GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Mamoru Oshii

Written by: Kazunori Ito

(based on the manga GHOST IN THE SHELL by Masamune Shirow)

Voices of: Mimi Woods, Richard Epcar, Tom Wyner, Christopher Joyce, William Frederick Knight, Michael Sorich, Simon Prescott & Richard Cansino

Based on the manga of the same name, 1995’s GHOST IN THE SHELL has become known as one of the big anime films that popularized the genre in America and is also widely considered to be one of the greatest animated movies of all-time. Though I don’t necessarily think that it’s without a few distracting flaws, GHOST IN THE SHELL is a visually entrancing and thought-provoking ride. This served as the inspiration for many science-fiction movies that came after its release (e.g. DARK CITY and THE MATRIX), but is sure to give the viewer an interesting 81-minute experience on its own merits.

The year is 2029 and the place is New Port City, Japan. The world is connected through something known as “the Net” (think the internet multiplied by a million). Humanity has become infused with technology, meaning that lots of people use cybernetic bodies (a.k.a. shells) and store their consciousness (a.k.a. ghosts) online. Motoko Kusanagi (Mimi Woods) is a team leader for Public Security Section 9. Her latest case involves a mysterious hacker, known as “The Puppet Master,” who can take over people’s bodies and plant false memories. This cyber-terrorist leads Kusanagi and her team on a seemingly simple chase that morphs into a complex conspiracy. Our robotic protagonist soon finds herself questioning everything around her and the meaning of existence itself.

GHOST IN THE SHELL packs a lot into its short 82-minute running time. The meaning of life is discussed frequently and no big answers are spelled out for the viewer. Instead, we are left to our own devices to interpret what the deeper discussions mean in this film and if there’s any merit to them whatsoever. I found the waxing philosophical conversations between explosive action scenes to be a refreshing approach to what may just sound like a sci-fi/action anime on the surface. That’s not to say that GHOST doesn’t have its awesome action-packed moments, because it certainly does. This is a very R-rated cartoon that involves gore, nudity and intense gunfights. There’s a mystery at play too, which I’m sure is further delved into in the other installments in this long-running franchise.

As for the animation, this film looks amazing. The visuals are brought to life through a combination of traditional cel animation and digitally integrated computer effects. This adds to the excitement of the many confrontations, chases and explosive set pieces, while also appearing beautiful in the film’s slower moments. Speaking of which, the pacing in the 82-minute running time occasionally drags. I’m not talking about the many dialogue-filled scenes, but am referring to a handful of montages that seem to exist purely to show off the impressive animation. I mean, the animation is undoubtedly impressive and just as cool as I described it to be, but these bits detracted from the story’s flow.

The only other problem I have with GHOST IN THE SHELL comes from a deliberate storytelling decision. Kusanagi is an interesting protagonist when you describe her on paper, but there seems to have been intentional disconnect thrown onto this character. She’s robotic to the extent that we don’t really see her feel many emotions, while her metal-eyed partner Batou seems like a more well-rounded character altogether. Meanwhile, the Puppet Master serves as an interesting antagonist in that he’s not necessarily a traditional villain. I loved where they went with his character and this led to a ballsy ending that few films would ever attempt today. Besides these three main characters, the rest of the plot’s players seem almost like one-note afterthoughts.

I think the unconventionally ballsy, thought-provoking tone is ultimately what shapes GHOST IN THE SHELL into a great film, despite its faults and problems. This seems like a movie that took a lot of risks and a majority of them paid off in a big way. These include: the film’s complex approach to a seemingly simple set-up, the strange cast of characters, the absurdly short running time, the amazing animation and the downright weird conclusion. Though I may not love this acclaimed anime as much as many others seem to, I still highly recommend GHOST IN THE SHELL. It’s an interesting, thought-provoking and compellingly imperfect piece of gorgeously animated science-fiction.

