October 12, 2009
SUPERMAN/BATMAN: PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009, Blu-ray released September 29, 2009 - MSRP $29.99)
You know I've got a soft spot for these DC Comics animated adaptations. I've given fairly positive reviews to the two previous efforts in the series - Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight. So you're probably expecting more of the same from my review of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies on Blu-ray disc. And you'd be right! In fact, I think it might be the best of the bunch!
From what I can tell, that's probably not the popular opinion. I got my copy of the Blu-ray disc quite late and so had the opportunity to browse other reviews kicking around internets. While the disc itself would be constantly highly rated, reviewers seemed unanimous in slamming the simplistic story. I felt like the simplicity really worked in this case!
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is essentially a one-hour fight scene. There isn't much character or story. But plenty of excitement. And, at the end of the day, isn't excitement what draws us to a superhero adventure? Here's the setup, in a nutshell - Lex Luthor has swindled his way into becoming the president of the US and declares Superman and Batman public enemies. Villains and heroes alike hunt them down and try to beat the crap out of them. Awesome! That's pretty much all there is to it. But you know what? With such a a short runtime, that's okay. What drags the production down for me is the character designs. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is an adaptation of a DC Comics miniseries (I didn't read it so I can't comment on how faithful the script is to the original Jeph Loeb story.) As such, the filmmakers attempted to mimic the character designs of the comics' artist, Ed McGuinness. To the productions detriment, if you ask me. The designs, while looking a whole hell-of-a-lot like McGuinness' are too chunky and muscled and despite some champion work by Lotto Animation, the characters don't animate very well. Give me the old, simplified Bruce Timm models any day!
The Blu-ray looks fantastic! Really well done. Probably the best looking disc of all the DC Comics adaptations that Warner has released thus far. And, despite the lack of an uncompressed soundtrack, it sounds strong and pretty dynamic! Where the Blu-ray fails for me is in the bonus feature department. Aside from the requisite collection of trailers and six Bruce Timm best-of-Justice-League episode picks (all looking better than ever compressed with the VC-1 codec, I might add), the only extra materials on the disc are a short featurette exploring the relationship between Superman and Batman, and a sit-down dinner with the actor who performs the voice of Batman. Don't get me wrong, what we're given is pretty cool. I can take or leave the featurette but the dinner chat, running almost an hour long, is really great. Just like the Green Lantern: First Flight disc, however, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is sorely lacking in any detail on the production itself! One again, we're robbed of a commentary track, or making-of featurette. Come on, guys! As cool as it is to hear Kevin Conroy chat about his almost twenty years voicing Batman, I'd rather know something specific about the film I just watched. How about an interview with Sam Liu? If this Newsarama interview with the director is any indication, he has a lot to say about the production. What about Stan Berkowitz? Having adapted the comics to screen, he most likely has a few insights to share. Urgh...It's so frustrating to feel like nobody at the studio cares about this end of things anymore. Here's hoping they rethink their position of avoiding production docs and commentaries for next years Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths Blu-ray Disc release.
Also on The Bllu-ray Blog: Superman/Batman: Public Enemies Blu-ray Disc review
July 27, 2009
GREEN LANTERN: FIRST FLIGHT (2009, Blu-ray released July 28, 2009 - MSRP $29.99)
I couldn't help but think of Law and Order: SVU while watching Green Lantern: First Flight. And not just because the lead character is voiced by Chris Meloni, one of the cops on the hit NBC show. But because the take on the character and the group he belongs to is such that we're meant to perceive them as being an intergalactic police force, patrolling the cosmos and protecting life from galaxy to galaxy. Cool concept. And it works.
