Rough night of crime-fighting, sir?
In 1992, Warner Brothers animation, riding high off the success of Tiny Toon Adventures, unveiled the greatest adaptation of DC Comic's Dark Knight Detective to date—Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS, for short). Leveraging the Batman resurgence resulting from Tim Burton's box-office smash, WB Animation President Jean MacCurdy, storyboard artist Bruce Timm, background painter Eric Radomski, background designer Ted Blackman, and animator Greg Duffel created a two minute dramatic vignette (set to Danny Elfman's Batman score) that floored everyone. The series was given the green light and the team of Timm and Radomski the keys to the Batmobile. Two incarnations, 85 episodes, and more than 10 years later, the series holds as a crowning achievement in superhero animation.
Tales of the Dark Knight is the second BTAS release, following The Legend Begins. The four episodes included on this disc follow in production order from the previous DVD release.
• "Episode 006: The Underdwellers"
• "Episode 007: P.O.V."
• "Episode 008: The Forgotten"
• "Episode 009: Be a Clown"
I'll be honest. This is not the finest collection of episodes. Underappreciated on many levels, these early attempts show the production team getting their footing with both style and character. "Underdwellers" is a social commentary issue utilizing an overdone Charles Dickens plot device as its framework. However, since the children are forbidden to speak, there are some beautiful moments during which the music swells over cinematic sequences in the dark noir sewer tunnels of Gotham. "P.O.V." also uses a bag-of-tricks storytelling framework, but Mitch Brian capitalizes on the opportunity to make this a very character driven episode, focusing on Gotham's finest with little involvement by the Bat. We learn a great deal about Montoya and Bullock in this episode, which serves as the foundation for their later involvement in the series. "The Forgotten" is yet another beautiful episode, short on plot but long on cinematic expression. Shirley Walker's score sets the tone from the opening titles and rides like a wild bull all the way through to the end. Again, no great villains or plot devices—just inspired visual storytelling. Finally, "Be a Clown" is a less than impressive Joker episode. Pedersen and Hayes don't give us anything original. Even the characters appear bored in this one—except for Mark Hamill's Joker, who never passes up an opportunity to chew scenery.
Some have questioned why Warner only released four episodes this time. The only thing I can figure is that Episode 010 is part one of a Two-Face story whose second act doesn't appear until Episode 017. Don't ask me why, it just must be the way the animation came back from production overseas. One can only guess how they will handle the next release, as there are two two-parters on deck—"Two Face" and "The Cat and the Claw."
This raises an interesting point—Warner seems to be missing the boat on animated collection releases. First Scooby-Doo and now their superhero franchises. One need only look at the success Fox has had with The Simpsons on DVD to see the revenue potential available in the market. With 85 episodes and a wealth of bonus materials available on Batman, why trickle out four to five episode releases in a cardboard snap case with minimal bonus features twice a year at a sticker price of $19.99? At this rate, it'll be 10 years before the entire series makes it to DVD. Take advantage of the opportunity while you have it.
Adding insult to injury, the Tales of the Dark Knight transfer is crap. For a series that is little more than 10 years of age, it appears as if we are watching the ten thousandth rerun of a 1970s Speed Racer cartoon. The amount of noticeable dirt and muted detail is enough to catch the attention of even the most casual observer. I have videotapes of these episodes that look better than the print used for this release. Further evidence shows the main title sequence for P.O.V. is so badly misframed the "Story by" credit is cut in half. Wake up Warner Brothers—this is a beautifully crafted series that deserves so much better than what you are currently giving it.
The Dolby 2.0 audio track is nice, if only to accent the Shakespearean trained voice of actor Kevin Conroy (Batman) and the magnificent scoring of composer Shirley Walker. I have said it before and will say it again—Warner Bros. is foolish not to release a collection of her work on this series. Hands down some of the best orchestral themes to come out of any television or film franchise.
Capping off the disc is a small sampling of bonus features. The Episode Introductions by co-creator Bruce Timm are a must for any fan of the series, as is the six minute Voices of Gotham City paying respect to the great work vocal director Andrea Romano has done on the series. Finally, for the kiddies (or the bored adult) is a cursor driven trivia game designed to help Batman put a handful of devious villains behind bars—whatever.
Film Score: 89
Batman: The Animated Series is a modern American classic and its creative team deserves the utmost respect for what it was able to accomplish in such a short period of time. I would venture to guess there is a whole new generation of Batman fans (of various ages) because of it. Do yourself a favor and rent this disc. Better yet catch the series on Cartoon Network. Just save your money and don't add Tales of the Dark Knight to your collection. It will only encourage Warner Brothers to continue this half-baked release strategy. Case dismissed!
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