Grade: A-

BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Continuous Crude Sex-Related Humor and Language, and for a Drug-Related Scene

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Directed by: Mike Judge

Written by: Mike Judge & Joe Stillman

Voices of: Mike Judge, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Robert Stack, Cloris Leachman, Richard Linklater, Dale Reeves, Greg Kinnear, David Letterman & Tony Darling

Before SOUTH PARK was the most controversial cartoon around, MTV’s BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD was blamed for corrupting the youth of America. However, the joke was on the show’s haters because lots of people enjoyed watching Mike Judge’s cartoon about two metalhead morons. His shorts gained so much popularity that MTV immediately approached Judge to make a feature film. After rejecting the misguided offer for a live-action BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD movie, Judge brought the two boys to the big screen in glorious animated fashion. BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA is a frequently hilarious comedy that packs in colorful visuals and a high level of energy from start to finish.

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One morning, dimwitted couch potatoes Beavis (Mike Judge) and Butt-Head (also Judge) wake up to find their TV has been stolen. The boys venture off to grab a new television and this leads them straight into the path of lowlife criminal Muddy Grimes (Bruce Willis), who mistakes the teens for a pair of hired killers. Beavis and Butt-Head misinterpret Muddy’s offer of 10 thousand dollars to “do his wife” and set off to Vegas with intentions to “score.” The two idiots are soon thrust into a national conspiracy. Crazy hijinks, sexual innuendos, peyote-induced hallucinations, more attempts to score with chicks, and the reemergence of The Great Cornholio soon follow.

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In transitioning from the small screen to the big one, Mike Judge realized that the crude animation of BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD’s shorts simply wasn’t going to fly on a giant theater screen. So he gave the boys and their world a colorful makeover. Having watched some of the shorts before and after seeing this film, the background animation and wide aspect ratio makes a huge difference to the viewer’s eye. Judge takes the two dim-witted metalheads across famous locations and puts them in crazy scenarios that are sure to please fans of Mike Judge’s comedy in general. It bears mentioning that I’m not the biggest BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD fan, but I still had an absolute blast watching this film.

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This screenplay is chockfull of non-stop sexual innuendos (would you expect anything else from Beavis and Butt-Head?) and clever twists of fate. Judge has lots of low-brow jokes, but also packs in plenty of smart humor that foreshadowed his future KING OF THE HILL series (which premiered a month after this film’s original release). Montages of absurd situations, smart references that don’t necessarily spell out the punchline for the audience, and the high-stakes conspiracy that this two teenage morons wander around in make for one very entertaining film. There are jokes that fans of the show will appreciate more than the casual viewer, but the laughs come frequently and in ways you might not expect.

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While Judge reprises the voices of Beavis and Butt-Head, he also puts in extra work as hippie teacher Van Driessen (who sings the unforgettable song “Lesbian Seagull”) and Hank Hill soundalike Tom Anderson. The supporting characters are voiced by notable big actors and actresses. Bruce Willis is hilarious as loose-cannon redneck Muddy Grimes, while Demi Moore (Willis’s wife at the time) plays scantily clad Dallas Grimes. Robert Stack receives huge laughs as a cavity-search-obsessed ATF Agent. Cloris Leachman is great as a little old lady who seems a bit too eager to hand out her prescription pills to Beavis. David Letterman and Tony Darling show up as familiar-looking roadies, while Greg Kinnear and Richard Linklater also have small parts.

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In true BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD fashion, the film has a rockin’ soundtrack that features the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, White Zombie, Rancid and many more. These songs are mostly well placed, though the film occasionally interrupts the story’s flow to include them. A Vegas montage to “Love Rollercoaster” is quite fun to watch and so is a Rob Zombie illustrated hallucination in the desert. Even though this moments seem a bit jarring and Judge has admitted to MTV forcing his hand towards their inclusion, they remain enjoyable in the context of the film and on their own.