Green Lantern: First Flight comes to us as the newest DC Comics/Warner direct-to-video animated feature. And it's another in their long line of success stories, following hot on the heels of Wonder Woman and the anime-styled anthology Batman: Gotham Knight. With the understanding that these projects suffer from massive time and budget restraints, the quality that producer Bruce Timm and his teams are able to achieve is simply astounding. Yet still, writer Alan Burnett faced impossible odds, having to shoe-horn poor, old Hal Jordan's origin story into the first ten minutes of the film - ten minutes comprised of a five minute opening titles sequence (Hey guys, how 'bout we drop that from the runtime next time in favour of a little more story?) The upcoming live-action Green Lantern film, directed by Martin Campbell and starring Ryan Reynolds will no doubt make two hours out of that same story material, glossed over here. But while things feel a bit rushed out of the gate, Burnett is soon allowed to settle into a nice rhythm with his script, exploring the relationship of Hal as rookie space-cop in the Green Lantern Corps, being trained to use his new-found magical-ring powers by seasoned vet of the force, Sinestro (Victor Garber). This is Training Day in space!
We get a few scenes that are meant to give us that "cop show" vibe before the story thrusts us into superhero-epic territory, where the film ultimately feels more at home (Was it just me, or did it feel like they were always trying too hard to remind us that the Green Lanterns are cops?) There's a grand, exciting and extremely well animated climax sequence that's worth the price of the disc alone. This is the kind of action you hope to see in a Green Lantern film! Martin Campbell has a lot to live up to now.
I have to give credit to the design team on this film. Wow. Incredible work. Green Lantern: First Flight looks wholly original, with designs more inspired by anime than by North American comics. And man, do they work in this context. In fact, the Japanese influence can perhaps be felt a touch too strongly in one particular instance. It was pointed out to me by nerd-blogger extraordinaire, Rob at Topless Robot, that Green Lantern's initial transformation into the superhero we know and love is almost identical to that of Sailor Moon. Compare the two and see for yourself!
The first five minutes of Green Lantern: First Flight:
And a Sailor Moon transformation:
Pretty similar, huh?! Nevertheless, the animation comes off well, with the character designs rarely falling too off model and the more nuanced and intricate movement being saved for the action sequences. Well done.
The Blu-ray looks great, as well. I can't get enough of 2-D animation in high-def. From Disney classics to Persepolis, I think I could just spend every day watching nothing but old school animation on my PS3. And the audio is no sloutch here either. All in all, a great presentation!
My only real complaint with the Green Lantern: First Flight Blu-ray is directed at the bonus features. While this disc may be packed with extras (including five episodes of Justice League and a Duck Dodgers cartoon!) it doesn't offer a single glimpse behind the curtain. I want to know how this thing was made! We aren't even offered a commentary track this time. At least the Wonder Woman disc gave us that. And what about that early promo featurette? You know the one, showing us Meloni and Garber in the studio, recording their lines. Where is that little piece of film? Urgh...After watching all the little docs that they do offer us, I feel like it's all just a promotion for writer Geoff Johns and his upcoming comic books stories. A shame that Timm, director Lauren Montgomery, Burnett and the team had to be short-changed to shill some comics. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the upcoming Superman/Batman: Public Enemies Blu-ray disc will see fit to show us how the Warner animation magic is made!
Via: The Blu-ray Blog
March 13, 2009
AintItCool.com just got the scoop on the follow up to WHV and DC Comics' Green Lantern: First Flight. Harry Knowles claims the above is the logo for the fall release of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, an adaptation of the Jeph Loeb story of the same name. Click over to AintItCool.com for a plot synopsis.
March 8, 2009
Wonder Woman (2009 - Blu-ray)
Pretty good. Exactly what I was expecting. Not as focussed, structurally sound or iconic as i'd hoped but completely serviceable. To be fair, nearly every single criticism I can throw at producer Bruce Timm, director Lauren Montgomery and crew's animated Wonder Woman film can be explained away by it's two most villainous foes - budget and running time.
Read more after the jump:
Scribe Michael Jelenic by way of Gail Simone's story makes a grand effort of attempting to tell the definitive origin of DC Comics' Amazonian princess by amalgamating and slightly reshaping the best and most iconic elements found in the comic book series and on television. This Wonder Woman can't fly like the comics or Justice League cartoon incarnations and won't fight in heels like Linda Carter but is steeped in the Greek mythological background stuff that makes the modern DC version of the character feel timeless. In fact, the film skews heavily toward the sword and sandal tone, only allowing a hint of what Princess Diana's adventures in "Man's World" might feel like. And I think that's where it fails for me.
