Tuesday, October 3, 2017

"LEGO Batman" and "The Boss Baby"

A couple of quick thoughts on some of the kids' films that came out earlier in the year. It hasn't been a great year for animated content so far, so I wanted to give some credit where credit is due.

"The LEGO Batman Movie" is exactly the superhero film that I didn't know we needed. First, it is unashamedly a children's movie, bringing back the ego-centric, Will Arnett voiced Batman minifigure from "The LEGO Movie" to be at the center of his own LEGO adventure. A kid-friendly LEGO Gotham populated by kid-friendly versions of all the familiar "Batman" villains, sidekicks, and allies has been lovingly created for him too. Yet at the same time, this is a "Batman" movie that spoofs and pokes fun at the franchise in a way that die-hard Batnerds will appreciate, loaded with references, in-jokes, and a little bit of subversion too.

I found it especially impressive the way that "LEGO Batman" boils down the major themes and ongoing conflicts of "Batman" into something that kids can more easily grasp. At his core, Batman is lonely and misses his family, and has compensated by building up this facade of the super awesome lone wolf crimefighter. So his LEGO counterpart needs to learn that it's okay to rely on friends, and to be less infatuated with his own image of coolness. And gradually, he finds his own little foster family, consisting of exasperated father figure Alfred (Liam Neeson), an adorably eager beaver Robin (Michael Cera), and Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), aged up and reintroduced as the new Commissioner Gordon, who is smart enough to point out all the ways that Batman isn't really very good at crimefighting.

"LEGO Batman" doesn't quite have the same anarchic glee of the original "LEGO Movie," and definitely not the same level of clever self reflection, worldbuilding, and out-and-out creativity. The fact that LEGO Batman is in fact a LEGO toy and a Master Builder doesn't play nearly as big a role as it could have, and the biggest carryover turned out to be the slightly too rapid-fire humor. Still, for a fan of the many different incarnations of Batman over the years, it was nice to see the Caped Crusader shake off the too-serious trappings of the recent live action Warners films and have some fun for a change. Batman's goofy side has too often been ignored, and it is a joyous thing when done right. If nothing else, "LEGO Batman" definitely got the goofy stuff right.

Now "The Boss Baby" was a film I had some major doubts about. The idea of Alec Baldwin voicing a pint-sized business executive seemed like a pretty one-note gag. I wasn't surprised to learn that the film was based on very short picture book, offering a kids'-eye-view of a household that had seemingly been taken over by a tyrannical new infant sibling. Nevertheless, this was at least a fairly original concept, and there's a long history of baby-centric humor in cartoons that has yielded some good things. And along with "Trolls," Dreamworks has demonstrated that they're willing to push in some more interesting stylistic directions.

I think the best thing about "The Boss Baby" is that it completely commits to telling a story about a relatable kid, in this case seven year-old Tim (Miles Bakshi), instead of an immature adult like the ones at the center of most Dreamworks films. Sure, the title character falls into the latter category, and spouts many a one-liner aimed at adults, but he exists on Tim's turf and ultimately has to learn to play by his rules. Tim is a kid with an overactive imagination, and is forever fantasizing that he's on wild adventures as a jungle explorer or pirate, so it's easier to buy that he's constructed this elaborate fantasy about his new baby brother actually being an agent of the mysterious Baby Corp (where babies *really* come from). And occasionally, through these fantasy constructs, the movie manages to touch on some fairly weighty emotional issues that small children may have about changing family dynamics.

I'd say ninety percent of "The Boss Baby" is pretty mediocre stuff. None of the performances aside from Baldwin's are very memorable, and the plotting gets entirely too wrapped up in silly chases and manufactured drama. The visuals, while pleasantly absurdist, are only rarely eye-catching. However, the film is well-written, frequently very funny, and it gets the emotional stuff right when it counts. I also really appreciate how bizarre it is in a very specific way, with the Boss Baby dreaming of a corner office with a golden potty, and Tim's wizard alarm clock that serves as a barometer of his mood. It's not a great film, or even a very good one, but it's solid entertainment in all the ways that matter.

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