Teen Titans Go! to the Movies offers a kid-friendly superhero satire

Mostly clever, good-natured and less cynical jokes than those found in the Deadpool movies.
Mostly clever, good-natured and less cynical jokes than those found in the Deadpool movies.

It's appropriate that Teen Titans Go! to the Movies opens with Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd zipping around the Warner Bros. logo, because the animated movie based on the Cartoon Network series is very much in the tradition of the anarchic, self-aware, fourth wall-breaking Looney Tunes shorts from the studio's early days. It's also in line with the more recent tradition of superhero movies that comment on the ever-growing superhero genre, including the Deadpool movies and fellow Warner Bros. animated production The Lego Batman Movie.

Titans operates on a much smaller scale than either of those movies, and it never quite escapes the impression that it's just a super-sized episode of a TV show. Even at just 84 minutes long, it has trouble drawing out its one-joke premise, but the characters and the tone are so affable and engaging that the movie is never less than pleasant to watch. Other animated movies this summer have bigger budgets and higher profiles, but Titans may be the most effective at entertaining both kids and adults.

The title characters are a sort of junior version of the Justice League, led by Batman's sidekick Robin (voiced by Scott Menville). In the world of Teen Titans Go!, Robin, Cyborg (Khary Payton), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Raven (Tara Strong) and Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) spend more of their time singing songs, eating delicious food and hanging around their T-shaped headquarters than they do fighting actual villains. (It's a far cry from the recently teased upcoming Titans live-action streaming series, in which Robin growls "F--- Batman" before casually murdering a bunch of thugs.) They're "goofsters," as fellow DC superhero Superman dubs them near the beginning of the movie, but lately they're feeling dissatisfied with their lightweight reputation.

Robin in particular is determined to achieve the most important badge of honor for a superhero: his own movie. So while the Titans eventually get around to saving the world from maniacal supervillain Slade (Will Arnett) and his mind-control master plan, they initially encounter him in their effort to secure an arch-nemesis, the first step toward superhero legitimacy and, thus, movie stardom. Known typically as Deathstroke in his DC Comics appearances, here Slade is sort of a generic, all-purpose villain, functioning mainly to facilitate the Titans' interactions with each other and within the larger DC superhero universe.

Written by show creators Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic and directed by Horvath and Peter Rida Michail, Titans features a nonstop barrage of self-referential jokes, taking on other superhero movies, general comic book lore and the concept of this movie's own existence. It's mostly clever, good natured and less cynical and mean-spirited than the similar jokes found in the Deadpool movies (Deadpool himself gets name-checked several times), but it's still a bit repetitive after a while and sometimes substitutes mere references to other movies or franchises for actual jokes.

Still, this is more than just Deadpool for Beginners, with likable characters and a colorful (if sometimes rudimentary) visual style that should hold kids' attention. The filmmakers dig deep into the DC library to fill out the supporting cast (this is surely the most screen time ever given to obscure adventurers the Challengers of the Unknown) and the skewering of superhero conventions is done with affection rather than bitterness.

Plus, there are fart jokes, in case kids don't understand the meta-humor of Nicolas Cage voicing Superman (look it up), or Stan Lee frequently interrupting the action to point out his own cameo. In a time when bloated, self-important superhero movies dominate the box office, it's nice to have a chance to laugh at the absurdity of it all — and learn a little lesson about friendship along the way.♦

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