This fable feels most at home when exploring the lives, characters and mythology of the Amazonian world. It spends a glorious amount of its brief seventy-odd minute run-time focused on the toga/sandal crew and reasonably little on our protagonist's fish-out-of-water, island girl in NYC arc. A grave mistake, if you ask me, as that's where the character really shines, where she becomes the Wonder Woman that we all know and love. That version, the ideal status quo for the character is what the whole narrative leads us to in a denouement which really pays off. But along the way, the rush to explore every nook and cranny of the Amazonian plight leads to a juxtaposition of tone and style that doesn't always work, as if the climax of of Frank Miller's 300 was randomly staged in downtown Washington DC without much explanation. In fact, a lot of things get glossed over or unexplained in this story. Like the Invisible Jet that suddenly appears on the primitive Amazon island, for instance.
And, if the production team's comments are to be believed that sloppiness comes as necessitated by restricted budget and time. Sadly, it seems this vision for Wonder Woman was simply too epic to be contained in a short DTV feature. This is meant to be storytelling writ large and long. The music cues, riffing heavily on Shore's Lord of the Rings (with a little of Kilar's Bram Stokers Dracula thrown in for good measure) tell us as much right off the top. But you can feel the edits, the glossed over details, the deleted dialogue and scenes, the moments you were meant to love that ended up on the cutting room floor or the directors storyboard pages, as it were. I mean, this thing works well and looks good for a short, modestly budgeted video project. But ultimately, it serves best as a blueprint for Hollywood to follow and expand upon as they bring Wonder Woman to life, live-action on the big screen.
Compromise. That's the key word here. Director Montgomery talks often about it in the excellent and fairly candid commentary track on the disc. While this film looks and moves extremely well for a direct-to-video offering, sometimes expertly managing armies on screen, it can't compete with bigger budget films, where movement is perpetually fluid, dynamic and engaging and designs are kept strictly on model. Everything about the animation here is simply serviceable, with a small handful of action scenes being afforded extra attention - notably a beautiful sparring scene between Diana and Artemis early in film, boarded by the talented Brandon Vietti (The Batman, Superman: Doomsday) and the incredible call-to-action denouement by Dave Bullock (Kim Possible, Justice League).
Montgomery's character designs skew slightly toward her Disney influences, a welcome departure from Timm's previous 'house' style. Her large eyed, thin nose faces often look fantastic but are unforgiving and crash hard when Moi Animation Studio gets them even slightly off model. Character shading has a heavy anime influence, with more articulated shadows than previous efforts that, along with nice gradients and diffusion filters give the film depth with a more detailed look than WB animation is usually capable of. Add the occasional visceral, hand-held moving camera, common in modern action films and you have a look and feel appropriate to a PG-13 film.
The Final Word:
I really love that Warner is putting it's muscle behind these DTV releases. Despite any criticisms that I might have, i really enjoy the DC heroes in their various animated incarnations. And I can count this Wonder Woman film among my favourites. With a decent transfer and a handful of compelling features I can't help but give this disc a recommendation. As a PG-13 film, it's clearly focussed at fans and certainly not made for children but most viewers who enjoy animated adventure films will get a kick out of it.
Learn more about the Blu-ray and it's special features in my review over at TheBlurayBlog.com.
March 6, 2009
For all five of you who haven't seen this yet, here it is: Happy Harry's "reanimation" of the Watchmen in a classic, Saturday morning animation style, complete with cheese-bag (read: awesome) theme song.
"Strong together, united forever"
For the record, I saw the feature film last night and I'm fairly conflicted. The music is terrible, the acting a mixed bag and the editing questionable but...
...it's kind of sticking with me. Every scene with Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan is damn-near pure gold. Almost makes me forget how wooden and stale the rest of the non-action scenes play.
