Teen Titans Go! To the Movies begins with a reel of comic book panels flipping rapidly. It appears like a title card from a Marvel film. However, the camera pulls out to reveal a person flipping through a comic. After dispatching (sort of) a giant bubble supervillain, the Teen Titans—Robin (Scott Menville), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong), and Beast Boy (Greg Cipes)—sneak into a movie premiere, where the film “Batman Again” is screening. The auditorium is jam-packed with DC comics superheros, some attending in order to watch themselves on screen.
That is the type of movie Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is. It is the child-friendly Deadpool. A cousin to The LEGO Batman Movie. It is a film whose self-awareness is almost too overbearing. In-jokes and references stack on top of each other. Criticism of the contemporary Hollywood system that this film and all of its superhero film siblings exist within is embedded within the plot.
This meta-commentary on mainstream Hollywood trends and the transfiguration of comics to cinema might shoot over the heads of children. The fart jokes, however, probably kill to that demographic.
The film is least successful in the transition between these two brands of humor. Each cater to different audiences, and they are so far apart from each other that the gap between a long gag about a prop toilet and an examination of the manipulation inside the movie studio system is tough to bridge.
In the world of the film, the Teen Titans are a low-tier superhero collective. Most other superheros, as well as the public, looks down on them as the butt of a joke. As such, they aren’t awarded the same Hollywood treatment as Batman. And this gets on Robin’s nerves. As he ceaselessly tries to barge his way into the studio system, his friends help him and support him without prejudice.
Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is a delightful superhero excursion that has limitless energy and a charming thematic thrust. The meta-humor in a film like Deadpool 2 can become cynical, thereby lessening the emotional stakes laid out in the plot. With Teen Titans Go!, there is so much earnestness in the characters and their emotional motivations that it is hard not to get wrapped up in the optimism.
This group of young superheros never waver in their bond of friendship, even when leading figure Robin gets star-struck by the concept of a solo film of his own, and this is simply a positivity that is hard to find in the non-superhuman world. With other contemporary DC films being so dour and grim, Teen Titans Go! comes off as far more tuned in to what audiences today are clamoring for.
Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is frantically-paced and quick to fall back on musical numbers, but this never feels like a crutch or a form of pandering to a young audience. The pacing allows the film to be compact, so that the rather boilerplate plot doesn’t overstay its welcome. And the music cues are almost always winking at themselves. The running gag involving the group’s theme song and a bluntly-scripted song featuring Michael Bolton are two great comic bits.
It bothers me when children’s entertainment insults the intelligence of its target audience. This film never does this (even the juvenile scatological humor originates from a clever place that is relevant to what is happening in the plot). It scatters its humor into different baskets, and not all of it functions seamlessly. But it is a scrappy, heart-in-its-hand animated film.
In my adulthood, few movies have made me feel like a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies succeeds in eliciting this nostalgic feeling without me being aware of the television series. (I watched some of the Glen Murakami series in my youth, but that is, at least tonally, a different property). Aaron Horvath, Peter Rida Michail, and Michael Jelenic successfully put more entertainment value into this film than any DC property has since its rebranding in 2013.
And casting Nic Cage as Superman is both a brilliant wink-and-nod as well as the platform for a fun performance that makes one long for a live-action performance that could have been.
Teen Titans Go! To the Movies: B+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)