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Not every joke in BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA works, but the film has held up remarkably well over two decades later. A majority of the laughs seem geared towards fans and casual viewers alike, while the script is smarter than you’d expect. The film’s hand-drawn, larger-scope animation is impressive to look at. Meanwhile, the soundtrack adds an extra (literal) rockin’ layer of energy to the proceedings. Call me crazy, but BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA is a better animated comedy than SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT (which occasionally felt forced and overstayed its welcome). If you don’t mind diving into Mike Judge’s cartoon about two pill-popping, sex-obsessed, rock-loving couch potatoes, then BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA is a good time!

Grade: B+

STORKS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for mild Action and some Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Nicholas Stoller & Doug Sweetland

Written by: Nicholas Stoller

Voices of: Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Anton Starkman, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Stephen Kramer Glickman & Danny Trejo

In the world of theatrical animation, it seems that certain companies hold significant sway on the moviegoing public. These include: Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony Animation and (to an extent) Blue Sky.  One studio that’s had many underperformers in the past, but seems to be rising in recent popularity is Warner Bros. Animation. Released in a gap between two different LEGO movies, STORKS wasn’t a giant box office hit with audiences or critics. However, this is a fun comedy with vibrant animation, tons of solid jokes, and a heartwarming message.

STORKS, from left: Tulip (voice: Katie Crown), Junior (voice: Andy Samberg), 2016. © Warner Bros./

Storks have delivered babies for centuries, but that service is a relic of the past. Today, storks deliver packages for online retailer Corner Store. When ambitious stork Junior (Andy Samberg) is offered a high-profile promotion from his intimidating boss Hunter (Kelsey Grammer), he soon discovers that the position comes with strings attached. Junior is ordered to fire 18-year-old orphan Tulip (Katie Crown), a former baby that got lost in the company’s system. Unable to go through with her termination, Junior reassigns Tulip to the abandoned mailroom…just as lonely 10-year-old Nate (Anton Starkman) puts in an order form for a sibling. Mismatched pair Junior and Tulip are soon thrust into a hazardous adventure to deliver the newborn baby…while evil Hunter and his pigeon lackey (Stephen Kramer Glickman) are hot on their trail.

STORKS, Pigeon Toady (voice: Stephen Kramer Glickman), 2016. © Warner Bros.

STORKS has colorful animation and wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s clear that lots of love and effort went into making this film, even though it follows a familiar formula and has its share of clichés. The animation style reminded me of CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS and MEGAMIND, meaning that it was pretty darn great to look at. There are plenty of jokes sprinkled throughout that adults will catch and lots of kid-friendly humor that viewers of all ages will enjoy. The film’s biggest highlight for me was Pigeon Toady, a brown-nosing runt of a baddie that has a Donald Trump hairdo. One conversation with Pigeon and Junior in an elevator had me cracking up, especially with a final so-stupid-it’s-hilarious punchline.

STORKS, from left: Beta Wolf (voice: Jordan Peele), Alpha Wolf (voice: Keegan-Michael Key), 2016. ©

Much of STORKS works because the wacky sense of humor makes up for any ill will that one could have towards this film’s problems. The characters are running from place to place and coming across various obstacles as they try to deliver a baby to her family, kind of like ICE AGE with a stuck-up bird and a red-headed inventor. The plot is familiar, but many of the jokes significantly raise this story’s entertainment value. Other stand-out moments include: a quiet fight (because the baby is sleeping) against a group of penguins, and frequent encounters with a pack of shape-shifting wolves. These scenes may be childish, but that doesn’t make them any less funny.

STORKS, center: Hunter (voice: Kelsey Grammer), 2016. © Warner Bros.

As far as the voice cast goes, STORKS includes a few notable names. The Lonely Island’s Andy Samberg voices Junior, a character who seems overly familiar and still has a good enough emotional arc. Katie Crown (who is mostly an unknown) is great as Orphan Tulip, gaining laughs purely from her line delivery in certain scenes. Kelsey Grammer is well-cast as the intimidating big bad boss. Meanwhile, Ty Burrell and Jennifer Aniston play the parents of little Nate. Key and Peele are also hilarious as the aforementioned wolves.

