Teen Titans GO! To the Movies

Teen Titans GO! To the Movies marries the often gutbusting hilarity of the show to an actual focussed narrative and the result is one of 2018’s best animated movies.

Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Across the plains of the Internet, Teen Titans GO! is pretty much the only universally-accepted punching bag left now that we have apparently reached the point where the goddamn Star Wars prequels are being reappraised as somehow underappreciated gems of far greater quality than anything Disney have so far put out (spoilers: they really aren’t).  Like, trying to start a civil conversation about this series is near impossible in online Animation circles, we’re talking whipping boy levels the likes of which only The Emoji Movie has come close to equalling.  Johnny Test levels of nuclear hate up in this place.

Whilst there are some parts in which I understand that hate – Warner Bros. bodged the initial announcement spectacularly leading to more vocal fans expecting a way different show than the one that they got for months, some of the episodes being straight duds, and Cartoon Network frequently pulling a full Nickelodeon and ramming the schedule with nothing but TTG! re-runs and ads for days at a time at the expense of everything else…  I actually really like Teen Titans GO!.  I’ve always really liked Teen Titans GO!, to be perfectly honest.  Maybe part of it is because I have no nostalgic connection to the original Teen Titans, but, mainly, I just find it really funny.  That mixture of stupid absurdist anti-humour, meta-jokes about itself and cartoons as a form, and infrequent It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia black comedy tickles me just right.  Though I may have fallen behind in recent years, mainly as a result of my falling behind on all forms of current television (especially Animation to my eternal shame), I still gain reliable amounts of laughs whenever I do tune in to an episode I haven’t seen before and some of them are genuinely inspired, like the one entirely dedicated to explaining the mechanics of owning rent-controlled property as a middle-finger to Very Special Episodes of kids cartoons.

Now, even I would have preferred the first theatrically-released Cartoon Network movie since The Powerpuff Girls Movie back in 2002 to have been something else (although this is only technically a CN movie by virtue of the show airing on that channel since everything to do with the property is all Warner Bros. Animation), but I was excited regardless.  One of the show’s, frequently self-admitted, problems is that the various writers don’t always have enough time to be able to put a full amount of effort into any given episode which, in the weaker instalments, can result in something unfocussed and messy, wasting quality ideas either because they couldn’t come up with enjoyable ways to use the material or because they didn’t fit the rapid-fire 11-minute comedy format.  A feature film, theoretically, would force series head honchos Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (previous of the Cartoon Network MAD series which explains a lot) to not only come correct with their strongest material, but also tie down their sensibilities to an actual narrative that requires them to work on their storytelling abilities.  The resulting Best Case Scenario being an affectionate thumb in the eye to modern superhero saturation that keeps the humour and feel of Teen Titans GO! whilst also taking advantage of its nature as a (slightly) more expensive film.

And that’s exactly what we got.  If you’re not already receptive to what Teen Titans GO! is selling, this likely won’t change your mind – although that extra time in the lab does mean that the film is less inadvertently defensive about itself than in the more notorious episodes of the show, so perhaps more vocal critics may be able to find the film easier to appreciate on its own merits.  But for the rest of us, Teen Titans GO! to the Movies is an absolute riot, one of the purest bouts of fun I’ve had at the cinema so far in 2018, and a precision-honed gag machine that’s just barely beneath the level of last year’s somewhat-similar LEGO Batman Movie.  It’s a rapid-fire onslaught of gags that barely stops to breathe, reliably throwing out genuine gut-busters at a rate of at least one every 10 minutes, and closes up shop at the exact moment it threatens to run out of momentum.

A cliché that every other critic has already taken but still the most accurate one available, the TTG! movie is basically Deadpool but for kids.  It’s a film that directly grapples with the fact that its incarnation of the Teen Titans – who are, for the record, still Robin, Beast Boy, Cyborg, Raven, and Starfire and are still voiced by their original VAs Scott Menville, Greg Cipes, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, and Hynden Walch – are extremely childish jerks whom nobody takes seriously.  Shut out of being able to have a movie made about them for that very reason even when the Batman franchise has reached Batman Again with spin-off movies based around the Batmobile and Alfred (a joke whose sting I still can’t decide has been lessened or increased by real-life events), they set about trying to earn a movie by any means necessary.  And when those means don’t work out, they try to gain an archnemesis, in the form of the real return of original series big baddie Slade (Will Arnett), initially for the status symbol such a thing provides but maybe also as a chance for them to step up and become genuine heroes without sacrificing their goofball natures.