My capsule review (for those who care): Watchmen needed the "Do Androids Dream..." to "Blade Runner" treatment, in favour of the literal "Sin City" approach. Maybe the "Animated" motion comic Blu-ray will get it right?
March 2, 2009
We've been waiting a while to get our first glimpse at the new Green Lantern animated offering from Warner Home Video and DC Comics. The last week has brought us full disclosure of the contents of the disc and order/release date details but avoided showing any artwork outside of the packaging. Well, now, thanks to YouTube, we finally have a sneak peek behind the scenes of the Direct To Video film set to hit shelves on July 28th.
Full details: The Blu-ray Blog.com
February 13, 2009
This is exciting! Following the release of the big-screen Watchmen feature on March 6th, we're going to be treated to a direct-to-video animated supplement culled from the un-filmed pages of the original Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel. Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter streets on DVD and Blu-ray March 24th from Warner Home Video.
Via The Blu-ray Blog.com
January 7, 2009
And I was hoping for the New Gods.
According to the back-cover art of the upcoming Wonder Woman disc, the next DTV animated film to come from DC Comics and Warner Home Video will be Green Lantern. No details are available as yet, including the identity of the lead character in the green tights. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the animated film will be looking to tie-in to or promote the upcoming live-action film currently in development at Warner. We'll let you know as soon as we hear more.
Wonder Woman hits shelves this March 3rd.
July 8, 2008
Warner Bros. marks their entry into the Indian animation field with an as yet untitled film directed by Jyotin Goel (Zahreelay, Inam Dus Hazar, popular sci-fi T.V. show Antariksh) and produced by Goel Screencraft. Goel had this to say about the upcoming film,
"This is a story of love and adventure, full of color, music, drama and comedy. The film is not based on the humans but portrays the melodious world of birds and attempts to explore their lives from an unusual standpoint. It is a journey into the lives of birds as they soar over dense jungles and teeming cities, giving them a point of view of the world that is hilariously different from ours."
Am I the only one excited by this? I don't know Goel's work but the premise sounds quite charming. If the animation is handled well, we could be seeing this one on the festival circuit relatively soon!
May 9, 2008
I'm generally not a fan of live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, because they almost always disappoint. The problems usually start with the choices the filmmakers make in order to get animated (or animated-looking) characters into a live action universe. The Flintstones had fake-looking rock sets; Alvin and the Chipmunks and Scooby Doo had CGI critters in an otherwise realistic universe; Fat Albert had the TV characters coming to life in the real world.
In Speed Racer, the Wachowskis do what none of the creators of these other films had the will to do: they created a cohesive universe in which all of the elements in any given frame look like they belong together. In the process, they also highlight something that's been missing from mainstream animation for quite some time.
As I was sitting in the cinema watching Speed Racer, it occurred to me that I already knew how most journalists were going to describe the movie's look. Some would say that it looks like a video game, or that it's anime come to life. They're dead wrong. Outside of some race scenes the movie looks nothing like any video game you've actually played, and outside of a few Akira-like shots and a nod to the original series opener, it looks nothing like any anime you've ever seen. Really, these are just phrases that reviewers use when they want to say that there are lots of things moving around very fast, or that have bright-coloured, futuristic-looking elements.
In a strange way, however, they're also right. Speed Racer, like many video games, demands that its viewers process a lot of visual information at once. Like anime, it stylizes motion in a way that isn't entirely realistic but is believable within its own reality.
If anything, Speed Racer's filmic cues come from green-screen/digital-set movies like the most recent Star Wars trilogy and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, along with shorts that feature heavily processed and manipulated live action, like Gaëlle Denis' City Paradise. But the Wachowskis' real inspiration here is manga. This doesn't just apply to the racing scenes, but to just about anything set outside of the Racer family home. Take a look at these images, and pay special attention to how they put the focus on certain foreground objects or characters and use the backgrounds to denote movement, atmosphere and mood. These compositions are pure manga:
Better still are the transitions, in which the camera moves around a foreground character's head and the backgrounds change to show scenes either as a transition or as a flashback to the past. Some of these scenes are multi-layered, including audio from both the current time and place and the location or time being referenced. There's even one scene where one character tells Speed about about something that will happen in the future; as the camera whirls around Speed, the background shifts to show scenes that highlight what the other character is saying—and eventually we discover this isn't speculation, but what actually happens in the future. The whole sequence interleaves the present moment and flash-forwards, kind of like an episode of Lost on, well, speed. (Lazy journalists will look at all this and make references to audience members with short attention spans or ADD; the truth is, you really have to pay attention if you want to follow it all.)