STORKS, from left: Henry Gardner (voice: Ty Burrell), Nate Gardner (voice: Anton Starkman), Sarah

Besides utilizing a familiar formula, STORKS encounters a couple of other problems that hold it back from being great. Nate’s subplot of wanting a sibling and his workaholic parents bonding with him both feel slightly out-of-place in this wacky adventure. This brings me to another problem with STORKS: the pacing. This movie rushes past the viewer in under 90 minutes. Sometimes, that can be great for an animated feature that doesn’t wish to overstay its welcome. However, STORKS plows through important plot points before they’ve even had time to develop. This is especially true of a would-be emotional moment that doesn’t leave much of an impact because it’s resolved less than five minutes later.

STORKS, from left: Junior (voice: Andy Samberg), the baby, and Tulip (voice: Katie Crown), 2016. ©

Even with its flaws, I had a blast watching STORKS. The humor really elevated this film in my eyes. You could predict where the plot was going from the get-go and the film’s pacing compromises a few moments that should have been lingered on, but the humor is plentiful and the animation is pleasing to look at. This may not reinvent the wheel of animated family comedies and might not be up to the levels of many popular CGI family-comedies from other big studios, but STORKS is highly entertaining. If you’re in the mood to laugh or need to pick a quick flick to stick in front of your kids, STORKS should fit both of those needs just fine.

Grade: B

HEAVY METAL (1981)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Gerald Potterton, Jimmy T. Murakami, Harold Whitaker, John Halas, Julian Harris, Barrie Nelson, Paul Sabella, Jack Stokes & Pino Van Lamsweerde

Written by: Daniel Goldberg, Len Blum, Dan O’Bannon, Richard Corben, Bernie Wrightson, Angus McKie & Jean Giraud

Voices of: Don Francks, Caroline Semple, Richard Romanus, Susan Roman, Al Waxman, Harvey Atkin, John Candy, Marilyn Lightstone, Eugene Levy & Joe Flaherty

Based on HEAVY METAL magazine, the aptly titled R-rated animated anthology made a splash during the 80’s. This strange blend of science fiction, fantasy, and fun has been held up as a cult classic in the decades following its release. There’s something to be said for HEAVY METAL’s vibrant animation and no-holds-barred silliness. These qualities mix with an appropriately rockin’ soundtrack to make an all-around good time. Though the various stories range in quality, HEAVY METAL is worth the time of anyone who might be intrigued from the idea of an adult-oriented sci-fi/fantasy animated anthology. That concept, in and of itself, is something special. Without further ado, I’ll get onto the stories themselves…

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GRIMALDI: This wraparound tale begins with an astronaut giving his daughter a glowing orb as a present. Unfortunately for both of them, the orb is sentient and evil. The menacing green circle proceeds to melt the father and corner the daughter. The green orb then tells her tales of its evil influence throughout time and space. These wraparound segments are enjoyable, but simply tie the other (mostly better) stories together through narration. The father’s death by melting is cool enough and the ending nicely ties into the final story, even though it opens up a world of plot holes that you just kind of have to accept. All in all, the animation and sheer craziness of this story overshadow its convoluted nature. B-

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HARRY CANYON: In the distant year of 2031, Harry Canyon is a New York cabbie without a care in the world. This changes when a desperate young woman gets into his car. Soon, Harry finds his life upended as a colorful band of thugs comes looking for a strange artifact and missing dame. This is basically a sci-fi noir that lasts about 10 minutes. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and packs in a fair share of action. The story is well-paced in that it leaves the viewer satisfied and never overstays its welcome. This is one of the better stories in the film! B+

