Synopsis – A villain’s maniacal plan for world domination sidetracks five teenage superheroes who dream of Hollywood stardom.
My Take – For kids growing up in the early 2000s, Cartoon Network‘s take on the popular DC comic series, Teen Titans, was something off a cultural touchstone. Light enough for kids, but with an intimate knowledge of some of the famous arcs in the comics, the show deftly married PG-rated children’s programming with studies of madness, obsession, depression and heartbreak. This year, right on the heels of Teen Titans leader Robin declaring, “Fuck Batman!” in the gloomy yet exciting trailer for the upcoming live-action DC Universe TV series Titans, a very different version of the teenage team has arrived in theaters, in the form of an extended feature adaption of the CN‘s series, Teen Titans Go!, which is now in its fifth season.
Ever since its debut in 2013, the CN series has been very divisive amongst viewers. While some enjoy it for its silly nature and comical approach to the DC media universe, others loathe it for its over-the-top comedic timing, ridiculous punchlines, and especially how vastly different it is compared to previously mentioned animated series. I personally too, was ready to spill my hate on this film, but in what is probably the biggest shock of 2018, this film, believe it or not, is actually quite good.
Here, directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail along with Michael Jelenic, who wrote the film, have surprisingly brought us a fun little meta film, that is not great or anything to nominate for an award but if you turn off your brain for an hour and a half, it’s actually quite fun. Siting at a neat 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, this film is not at all like the show. It has its more grating comedic moments but by the end of the film, I was thoroughly delighted by its simplicity and style. It’s a lighthearted experience for all ages, and it is full of references (both joking at the medium and the comic it came from) and surprisingly very confident in its execution. If you’ve been put off by how dark much of the DC Comics film universe has been, this may work as the perfect antidote.
The story follows Robin (voiced by Scott Menville), Batman’s erstwhile underappreciated sidekick and the leader of the Teen Titans which consists of Starfire (voiced by Hynden Walch) the alien princess, Beast Boy (voiced by Greg Cipes) the shape shifter , Raven (voiced by Tara Strong) the sorceress, and Cyborg (voiced by Khary Payton) the humanoid with both organic and bio mechatronic body parts, who hopes to ride the superhero-film wave into a claim of legitimacy, something they’ve been denied due to their propensity to do things like halt a big villain fight so they can perform their own theme song.
When Superman (voiced by Nicolas Cage) points out that no one takes them seriously, they head to find that mega-filmmaker Jade Wilson (voiced by Kristen Bell), who has been handing out films to just about every superhero in existence, including a new Batman film aptly titled Batman Again, she deems the Teen Titans unworthy of the big-screen treatment, mainly as Robin is merely a sidekick. Deeply hurt by this treatment, the team decides to find themselves an arch nemesis, who comes in the form of Deathstroke aka Slade (voiced by Will Arnett), a gun-and-sword-wielding assassin, who is often mistaken as Deadpool, and prove to everyone as super-hero bona fides and get their well-deserved film treatment.
With a premise like that, it’s quite obvious that this film lampoons the modern day superhero films cranked out by Hollywood, and the gags usually hit home on that front. You can call the twist from a mile away, but there’s a valuable moral lesson here. The film could not offer any starker contrast to such ever gray, rain-and-angst-soaked DC films as Justice League, Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and yet it openly takes place in a world where those films, or simulacrums of them, not only exist but have created a cottage industry where literally every superhero (and sometimes their butler) has their own film, except the perpetually overlooked Teen Titans. Not to mention, the constant amount of reference humor ends up fitting into the story, as we see just how much the titans are willing to be taken seriously as supers instead of clowns.
The simplest way to describe this film would be as a diet version of The LEGO Batman Film, a film so self-referential it puts even Deadpool’s fourth-wall-busting to shame. There are even a few lines about how the Titans’ nemesis Slade, looks like Deadpool, with one of the characters telling him to “say something to the camera.” All the wink-wink humor and in-jokes should keep the adults invested along with the film’s younger audience (though the former may actually be the primary target here), and the viewing experience feels similar to the irreverent tone of 2014’s The Lego Film, another production from Warner Brothers Animation. Though it shares in the spirit of that kind of film, it isn’t quite as sharp or effective, but if you go in with modest expectations, this one should make for a pleasant surprise. Yes, the film has the occasional fart joke, but it’s not overdone. In fact, the film is quite aware that those types of jokes aren’t for everyone, so it often utilizes them to make fun of itself.
