The building blocks were in place when voice actors and an audience gathered for the animated “LEGO Batman: The Movie - DC Superheroes Unite” premiere at The Paley Center for Media in New York City.
A kid-friendly super hero team-up that sees Batman reluctantly enlisting Superman’s help to battle arch nemeses Lex Luthor and Joker, the playful movie is based on the 2012 LEGO video game -- although this was written first – based on the blocky toy line … based on the Caped Crusader’s comic books. Developed by TT Animation, the movie features the vocal talents of Troy Baker as Batman, Travis Willingham as Superman and Clancy Brown as Luthor, all of whom were in attendance for the screening and Q&A, along with Director Jon Burton and Director of Photography Jeremy Pardon.
Superman and Batman: Travis Willingham and Troy Baker
Although a LEGO Batman movie, which will be released on DVD/Blu-ray and download May 21, is really the first of its kind, the film manages to be familiar but fresh.
Brown, who has voiced Lex Luthor since the 1996 debut of “Superman: The Animated Series,” said he knew he had to do the movie when he first heard about it due to Lex’s involvement -- and “because I was going to be buying the game anyway” – but also because the LEGO style of the movie allows it to be irreverent with inside jokes while remaining “absolutely consistent with the DC Universe.”
Rendered offline with a game engine, this LEGO/DC world is built using digital bricks, which allows LEGO “master builders” to recreate them in the real world. This arduous task taxed TT’s computers but drives major story points and leads to funny gags.
The basic plot is that Luthor, who is running for president and carries a grudge against Bruce Wayne, hatches a scheme to fix the election using Joker’s gas that make people like him. Joker signs up in exchange for Luthor’s kryptonite-powered “Deconstructor” ray which dismantles shiny black LEGO bricks -- or pretty much everything in the Batcave. The setup is kind of corny, but also harkens back to the campy 1960’s “Batman” show, the “Super Friends” cartoon and the more-recent “Batman: The Brave and the Bold.”
However, while it exists in a lighter version of the DC Comics universe, Tim Burton’s Batman films are also heavily present in the movie’s DNA. In fact, the entire opening sequence where the camera swoops through a LEGO version of the Bat-logo while Danny Elfman’s theme plays, is a direct nod to Burton and sets the tone for the next hour and change. Instead of being a completely somber character, Bats is humorously grumpy, and the big blue Boy Scout is so earnest and upbeat that he’s annoying every time he arrives to John Williams’ “Superman” theme.
That authenticity and dedication to the characters, while poking a little fun at their mythos, seemed to draw the audience in at the premiere. The mix of adults and kids -- who all received an exclusive Lex Luthor LEGO mini-figure -- ate it up when Bats crouched in an elevator, awaiting danger at any moment or when he repeatedly rebuffs overeager sidekick Robin (voiced by Charlie Schlatter).
But these characters are not just LEGO-ized versions of the heroes. Even though LEGO had strict guidelines as to the what filmmakers needed to preserve in the film, such as the required symmetrical C-shaped hand, Pardon said the heroes had to be the real deal in order for the movie to work.
“What’s fundamental to our characters is that they believe who they are, so LEGO Batman isn’t ‘LEGO Batman,’ he’s the Batman – he believes it wholly, completely … it comes out in all the performances.”
Of course, Batman is also Two-Face. Baker performed as the duplicitous villain in the 2011 video game “Arkham City” alongside Kevin Conroy, who Brown dubs the “definitive” voice of Bats. But he joked he’s now “on the other side of the coin” in his first role as a super hero, and it’s a job he geeked out about.
“I felt like we needed to take our shoes off when we walked into the audition because it was hallowed ground,” he said, and added that the “Batman: The Animated Series” with Conroy was the show that made him want to become a voice actor.
Panel after the screening of "LEGO Batman: The Movie"
And when Baker got the gig and finally heard the Elfman theme attached to his work, he said he ugly-cried tears of joy.
For Willingham – whose normal speaking voice is a deep, heroic baritone – the joy of getting the Superman role satisfied the little boy who used to leap from his bunk-bed in Underoos and a cape. That tradition continued when he wore a Superman T-shirt under his jacket when they recorded the voice tracks. He said when he needed to get his voice just right, he’d unzip the jacket and expose the hero’s shield.
“Anytime I didn’t have enough Superman in it, I’d just go hands on hips, and all of the sudden [in his Superman voice], ‘you talk like this and you’re all-American and proud, and true blue’.”
Willingham also noted their time in the recording studio was a close-knit affair. For instance, his wife Laura Bailey voices Wonder Woman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn in the movie, and Baker is his next-door neighbor. The cast recorded together, radio-style, over the course of two nights in February 2012 and the consensus was that the arrangement led to a stronger ensemble performance and a lot of laughing, such as when Brown-as-Luthor tells Joker he wants to pass his gas and no one could keep it together.
Willingham, Baker and Clancy Brown
“The greatest Lex plot of all time is to spread another bad guy’s gas,” Brown laughed.
Perhaps not surprisingly, after voicing Lex for 19 years, Brown ended up being the highlight of the post-screening panel moderated by Gary Miereanu with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. He revealed that he still loves playing the villain and lobbies for every chance to do so. But he added he initially was reluctant to take the gig because he actually auditioned for the role of Superman.
After being known for playing big bads on screen (such as The Kurgan in “Highlander” or Hadley in “The Shawshank Redemption”), he said he thought, “Here’s my opportunity to be a good guy for once.”
But when he didn’t get Superman, he said he made a big deal about it “like a fool” because “I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to be a good guy. Ever. In my life [but] It turns out he’s the most fun to play.”
As a side note, he said he’s never ordered from Starbucks in his Lex voice, but did deliver a very evil “Caramel Macchiato” order for the audience’s benefit as the evening drew to a close.