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DEN: A teenage geek discovers a green meteorite and is transported into the mystical world of Neverwhere. Besides being in an entirely new dimension, the geek also finds himself in a bald, muscular body. Adopting the name “Den,” the geek-turned-hero rescues a damsel, negotiates with a cocky immortal, and finds himself beset by the sexual advances of an evil queen. DEN is definitely the goofiest short in the bunch, but wears its corny nature as a badge of pride and constantly pokes fun at itself (through the teenage nerd’s narration). This isn’t exactly perfect, because the plot could easily turn some viewers off. I enjoyed this dumb little adventure for exactly what it was…a dumb little adventure. B

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CAPTAIN STERNN: This story follows a cocky space captain who’s been accused of terrible crimes. Confident that a bribed witness will come through, Captain Sternn pleads “Not Guilty” and finds that a glowing green rock quickly turns the trial against him in ways he never could have imagined. Of all the shorts in HEAVY METAL, this one definitely had the funniest story. It also has the best use of rock music in the entire film for me, which is really saying something when you consider that the likes of Black Sabbath, Devo, and Blue Oyster Cult are included on the soundtrack. The fantastic use of Cheap Trick’s “Reach Out” elevates this short’s humor and entertainment value tenfold. This is tied for my favorite segment in the film. A-

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B-17: Tied with CAPTAIN STERNN for my favorite segment in the film, B-17 is a horror story set on a WWII bomber. The story is simple, but effective. A pilot finds that the horrors of war also come in undead forms and desperately tries to escape a gruesome fate aboard his plane. This might be the shortest segment in the film, but it’s effective as hell. The creepy images are brought to life through unnerving atmospheric animation. The ending is also effectively eerie and concludes like any great campfire horror story should, leaving you scared and loving every second of it. If you don’t watch the entirety of HEAVY METAL, you should definitely check out B-17 and CAPTAIN STERNN on their own! A-

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SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS: The film’s two best stories are followed by its worst segment. This story follows a young woman who is abducted onto a spacecraft occupied by stoner aliens and a horny robot. Think about CAPTAIN STERNN and then strip it of everything that works. This is basically what SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS feels like. It’s lame, forced, and ultimately pointless. The sheer mediocrity is made only worse by everything that came before it. Colorful visuals and cool animation do save this story from being a complete disaster, but it’s easily HEAVY METAL’s weakest point. C

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TAARNA: I might receive some flack for my opinion on this final segment. The last story follows warrior Taarna’s quest to save a peaceful city from mutated barbarians. Despite TAARNA being frequently cited as the “fan favorite” of HEAVY METAL, I only found this segment to be good…but far from great. The imagery here is cool and I enjoyed the scenes of this badass babe whooping the weapon-wielding mutants’ asses, but this segment also drags out far longer than it should. There’s a long sequence of Taarna flying to the city that seemed purposely stretched out for the sake of cramming more music into the film’s soundtrack. TAARNA also ties up the wraparound story in a head-scratching way that you just kind of have to accept. This short contains cool visuals, but is nothing truly special. B

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HEAVY METAL is worth watching if you’re up for an 80’s animated anthology of violence, humor, nudity, and cool imagery. This film isn’t exactly high art, but remains very entertaining and impressive for being exactly what it is. Some stories (CAPTAIN STERNN and B-17) are definitely better than others (SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS and GRIMALDI), but the film as a whole is 90 minutes well spent. Whether you’re watching it under the influence of mind-altering substances or you just want to dive into a rockin’ blast from the 80’s past, HEAVY METAL comes recommended for those who enjoy this sort of thing! You know who you are.

Grade: B

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and some Action

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Directed by: Chris McKay

Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington

Voices of: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Mariah Carey, Jenny Slate, Susan Bennett, Billy Dee Williams, Hector Elizondo, Conan O’Brien, Jason Mantzoukas, Doug Benson, Zoe Kravitz, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam DeVine, Eddie Izzard & Seth Green

The first of three new LEGO movies, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a spin-off for the popular DC superhero from 2014’s surprisingly awesome THE LEGO MOVIE. Will Arnett has returned to reprise the vocal work for Lego Batman/Bruce Wayne and this film is set entirely within the Lego DC Universe. Filled to the brim with comic book references and call-backs to other movies, LEGO BATMAN never takes itself seriously at all and yet still manages to throw in a touching message about family and friends. Though not as great as its LEGO predecessor, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is the best DC Comics movie to hit nationwide theatrical release in years. This is a delight for parents, teenagers, and Batman fans who enjoy a good laugh.

