Teen Titans Go!, the cartoon series that spawned Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, is essentially a sketch comedy show. Yes, every episode involves the same five main characters — insecure team leader Robin (Scott Menville), bubbly alien princess Starfire (Hyden Walch), droll half-demon Raven (Tara Strong), robotic party guy Cyborg (Khary Payton), animal-based party guy Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) — but the episodes break into 15 minute bits built around a simple conceit, as when everyone decides to say only the word “waffles” or when they have a pie party.
Taking their work to the big screen, Teen Titans Go! creators Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic, and Peter Rida Michail must deal with the same challenges facing Saturday Night Live, SCTV, or any other sketch show: how do you extend a short bit into a feature length film? As demonstrated by Wayne’s World, Strange Brew, The Muppet Movie, or other stand-outs in the genre, the trick lies in placing the goofy characters in a larger setting, setting them off on an adventure.
But where those movies had to invent new characters and hope they work alongside audience favorites, the Teen Titans come packaged with a whole universe to play in. After all, the movie is a big screen adaptation of a 15 minute cartoon series goofing on a 30 minute serialized cartoon version of a long-running comic book series set in 80-year-old DC Comics shared universe that has been the subject of many big and small screen adaptations. In short, there’s a lot to work with.
And there’s a lot to get bogged down with. At it’s best, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies carries over the manic silliness of the show, especially in the first 45 minutes. When the Titans stop fighting a giant balloon monster to rap their new theme song or when they go back in time to prevent the Justice League from becoming heroes, there’s an almost Marx Brothers sense of anarchy, with pranksters running around the “why so serious” world of corporate intellectual property.
But when the movie, leans too heavily on references, it becomes cloying and alienating to its primary audience. As a 40-year-old man who’s been reading comics since the 80s, I appreciate the riffs on bad DC movies and Deadpool’s publishing history. But my 6-year-old daughter, who watches Teen Titans Go! every day and has never seen Batman v Superman, couldn’t care less about “Martha!” jokes.
Unfortunately, the movie really leans on the references in its second half, when the plot overtakes the gags. Embarrassed that his team isn’t taken seriously as superheroes, Robin decides the only way to get respect is to get a movie, and the only way to get a movie is to get an arch-nemesis. He finds that nemesis in the mercenary Slade (Will Arnett, doing a much less inspired version of his Lego Batman voice) and that shot at a movie in producer Jade Wilson (a very game Kristen Bell). But Robin’s mindless pursuit of superhero stardom pulls him away from the team, robbing the story of its energy.
The action that fills the second half is all well-animated, and the main cast continues to do great work. But for kids who love Teen Titans Go!, goofy gags, not super-hero action, is the reason they go to the movies.