Family, Friendship and Filmmaking in The LEGO® Batman Movie

10 Feb 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

4 mins
The LEGO® Batman Movie © WARNER BROS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
The LEGO® Batman Movie © WARNER BROS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Batman may be one of the coolest superheroes on the block, but he's always taken himself a bit seriously. Handsome, strong, rich, with an arsenal of cool gadgets, he regularly saves Gotham City from a rogues gallery of menacing villains. But he's also fairly stubborn and perhaps a little lonely. After all, what to do when you get home after a long day of saving the city (again), other than reheat last night's meal and wind down in front of your favourite rom-com, eating comfort food?

This forms part of the setup for The LEGO® Batman Movie, a follow-up to 2014's The LEGO® Movie, which was a wildly successful animated ode to the joys of the imagination, in which the Caped Crusader stole the show, by his own admission. Packed with the same dazzling visuals and frantic humour, the film is an affectionate send-up of some of cinema's most enduring characters, but also filled with thoughtful messages around unconventional family units, working together, and learning to listen to others. 

Big changes are taking place in Gotham City. A new crime commissioner,  Barbara Gordon, has recently been elected on a pledge to rid the city of its villainy, but wants to work with Batman to achieve this through team-work and dialogue (and without blowing-up half the city in the process). Meanwhile, The Joker is once again running rampant, but when none of his previous plans have succeeded, why should his latest one be any different? Perhaps what he really wants is for Batman to acknowledge their special relationship, even as Batman informs him that he's seeing a few different bad guys at the moment.

In an effort to get Bruce Wayne/Batman to open up a bit, loyal butler Alfred encourages him to take in energetic young orphan Dick Grayson. Relentlessly positive, Dick causes havoc around Wayne Manor, as he is so enthusiastic about having new people to connect with. What could be cooler than having two dads, Bruce Wayne and Batman?! Dick doesn't know it yet, but he's on his way to becoming Robin, and he might just get Batman to embrace different parts of his personality along the way. 

In other words, one of the main themes is family, however people choose to define it. Batman has other lessons to learn. He tends to be a bit withdrawn, pushing The Joker away whenever conversation turns to their emotions. His gender politics are also a little stone-age. As the importance of Barbara Gordon (soon to be Batgirl) and her new approach to crime-fighting becomes clearer, he might just need to stop trying to take the credit for her work, and maybe even apologise. He should also rethink the name of her alter-ego - if she's Batgirl, does that make him Batboy?

This all sets the stage for The Joker's latest evil plan, the like of which has never been seen before. To say more would be to spoil the fun, but fans of pop-culture history might want to have a notepad ready, just to keep track of the extraordinary range of characters assembled!

Making a film requires as much teamwork as saving Gotham City. For two-and-a-half years, around 400 people collaborated on The LEGO® Batman Movie, bringing together a vast array of animators, editors, storyboard artists, musicians, actors, sound artists and many more. As is the case for any film, the process relies on communication, collaboration and creativity from all involved.

The filmmakers were inspired by the freedom that working with actual LEGO® bricks offers. Not restricted by being tied to a particular incarnation of the character, elements of Batman's entire 78-year history were incorporated into the story. This included all of the previous films, the original comic books and the cult, campy 1960s TV show starring Adam West.

The animation process was meticulous. The filmmakers were keen to evoke the feeling of Gotham City being constructed in somebody's basement with their own LEGO® pieces. That said, it would have to be a pretty big basement, as the set for Gotham City alone was the size of six and a half football pitches! As in the previous LEGO® Movie and Disney's Zootropolis, the production design is vast. Every scene is packed with an exhausting range of visual gags, colour and frantic movement to the extent that each viewer is likely to spot something different. 

Everything on screen is connected the same way that LEGO® pieces are actually connected. Each sequence was assembled brick-by-brick, with filmmakers constructing thousands of pieces which were then personalised and assembled according to colour and even the resourcefulness of the physical bricks. Many of the bricks are slightly imperfect, showing the natural wear and tear that happens over years of playing with the same materials. Although computer-generated, the desired effect is intended to evoke stop-motion animation styles, as well as the experience of playing with the bricks themselves. 

The team also found ways of ensuring the characters moved in a manner consistent with actual LEGO® figures. The Minifigures can only move, turn and bend the way their real-life counterparts can. All of this is designed to showcase what is at the heart of the storytelling - the imagination and the joys of bringing your toys to life through play. 

The central themes of The LEGO® Batman Movie are not new. The film shares a DNA with Toy StoryBig FishSpirited AwayShaun the SheepKubo and the Two Strings and The Wizard of Oz, among many others. These messages are crafted into something that is fresh, fun, and frantic, but also suggesting that even the smartest and coolest of us benefit from talking and working with other people from time to time. 

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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