might start to get a little scary: we only have this one small planet – there’s a finite amount of territory for LEGO, Marvel, and Star Wars to fight over.
Yeah, it worked again. LEGO Batman is an instant near-classic of both the animation and superhero genres. And while I don’t necessarily know if I can go fully along with what I’m sure will be a tidal wave of declarations that this is, in fact, the best Batman movie ever made; it’s without question the best movie to emerge from under the DC Comics umbrella since 2008. The innate gimmick of the LEGO movies is that building everything out of easily-recognizable toys turns the otherwise action-heavy goings-on into both a kid-safe environment and a work of implicit satire: Taking place in a world where literally everything is made out of toys puts such an automatic layer of humorous distance between what’s supposed to be going on and what we’re seeing that a lot of the time there doesn’t even need to be a joke – that they’re doing this that or the other thing “but with LEGO” is funny enough on its own… which is not to say they didn’t also bring plenty of actual jokes as well.
What’s most interesting in that regard is that both the explicit and explicit satire are getting a solid majority of their material from what’s essentially – my apologies, given that this is technically a kids movie – a gigantic “fuck you!” to the last 20 years or so of the broader Batman franchise. Granted, if you saw The LEGO Movie you already know that Will Arnett’s Lego Batman himself was a brutal piss-take dressing-down of the Frank Miller/Christopher Nolan/Zack Snyder “dark and brooding” vision of the character. But the broader storyline on display here ends up taking the form of a feature-length argument that Batman as a lone grim avenger is kind of a dull, played-out narrative and that long-ignored elements like Robin, Batgirl and a sense of humor are more necessary than they’ve been given credit for… and as perhaps the most potent indicator of this conscious attempt to unwind the grim n’ gritty era, the film’s aesthetic and palette are deliberate throwbacks to Burton/Schumacher movies – in fact, LEGO Batman almost looks more like Batman Forever than Batman Forever did.
Impressively, all of this deconstruction comes wrapped around what’s otherwise a fairly straightforward Batman story that frames the standard goings-on in Gotham City as a series of absurdist relationship metaphors: A retiring Lego Commissioner Gordon is succeeded by his daughter Barbara, who wants the police and Batman to work together rather than relying on him as an unaccountable vigilante, which Batman in turn braces at because his ongoing trauma over his parents has led him to eschew any and all personal connections – a policy that he also applies to his crimefighting: When he refuses to acknowledge that he and The Joker share a special bond as hero and villain, the Clown Prince of Crime has a breakdown and schemes to gain access to Lego Superman’s Phantom Zone prison in order to marshal up a more dangerous class of villains with which to attack the city; ultimately requiring Batman to get over himself and align with eager would-be adopted son Robin, Barbara and Alfred to save the day.
As with the original LEGO Movie, it all moves at a fairly rapid pace and piles on the gags, jokes and pop-culture references from start to finish – maybe moving a little too fast for adult audiences but probably the exact right pace for the target audience (it actually feels like it’s skewing a little bit younger than The LEGO Movie actually) and while the humor at the expense of just how obnoxious the various incarnations of Batman being mocked here is pretty merciless it also manages to reconceive Arnett’s routine as a three-dimensional character we end up actually caring about. The various cameos and DC mythology deep cuts are all amusing and well-researched, and even the gags at the expense of well-worn targets like shark-repellant and Robin’s briefs take on an amusing originality. The only thing that doesn’t feel quite as fresh… is most of the actual LEGO stuff. To be sure, it’s still “fun” to see the toys all moving around, but the Batman-parody gags are so on-point and there’s so much material to be mined there that you can almost feel a bit of air go out of the proceedings every time we jump back into the “master builder” business or the it’s all made of toys gimmicks – funny