Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo
© Warner Home Video
Terrence Briggs · February 7, 2007 | Teen Titans, an animated series that fuses Japanese animation stylings and American writing sensibilities, goes to Japan.

What could be a better love letter to fans than that? So the feature-length film, Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo is really 75 minutes of Japanophilic fan service, with some wish fulfillment for most of the characters.

On the whole, it's really just an average episode of Teen Titans. Its achievements are minor, and its promises are constantly undercut by halfhearted executions.

Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo
Directed by Michael Chang, Ben Jones and Matt Youngberg
Animation production by Warner Bros. Animation
Distributed by Warner Bros. Family Entertainment, 2007
75 minutes

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Half-heartedness has perpetually plagued Teen Titans, a series that has always meant well, but never run on all cylinders. Its attempts at mixing action, comedy, and pathos consistently fell short, largely due to lacklustre character acting, poorly timed sequences, and jarring shifts in tone. The goodwill of the audience was earned as Teen Titans placed its conventionally appealing superhero cast into slightly unconventional situations with slightly unconventional results.

Trouble in Tokyo takes this admirably generous spirit to the next level, by liberally offering Japanese pop culture references to our modern-day Pokemon-and-Toonami generation. Some will consider that enough to recommend the film. I, on the other hand, demand stories to stand on their own, without the crutch of cultural references.

Project A-ko, the 1986 anime action comedy, achieved takeoff velocity by skilfully folding its anime references into brilliant slapstick action. Trouble in Tokyo flails its fanboy wings wildy, but its poorly crafted comedy and clumsy plot development almost never get off the groud.

The best scene is the first: An intense chase through the city between our heroes and Saikotek, a flying ninja nemesis with an interminable supply of explosive shurikens. The characters "hand off" attacks and dodges as the action whisks through multiple planes to a rousing rock score. Dongwoo's kinetic animation is among the series' best, and reconfirms the Korean studio's status as an elite workhorse in TV animation.

Once Saikotek is subdued, his Japanese pleadings throw off our heroes. (They've been lucky in the past to meet extradimensional characters who speak English, at least). A handy computer translator confirms that Saikotek's boss is in Japan, so the Titans hit the road to Tokyo.

More gaijin antics ensue, as the now-comic script milks this fish-out-of-water-meets-anime-fanboy scenario. Japanese dialogue and signage appear without subtitles, so the audience will only know as much as our heroes do.

Starfire comes in handy as a Japanese translator early on. She states that she learns new languages by lip contact, but her "contact" with a male Japanese bystander is a lingering, open mouth smooch, just shy of a full-on tongue job. Just another bone for the audience, and there are plenty more where that came from.

The always overexcited Beast Boy gets the most action. He gets to visit a local comic shop, sing a variation of the Teen Titans theme song, indulge and escape a young female horde, and receive a whupping from a catgirl who coos indecipherable Japanese (leading Beast Boy to lament that he can't make snappy comebacks if he doesn't understand what his feline foe is saying).

Cyborg doesn't have much to offer, and his wish to visit a Japanese buffet is just throwaway comic filler. Even worse is his tussle with an evil culinary robot, which features terrible comic visuals, and is poorly juxtaposed with Beast Boy's "realistic" catgirl fight.

Raven comes out the worst of the heroes. Aside from lamenting that her multilingualism is of no use in Japan, and a couple of dismissive lines toward Beast Boy, she's pretty much for filler. Why not have her run into some Japanese goths, or at least Takashi Miike?

As for the Robin-Starfire hookup, it suffers from too many obvious "almost got 'im" moments. It's also too one-sided, in my view. Starfire has always been the better half in her innocent amazon role, thanks to Hynden Walch's winning performance. On the other hand, Scott Menville has always been one-note as Robin, mostly because the stories don't see him as anything more than a banal badass in a boy's body. Robin's interrogations are clumsy, even if you ignore his preteen age. (Batman would be ashamed to hear, "If you want to see tomorrow, then talk!") His wild takes and comic morphs always seem out of sync with his popsicle personality. He's a lump of coal whenever he appears in any Teen Titans episode, so it's hard to maintain interest with

Trouble in Tokyo's mystery/fugitive plot when it shifts focus to Robin.

The pathos comes in the third act. Robin must now come to centre stage, so the fun is effectively drained as the story plods along to its climactic battle with Brushogun, who morphs ink into dozens of sentient action figures. Since the story is done having fun, the action is similarly disaffecting. The four superpowered heroes distract the ink drones while normal-powered Robin goes for the finishing blow, and it's a real whimper.

And that's the audience's emotional trajectory for this underwhelming feature: Wowie zowie for the first 5 minutes, anime reference-spotting for 40 increasingly wearying minutes, then 40 minutes of tiresome plot closure.

DVD Features: 4:3 aspect ratio; English, French and Spanish audio tracks; English, French and Spanish subtitles; Region 1.

DVD Extras: Bonus episode; Robin's Underworld Race Challenge game.
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