I'm just scratching the surface here. All in all, Speed Racer is a visual effects spectacle that doesn't reserve its inventiveness for eye-candy money shots; rather, it's a carefully constructed, dynamic reality that is unlike anything seen on the big screen. All of which brings me to the question I kept asking myself when I left the cinema: why haven't I seen anything like this in feature animation for so long?
It's a cliché these days to say that effects-heavy summer movies are cartoon-like, and there's some truth to that. But it's also true that live-action movies have, through the heavy use of CGI, taken animation's "anything can happen here" mentality and run with it. Meanwhile, feature animation has largely concerned itself with looking more realistic, obsessing over things like realistic fur and hair. Even those productions that aren't so fixated are, relatively speaking, conservative. I've very much enjoyed Pixar's films, but when you get right down to it they mostly fit into a niche best described as "Talking ____s," with the blank filled in by toys, bugs, fish, rats or what have you. The Incredibles was an exciting departure, but so far the new direction that it signalled appears to be a dead end.
Where's the wow? Where's that moment when you jump up in your seat, excited because you've been shown something you've never seen before? Speed Racer provides that in spades, but in feature animation it's been sorely lacking. I remember seeing Tron in 1983, Akira in 1988 and Mind Game in 2005 and each time feeling like someone had redefined what was possible in animated cinema because I was being shown things I hadn't seen before. I've had that same feeling many times over since then, but when it comes to animation it's generally been in OAVs, shorts and—much to my surprise—television.
I'm all for the blurring of boundaries, but to me movies like Speed Racer indicate that feature animation is ceding ground to live action. Something is very wrong with this picture.
April 29, 2008
For years (and years, and years) I've been reading the same tired arguments about racist cartoons, particularly those that use black stereotypes. It's a problem that's as old as cartoons themselves; John Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, considered the first cartoon short, made fun of blacks and Jews (Blackton's lightning sketches include two images labelled "Coon" and "Cohen") in 1906, and the image of big-lipped, Stepin Fetchit-inspired characters didn't lose steam in popular American cartoons for another half a century.
The problem began when networks stopped airing these cartoons in their regular lineups, and larger companies were slow to include them in videocassette (and now DVD) compilations unedited. Not that they were never released—I still have my Tex Avery laserdiscs with Uncle Tom's Cabana and a handful of shorts that use blackface gags, for example—but some Warner Bros. cartoons have been considered so over the line that they haven't been aired on TV for decades, and never released by Warner Bros. on any kind of home video. These shorts have acquired a mythical status, and a name: The Censored Eleven.
Talk of these shorts (and similar ones not so blessed as to be tagged with such a dramatic moniker) invariably brings up discussions of the shorts' historical significance, the fact that they were made in a different era, and, at some point, an exhortation to the rightsholders that the shorts should be released unedited. My longstanding complaint about these arguments is that, for the most part, it's a bunch of white guys standing around arguing about what black people should and shouldn't find offensive. (Books like That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960 are a step toward rectifying that problem, as well as the more recent The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, which I'll be reviewing soon; I've also done my bit with essays on the subject and, most recently, a 2006 guest blogging stint on ReFrederator.)
In light of a recent re-emergence of the discussion, Thad Komorowski has nailed the other complaint that I've never fully given voice to: that many cartoon fans, in their desire to own these films, have bent over backwards to claim that these films are not racist. Because, let's face it, they most emphatically are. If a joke is being made with the understanding that something is funny because a character is black, then it's racist. It's a pretty simple equation. (And please spare me the "I have a black friend who loves these cartoons" argument; I think Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is one of the funniest, snappiest, and most brilliant cartoons Bob Clampett ever directed, but denying that it's entirely built around racist imagery is like denying gravity.)
