Wednesday, May 10, 2006

REVIEW: The Batman: Bat Out Of Hell

[Combined Review for Toon Zone News/The World's Finest: September 9th 2004 - this was an industry screener prior to the cartoon's premiere]

Once again, the infamous Batman returns, but to what success does this new animated series wing onto our screens? With a review of this nature I feel tempted to skip over the history. Those who have not heard of the elusive dark vigilante of Gotham City must be few. Hardly the type to likely be reading this review. Nevertheless, this new variant on an old icon requires some background.

So what’s new with “The Batman”? Well, what certainly isn’t new is the drive behind its conception. Batman’s not just getting a new animated lease of life, WB is bring Batman back to the big screen - the new cinematic Batman Begins comes to your multiplex next year. New movie brings new money opportunities and “The Batman” is its little cousin in its attempts to woo the younger generations to the toy store. This of course is nothing new. The previous animated version of Batman launched in similar circumstances with Burton’s Batman films. This past version of animated Batman was both stylistic and well written. For years it has continued in many formats and has captured the hearts of several generations of endearing Bat-fans.

And here lies the problem.

From the start "The Batman" has not only a predecessor to live up to, it has a fan base that didn't actually want it. That ready made fan base who should be supporting this new show are resentful for the cancellation of the previous one. In the end, business is business and new movies bring new viewers. New viewers buy new toys. New cartoons promote new toys. Despite the rationale, it's still hard for many Batman fans to forgive "The Batman" for quashing the old Batman cartoon they'd grown to love.

From the very first trailers it was clear that the new cartoon's target audience was a new generation of Batman fans, it made no qualms about saying so either. A brave and bold move, but does this mean the cartoon has divided its fan base before it has even begun? Can the quality of the cartoon win the older generation older and is it enough to inspire a new one?

With the name itself, it's no doubt this cartoon will succeed. "Batman" carries weight. The animation is stylised with an almost comic drawn line work. It sits like a hybrid of Bruce Timm's Batman and The Extreme Ghostbusters. Whether this is quite the right style for Batman I remain uncertain. It has a professional feel to it, but I'm not quite sure it fits the genre.

The Batman celebrates his 3rd birthday as the Caped Crusader with an encounter with a new and dangerous foe. This clown threatens not only The Batman, but also Gotham itself...

Yes, this new Batman, like his new movie counterpart is in the early stages of his career. So we have a young Bruce Wayne who in fact has more akin to Peter Parker than to the legendary billionaire. Here lies the first inherent problem with the show: the main characters jar with what we've come to expect from the Batman universe. This young Bruce Wayne, a slightly timid character, seemingly dominated by his henpecking butler Alfred, displays little of the intensity or drive we'd expect from a man who has given up his life to fight for an impossible vow. As Batman, he differs little from the Bruce Timm version—he’s extremely skilled, cold and tactful—but as Bruce Wayne he seems confused, random and unfocused. One further point: Wayne’s model sheet turns him a very ugly young man.

The other major character in this episode is The Joker. Despite what fans of vocally grumbled about, I found the design quite acceptable. The voice work also was solid, however it was a little too similar to Mark Hamil's intonations in the old cartoon series. When I say, too similar, Imean IDENTICAL. For me this was just a little disappointing. I suppose they feel "damned if they do, damned if they don't", but dialogue and voice paid too much homage to Hamil; it pretty much stole what he had made successful.

Aside from the Wayne model sheet, the animation is pretty effective. Some nice cut shots grace the opening sequence and action is clear and nicely storyboarded. What the animation and design does do to this show is lighten the legend up considerably. Pitching more certainly to a younger toy market than the previous cartoon, it's more colourful and optimistic. An unusual cityscape for dark broody Batman.

The music is again a little lighter to compliment the visuals. I did detect some orchestral horns playing what sounded like a slightly similar motif as the Elfman score when Batman popped up. The rest was an odd mix, some elements almost sounding like a revamp of the Adam West 1960's Batman series. The theme tune is catchy enough, although the whispering voice that ends the intro is very annoying. Yes we know it's "The Batman". We've seen enough shots of him and his Bat gadgets throughout the intro to work that out.

"The Batman"'s real problem is in the script and story. Visually, while a little misplaced, the show flows well, the script however doesn't. Loads of character inconsistencies and cheap jokes prevail. Would Wayne truly forget his 3rd anniversary of taking on cape and cowl? Would Alfred really be so inept and covering for his employers’ activities? Some of the lines are particularly wooden and stage - most of which fall between Alfred and Bruce.

Furthermore, the story is a state. Joker uses the tried and dusted attack on Gotham, the hot air balloon filled with gas. Would Bruce Wayne take a large flashing Bat-Pager to a sports game? It just all feels rather trite and mashed together. The script lacks tragedy and grace. The subtly of the Batman world are lost.

I didn't really come to appreciate Bruce Timm's vision of an animated Batman until a few years ago when I researching for an illustration project, so there are no feelings of nostalgia tainting my judgement when I say this isn't half as good as the previous animate project.

This is commercial Batman. “Batman-Lite” maybe. It looks good, it's fast paced, but it tastes like fast food; It’s garish, flat and rather hard to swallow. Unfortunately there is little to recommend to old fans, but I'm sure the new younger ones will lap it up.

Review copyright: James McLean

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