What carries most of the film is the Titans’ sense of humor and in-jokes about the superhero genre. When it parodies the DC and Marvel universes, in particular, it’s on fire. It isn’t afraid of making fun of things that fans have criticized the superheroes for example how Superman’s greatest weakness isn’t kryptonite but Lois Lane, who’s always in a bind. The gags at the expense of both sides are cute, the Stan Lee cameo bring a little more to this ultimately fun time-passer. Keep an eye out for a quick shot of the Titans heading off a certain quartet of turtles as they amble toward a stream of radioactive goo; and a reference to Gene Hackman‘s Lex Luthor that no one under the age of 30 will get.
One extended diversion involves the heroes deciding that it’d be easier for them to get a film if there were no other superheroes, so they go back in time to undo every backstory. When that inevitably doesn’t work out the way they intended, the Titans have to restore everyone’s tragic origin, making this the only time in the long cinematic history of Thomas and Martha Wayne being murdered that the moment is played as a joke. This film, somewhat improbably, proves that the Teen Titans’ rowdy, chaotic, song-filled approach still works when extended from an 11-minute cartoon to an 88-minute animated film. In fact, it may work even better when given the grounding force of a feature-length narrative, which gives directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail the space to explore some bigger ideas as well as a focal point upon which the chaos can converge.
However, the most amount of heart comes from Robin who is trying to prove his worth as more than just Batman’s sidekick, and his arch ends up becoming pivotal with the film’s commentary on the current state of the superhero genre. As for the other characters, while the other titans are very juvenile in their own regard, they all really care for each other and would always defend those in need. These characters have always been a band of misfits and orphans that find strength in one another, and a sense of their inner darkness can have a place in their stories. This kind of theme lends itself well to both the lighter the series, where a lesson about friendship is stitched into every episode and, perhaps, something darker and more dramatic like the upcoming DC Universe’s Titans.
In terms of their eventual nemesis, Slade makes for a truly menacing foe to the titans, whilst also being the straight man in contrast to their shenanigans. Compared to the show, the animation also got a slight upgrade in quality, mainly by how the filmmakers take just enough advantage of the larger cinematic spaces. As a result, the action scenes are quite exciting to watch, with plenty of colorful effects and fighting moves displayed on screen. In addition, there are some scenes presented in other animation styles, including a particularly hysterical nightmare scene that parodies a beloved Disney classic. In the flashbacks and trailers of other films, we see other designs, including Batman: The Animated Series.
It’s easy on the way, staying true to the source material and bringing a sense of familiarity. My only complaint here, would be the toilet humor segments that falls flat and for some reason felt out of place. Yes, kids will laugh at fart and poop jokes, but it does get repetitive and stale here. This applies to a lot of the other jokes in the film as well. Here, there’s a tendency to repeat a joke over and over again. Also, the film has a lot of jump cuts and excessive edits to give you just a bit of a carsick feeling. Meanwhile, the voice cast also does a splendid job here. The original five from the show, Tara Strong, Greg Cipes, Khary Payton, Hynden Walch and Scott Menville continue their excellent work here.
Will Arnett, as usual, proves that he’s one of the best voice actors in the biz and hams it up for Slade’s extra-evil side and mind-manipulation scenes. Some respectable names have also lend their voices here, starting from Nicolas Cage, an inspired choice to play the Man of Steel, followed by Kristen Bell, singer Halsey, Eric Bauza, Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Hader, Patton Oswalt, Lil Yachty, Ty Burrell and of course the always delightful Stan Lee. On the whole, ‘Teen Titans Go! To the Movies‘ is a bright, noisy, quick-witted animated film that enormously pokes fun at the super hero genre, often with hilarious results.
Rated – PG
Run Time – 93 minutes