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In Lego Gotham City, orphan-turned-superhero Batman (Will Arnett) enjoys wearing black, playing loud music and fighting crime. He’s always saving the day, but has never let anybody else into his life…other than faithful butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). After Batman foils the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) yet again and hurts the evil clown’s feelings, the villain hatches an ingenious scheme for revenge. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) has stepped into her dad’s shoes as chief of police and has enacted a new “it takes a village, not a Batman” approach to fighting crime. Also, Batman has taken young boywonder Robin under his reluctant parental wing. The real challenge Batman has to face though…is overcoming his fears about family.

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Will Arnett’s Batman was easily one of the funniest parts of THE LEGO MOVIE and he brings everything that fans loved about that character into a feature-length running time. Though this film has a handful of slow moments that drag, Arnett’s comedic timing and purposely brooding voice frequently rescue the story from being “too much of a good thing.” The rest of the voice cast is stellar as well, with Michael Cera delivering some of the biggest laughs as lively, no-pants-wearing Robin. Tons of Batman’s rogue gallery make appearances too, including a lot of C-grade baddies that provide giggles from their mere cameos. My two favorite side villains were Catwoman (who’s constantly saying “mew mew”) and Bane (who’s adopted the strange, but awesome-sounding voice from 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES). Zach Galifianakis also shines in the most sensitive portrayal of the Joker that you’ve ever seen, making for an evil supervillain that throws tantrums like a depressed ex-girlfriend.

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It should come as no surprise that THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is chock-full of movie, TV and comic book references. There are so many jokes within the first five minutes that it seems impossible to catch them all in one viewing. From signs that cheering citizens are holding to bits of dialogue that directly tie into certain films to full-blown footage used from every big-screen Batman in history, there are tons of laughs and in-cannon material here to satisfy diehard Batman fans. The film also throws tons of references towards DC comics in general, featuring cameos from Justice League members and familiar places from Superman’s stories. Even still, the references don’t stop there because there are unexpected non-cannon characters that have a big part to play in the proceedings. I won’t go into detail, but I was grinning ear to ear for a majority of the action-packed climax.

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LEGO BATMAN MOVIE’s message isn’t exactly original, but seems perfectly suited to the nature of Batman’s character and how we’ve seen this character explored in past versions of the material. The film’s lively visuals explode off the screen, looking like stop-motion even though they are actually the result of highly-detailed computer animation. As clever, entertaining and downright fun as LEGO BATMAN is, the plot encounters a few dull stretches. These mainly come in the second act, where we need to see certain things develop. In writing my summary of this film’s story, it struck me that LEGO BATMAN juggles four different subplots and tries to bring them together as a cohesive whole. The script does a solid job of this for the most part, but occasionally meanders as it brings these storylines together. Still, the pay-off, countless references, sheer entertainment value, and never-ending sense of humor are all well-worth the price of admission.

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If you’re a fan of 2014’s THE LEGO MOVIE or any incarnation of Batman, then THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a must-see! I imagine that DC Comics fans will have a field day with the sheer amount of references, tie-ins, and clever writing; all while kids are having a blast watching Lego Batman run around on the screen. I saw LEGO BATMAN in a sold-out movie theater that was filled with families and an apparent birthday party going on the front two rows. At no point, during any minute of the running time, did a child begin crying or a bratty kid act out in any way. That’s almost unheard of, at least for me. Everybody was glued to the screen and that’s a major feat for any family film. Though the pacing isn’t perfect, but THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a ton of fun! Sometimes, that’s all you need!

Grade: B+