The narrative is nothing special, and has a twist that will even be guessed by the children the film is primarily targeted towards long before the reveal, but it anchors down Jelenic and Horvath’s flights of fancy when it needs to and does even flirt with becoming surprisingly emotional at points.  Maybe it anchors proceedings down a little too much, though?  One of the film’s absolute best sequences revolves around a scheme to prevent various tragic superhero origins and part of the joy comes from it feeling like a condensed episode of the show, especially in one of the darkest punchlines I’ve seen in a film all year, with almost no connection to the rest of the film at large and I would love to have seen Jelenic and Horvath treat the narrative more like that.  Silly Putty that plays around with the form.  The narrative does work, it works gangbusters by the finale which allows this series to finally put together a few proper action sequences, but it’s still extremely conventional to ultimately a bit too much of a fault.

Then again, even with the film spending some more time on the Titans as friends and something approaching a legitimate arc where they grow and improve as people, Teen Titans GO! to the Movies still knows what we’re all really here for – the entire cast even start actively chanting for the end credits once Robin launches into a big old “I’ve learned something today.”  The TTG! movie wants you to laugh.  It wants you to properly, uproariously, wiping-tears-from-your-eyes laugh from pretty much the word go, and in that respect, I can’t find fault with it.  Or, at least, I can’t honestly sit here and criticise it for that when I spent almost the entire film in sustained hysterics.  The mean-spirited black comedy of the show is largely downplayed, making the times when it does rear its head that much more effective, but the film still has gags for days.  There’s some excellently timed slapstick, pot-shots taken at the DC Extended Universe and superhero movie conventions in general, homages to Back to the Future II and The Lion King, absurdist gags about full-body disguises, self-deprecation about the Titans themselves and a take-that to Cinemasins-style nit-picks over a certain Titan’s powers, the creative crew finally playing properly with the DC Comics toybox available to them for some brilliantly unexpected gags…

Unlike the very finest examples of the form, many of the gags are delineated between stuff for the kids and stuff for the adults, whilst a high percentage of the superhero-related jokes won’t be any experienced comic fan’s first rodeo with them.  But, aside from the obvious fact that kids will likely be hearing “MARTHA!” gags for the first time, it’s the exemplary execution that makes them all work so very, very well.  The consequences of preventing tragic superhero origins are obvious, but the punchline pile-up is the hardest I’ve laughed in a theatre so far this year, whilst lower-hanging fruits still hit hard thanks to excellent timing.  The TTG! movie has a habit of bashing on a gag’s button for absolutely all that it’s worth, but for every one that lands with a thud (that fart gag which goes nowhere) there’s another that actually benefits from the dragging out (like a runner involving how fun it is to say the name “Slade” or one specific background gag whose foregrounding and return reminded me of some of the all-time great American Dad! bits).

I’m deliberately trying to avoid going into detail, partly because these gags just should not be spoiled in advance, but also because they’re so dependent on their execution that writing them out plainly undersells them.  It’s that execution that makes the infrequent musical numbers a lot of fun, including a Beastie Boys-type rap that is shockingly catchy in a good way.  It’s that execution which covers for the film very much looking like an episode of the TV show, albeit with some minor additional detail in the smoothness of the character animations and the more refined lighting – one’s feelings on the series’ art style, which I find quite delightful, will determine whether they think the film does well with what it has or if it just looks plain cheap and restrictive outside of the action sequences.  It’s that execution which excuses the conventional nature of the plotting and every bum gag, because each lame gag will be immediately chased by 14 others that have been brilliantly delivered by the expert cast and impeccably timed by directors Horvath and Peter Rida Michail.

Like, I can’t really say much else.  Teen Titans GO! to the Movies is the best possible version of what it is aiming to be and I laughed my ass off from start to finish.  That’s always been my thing with joke machines like Teen Titans GO!; I am always willing to overlook the exact mechanics of the thing, so long as it makes me laugh at a consistent enough rate.  And, in mercilessly riffing on superhero conventions, rampant market saturation, and the false notion that treating superheroes as silly goofballs for kids is somehow disrespecting the entire medium of comic books and superheroes, it may have even accidentally hit upon a genuinely poignant point about, without excusing condescension and laziness, not needlessly overthinking children’s entertainment.

Or, y’know, maybe it’s just a dumb-ass fun-ass time at the movies.  Either works.

Callum Petch has got the bad guys on the run, he’ll never stop ‘til the job gets done.

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