I am more than pleased that someone has come out and called it like it is, and urge you to read Thad's frank commentary. And hey, if you've been itching to see the Censored Eleven for yourself, he's also posted them there for your edification.
April 9, 2008
I've been catching up on what's been going on in the entertainment world and just discovered today that Warner Bros. Animation's Batman: The Brave and the Bold is premiering on Cartoon Network this fall. Featuring weekly team-ups with characters from the DC universe, Mediaweek describes the new show as "a more lighthearted throwback to the Batman of the 1960s and '70s, before The Dark Knight franchise turned the cowled crime fighter into an angst-ridden existentialist."
Well. As any Bat-fan worth their salt knows, the lighthearted phase of the caped crusader's career was an aberration (albeit one that lasted about 20 years) in the character's 69-year history. Prior to the evisceration of superhero comics after World War II, Batman's roots were firmly in the pulps, a "weird creature of the night" in the spirit of the Shadow.
Now, I'm a firm believer in the malleability of even established characters. None of the currently popular superheroes in comics or onscreen is exactly as they were when they made their debuts. And witness my praise of derivatives like Batman Beyond, among other things. But this still strikes me as a curious step. As a brand—and marketing people and execs are always all about the brand—Batman has been the Dark Knight for over twenty years now. In comics, he gradually started returning to his more grim roots in the 1960s; in animation, his last appearance as "chummy Batman" was in 1986.
So at this point, everyone of voting age pretty much knows Batman in his new (or, if you like, old) persona. How exactly does it promote the Batman brand to make him more "lighthearted," especially on the heels of a new Christian Bale movie? For this they axed The Batman, which I thought walked the line between Saturday morning-light and Dark Knight-sombre pretty well?
I guess we'll have to wait and see how this latest incarnation of Batman turns out. Handled well, it could work out. There's a precedent: when the Justice League comic was rebooted in the 1980s with Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis at the helm, it featured as much comedy and slapstick as it did action. Batman's character (or, in marketspeak: brand) was completely intact, and the contrast between him, his teammates and the situations they found themselves worked brilliantly. Let's see the Brave and the Bold team can be as creative as that when they go "lighthearted."
March 30, 2008
DC: The New Frontier was an ambitious, twelve-issue series created by Darwyn Cooke that reimagined the circumstances of the first encounter of the DC superheroes who would become the Justice League in the late 1950s. Justice League: The New Frontier, its animated adaptation, is on the ambitious Warner Premier label, which aims to release OAVs based on DC properties, along with striking acquisitions like Appleseed: Ex Machina. And with all this ambition going around, you'd expect a pretty amazing end product, right?
Let me back up a bit. In 1998, I was blown away by the striking, dynamic opening sequence to Batman Beyond, so I interviewed the man who was responsible for it. Fellow Canuck Darwyn Cooke's background was originally in graphic design, and he brought a fresh approach to his animation work, and later to his comics.
Last year I picked up the trade paperback compilation of DC: The New Frontier and read the whole thing in two and a half hours. I'm a fast reader, so that's a bit long for me; but I kept stopping to admire Cooke's bold lines, his compositions and his colours. He's one of those artists who makes good work look much easier than it is.
All of this is in service to one hell of an idea. After World War II, the "mystery men" who aided the war effort—the Golden Age heroes like Hourman, Dr. Fate, Black Canary and the original Flash—are forced to register or retire as Cold War paranoia whips up. Superman and Wonder Woman sign loyalty oaths and work for the government. Batman goes underground. But now a new, younger breed of heroes are starting to pop up, working in secret to do good, like the new Flash and the Martian Manhunter—all at around the same time Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman are realizing their old ways aren't working anymore. (Cooke expertly lifts some of these ideas—in a good way—from previous must-read comics mini-series JSA: The Golden Age, The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come, all of which expertly mix adult themes with the mythological wonder of the superhero story.)
