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 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