This is no laughing matter
Without question, the work Warner Brothers Animation has done with the Batman franchise has far surpassed the standard Saturday morning fare we accepted and enjoyed as kids. What they have been able to achieve in terms of storytelling and visual presentation has begun to approach the respected levels of Japanese anime. Their first feature length foray, Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is the best Batman theatrical adventure to date…until now. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is a taut, high impact film that explores the darker side of superheroes, often reserved only for the pages of comic books.
Facts of the Case
A little backstory for those who may be unfamiliar with the Batman Beyond television series: More than 40 years have passed since we last experienced the Dark Knight's animated exploits with cohorts Dick Grayson (Nightwing, AKA Robin I), Tim Drake (Robin II), and Batgirl (Barbara Gordon). Bruce Wayne is now an elderly recluse, sheltered within the confines of stately Wayne Manor and the Batcave, having long since retired the cape and cowl. Bruce is alone now, his only trusted friend being his Great Dane, Ace. Enter Terry McGinnis, teenage delinquent, who accidentally stumbles upon the Batcave and steals the most recent, tech-enhanced Batsuit to avenge the death of his father. Bruce and Terry form a grandfather-grandson like bond and work together to bring Batman back as the protector of Gotham City. But what happened to the rest of the Bat-gang? Why did Bruce retire? Whatever became of his great enemies of the past?
This mystery begins to unfold as the Jokerz Gang (voiced by Henry Rollins, Don Harvey, Michael Rosenbaum, Frank Welker, and Melissa Joan Hart) shifts gears from petty crime to the stealing of high tech industrial components. The last job takes place at Wayne Enterprise and reveals the true brains behind the operation…The Joker? How is this possible? According to Bruce, it's not. There must be another explanation—and they need to figure it out before things get out of hand.
The first release of this film, developed while in production on the animated series, was released in 2000. Unfortunately, Warner executives felt the content and tone was too dark and extreme for their target audience. As a result, filmmakers Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Curt Geda, and Glen Murakami were forced to extract almost five minutes of footage from the print, to lessen the impact. Having not seen the edited version, I cannot say how much it affected the film.
Written by master storyteller Paul Dini, based on a concept by Dini, Timm, and Murakami, Return of the Joker answers the question most frequently asked by fans of the television series. Building off the achievements and success of Batman: The Animated Series and New Adventures of Batman and Robin, Batman Beyond puts a whole new spin on the Batman mythos. Gotham is now a technologically advanced society and the criminals have compensated. The Batsuit acts as a two-way communication device between Terry on the frontlines and Bruce in the Batcave. An established relationship between Terry and the Commissioner Barbara Gordon strengthens the new Bat-corps in their fight against crime.
Encountering the Joker cuts deep and touches raw emotions not expressed nor dealt with in over 40 years. Terry sees him as just another costumed freak, but he is so much more than that. As Bruce relates, he is a psychopath who has become even darker and more sinister than his former "Clown Prince of Crime" persona of the past. But the question remains—What does he want? And why?
The visual and audio presentation on this film is awesome. Principally animated by TMS (Japan), one of the premier animation houses in the world, Return of the Joker is sleek and stylish, bordering on true anime greatness. Despite the marketing claim of being Full Frame, the film is actually shown in 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen—a real treat for someone who was expecting something less. The colors jump against the dark, fully digitally painted backgrounds, a first for Warner Brothers animation. The soundtrack rocks! Under the direction of Kristopher Carter, the techno themes of the series are blended beautifully with the full orchestral themes of its predecessors, resulting in a rich emotional tapestry, supporting each moment of action and reflection. Dolby 5.1 Surround brings the action right to your gut. If only all animated series were done this well.
In terms of acting, Will Friedle (Boy Meets World) is in full stride as the cocky apprentice McGinnis. Angie Harmon (Law and Order) replaces Stockard Channing (The West Wing) as the one time Batgirl turned Police Commissioner. Despite her youth, Harmon's voice captures the embattled and weary Barbara quite effectively. Mark Hamill (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) returns as a darker, twisted version of the Joker, with his maniacal laugh piercing through at critical moments. Last but certainly not least, Kevin Conroy, the one true Batman, captures the aged Bruce Wayne with all the intensity of a Dark Knight forced to rely more on his intellect than his physical abilities.
The special features are nice additions, but the true power of this disc remains the film itself. Commentary by Dini, Timm, Geda, and Murakam will be enjoyed by fans of these gentlemen and the series. Their fanboy enthusiasm is contagious and fun to sit in on. However, most might find the discussion a bit dry. A 12-minute "making of" featurette is really nothing more than a marketing teaser with little in the way of content value. Still, it's interesting seeing an unfamiliar actor's face to match with their voice. Deleted scenes referenced in the commentary are two unfilmed animatics (with vocals) blended into one sequence I personally would have loved to see fully rendered. Other included animatics are snoozers and can be passed over, along with the seven question Bat Trivia game, and music video by Mephisto Odyssey. Rounding out the extras are trailers for three other Batman animated DVDs (Return of the Joker, Sub-Zero, and Batman/Superman Movie) along with a promo for the Scooby-Doo DVDs and the Batman inspired teaser trailed to the upcoming Scooby-Doo live action film.
Very few American animated series have achieved the quality and excitement Warner Brothers has created with the Batman franchise. Mask of the Phantasm and Return of the Joker should be held up as examples for the true power of the animated art form. I highly recommend this film as a rental to everyone and a must buy to Bat-fans and animation lovers alike. One caveat, it may be a bit dark for children under the age of 10, so parents please exercise appropriate caution.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is acquitted of all criminal charges. I hereby order Warner Brothers to revisit these characters every few years, with the same high level of quality storytelling that has been made evident here. This court now stands in recess.
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