It can't be unintentional that these events mirror what happened to DC superhero comics themselves between the 1940s and 1960s; they too were neutered post-war, and the Silver Age of comics was officially kicked off in 1959 with the introduction of the new Flash, launching an era of the "scientific" superhero. Many Golden Age heroes were born from the war or mysticism, but in the Silver Age just as many came from space or had their origins in astronomy, chemistry or physics. Cooke mined this and wrapped the story of The New Frontier—a phrase from John F. Kennedy's Democratic Party nomination acceptance speech—in the sense of discovery, adventure and optimism of new scientific discoveries that mixed with the uncertainty of growing social upheavals.
Embodying this spirit and this conflict is Hal Jordan, a jet jockey who will become the new Green Lantern. Driven to see the stars, the pacifist Hal joins the Air Force during peacetime and becomes embroiled in the Korean War. But he's also a man utterly without fear; presented (for the second time) with a death-defying, world-on-his-shoulders mission, his only response (again) is a smile and the simple response, "Outstanding."
That's a lot to fit even into a year's worth of comics, which points to the animated version's biggest flaw. With a mere 75-minute running time, a lot had to be pared down. Many characters and events were eliminated, sidelined or combined, and the net effect is a feeling of being rushed. Comics are incredible because a single panel can represent a split second, or several years; narrative animation tends to be more literal, so Justice League: The New Frontier is actually about 75 selected minutes out of a few years' events.
That would be fine for a conventional three-act story, but the New Frontier comic flits between the threads of multiple storylines and people that are gradually pulled together, each at different speeds. The animated version sticks with the same structure but doesn't have the luxury of time, which eats into things like characterization, back story, pacing and explaining who the hell these less familiar characters are.
The same comic/animation tension affects the visuals, too. A quick glance at the credits reveals the combined talents of the last sixteen years' worth of animated DC series, and it's all right up there on the screen. There's no resting on laurels here; although they've defined and refined a particular vocabulary, they're always pushing things forward. Everything in Justice League: The New Frontier screams 1950s, from the UPA-ish opening scene to the Saul Bass-ish title sequence to the many iconic Cold War-era locations, from Vegas to roadside diners. Colour design, compositions and staging are as sophisticated as the story's ideas. But for my money it all falls apart whenever I look at Wonder Woman.
Darwyn Cooke's Wonder Woman is pure 1950's smoking-hot sexy with generous zaftig curves that convey life, passion and power. Meanwhile, the current incarnation of the Bruce Timm-derived style has become increasingly angular, and the two just don't fit. This tension affects all the characters to one degree or another.
Like the real and fictitious era it represents, Justice League: The New Frontier is about ambition, but also uncertainty. I applaud Warner Premier's very existence, and the resources they put behind such a project. But to shoehorn everything into another 75-minute DC superhero cartoon regardless of the original style or format seems short-sighted and short-changing. One of the factors behind the initial success of the Japanese OAV market was a freedom from format constrictions; expanding Justice League: The New Frontier to a longer running time or mini-series and letting more of the Cooke visual magic shine through would have been a bolder experiment, and captured the bold spirit of the comic at the same time.
Justice League: The New Frontier
Buy Justice League: The New Frontier DVDs and more from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca
Buy DC: The New Frontier books and more from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca
March 2, 2008
I'm looking forward to Blue Sky's adaption of Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, which opens on March 14. I'm not looking forward to the continued misappropriation of the story's broader message by the pro-life movement, despite the fact Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel) didn't like the idea of its adoption (no pun intended) for such purposes before his death. His wife has continued the attempt to stop the famous refrain, "A person is a person no matter how small!" from showing up in pro-life literature. What am I saying, a quick check online shows it's already started.
The version of Horton Hears a Who that I grew up with will be released today on DVD. Chuck Jones produced and directed it, and it featured designs by Maurice Noble and voice acting by June Foray and Hans Conried. The DVD also includes two other specials (directed by Ralph Bakshi and Tony Collingwood) and the 1948 short, Horton Hatches the Egg, directed by Bob Clampett. I've no idea if it is the complete version of the short, as it has been re-cut at least twice.
Besides the many animated adaptations of Seuss' work, Ted Geisel animated the Private Snafu shorts during World War II with Chuck Jones.
Where to find it: Horton Hears a Who Deluxe Edition on DVD at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, The Complete Uncensored Private Snafu on DVD at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca
October 27, 2007
Long before Space Jam, Warner Bros. characters were gleefully put together in seemingly incongruous pairings. Few directors pulled these off as well as Chuck Jones, as in his Bugs-Daffy team-ups. Over a seven-year period, Jones directed three cartoons that put Porky Pig and Sylvester together, with the second, Claws for Alarm, unspooling in 1954. (The other two were 1948's Scaredy Cat and 1955's Jumpin' Jupiter.)
All three cartoons follow the same basic premise: the mute Sylvester is Porky's housecat, and the two stop for a break in their travels after nightfall. Porky is so sleepy he doesn't notice the menaces (here and in Scaredy Cat, mice; in Jumpin' Jupiter, aliens) surrounding him, and poor Sylvester not only has to defend him, he has to bear the brunt of Porky's ire, as the pig keeps waking up at just in time to misinterpret Sylvester's actions.
Claws for Alarm makes the cut for Hallowe'en because, unlike in the other two cartoons, the sense of fear and dread comes in from the very first frame. When Porky drives into the deserted town (with its stark Maurice Noble-designed lines and shadows), Sylvester is already quaking—and from the moment they enter the hotel and the mice try to slip a noose around the oblivious Porky's neck, it's apparent that his misgivings are justified. Better still, he never
sees his tormentors: the mice always stay hidden in the shadows, so that all Sylvester sees are re-animated mooseheads, guns and nooses that mysteriously appear from cracks in the building, and what appears to be a ghost gliding up the stairway. By morning, Sylvester is reduced to a bleary-eyed nervous wreck.
It so happens that Claws for Alarm is one of the handful of Jones cartoons to have a perfect ending: in true horror-movie fashion, Sylvester relaxes as he and Porky speed away from the town—totally unaware that the murderous mice are stowing away in the car.
Where to find it: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Three
May 8, 2007
One of the pleasures of watching the Private Snafu shorts is seeing the work of Ted "Dr. Seuss" Geisel and Warner Bros. animators and artists in the service of honest-to-God adult entertainment. As the Snafu films were produced under the auspices of the military to serve as training films for the armed forces—and since they had to deal with subjects like picking up venereal diseases from overseas hotties—artists who normally had to contend with censors were free to cut loose a little.
Relative to the number of people who have watched Bugs Bunny and company bash each other on the head, few have seen Snafu films, even though they were declassified decades ago; fewer still have seen Snafu pre-production and animation artwork. So you definitely want to check out Paul Manchester's website, in which he posts dozens of scans of cels, storyboards and concept art. He's also assembled an animatic from Weapon of War, a wartime storyboard he uncovered.
Manchester came across this treasure trove the old-fashioned way: he inherited it. His great-uncle Harold "Al" Curry was a storyboard artist under Geisel during the war, and Manchester has been organizing this collection in anticipation of selling it off. So get your eyeful while you can.
April 2, 2007
Review by Noell Wolfgram Evans
Instinct is a funny thing. We know we should follow it and yet we rarely do. When we don't follow our instinct we kick ourselves and yell—we're angry because we didn't listen to ourselves and we're angry because we had to suffer in some way because we didn't listen to ourselves.
My instinct told me to avoid Happy Feet. I did so during its theatrical run but after its Oscar win and recent DVD release I decided to give it a chance.
Read the review
March 17, 2007
It's Saint Paddy's day, which means it's time for my annual ritual of busting out a copy of The Wearing of the Grin and laughing myself silly as the leprechauns O'Pat and O'Mike inflict all kinds of terror on the hapless Porky Pig. If you can't get yourself a copy of the first Looney Tunes Golden Collection fast enough, then you'll have to make do with Warner's Looney Tunes Cartoons Web page.