Monday, 30 January 2017

Batman - Return of the Caped Crusaders

Heading West to Newmar Kit

Batman - Return of the Caped Crusaders
USA 2016 Directed by Rick Morales
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Mild spoilers on some of the jokes.

Adam West and Burt Ward have twice before returned to the roles which made them household names in the 1960s. After the phenomenal success of the 1966 Batman TV show and its companion movie, they also returned in 1978 for the horrendous attempt at a new live action Justice League like TV show, Legends of the Superheroes (reviewed by me here) and, somewhat more successfully, playing themselves in an adventure story around a mini biopic in 2003 in Return to the Batcave (The Misadventures of Adam and Burt).

Although the Batman movie they did at the end of the first 1966 season has been fairly easy to see over the years, for many decades the TV show itself was trapped in some kind of legal hell with various companies holding bits of the rights, from what I understand. So no new merchandise, or even the shows themselves, were allowed to be sold in any format (although the bootlegs surfaced big time about seven years ago, as I recall). All this changed a few years ago when the complicated minefield of who owns what finally got unravelled, to a certain extent, and all kinds of merchandise and, of course, DVDs and Blu Ray sets, were finally released onto a mostly unsuspecting public...

And it all did phenomenally well. I used to watch the show when I was a kid so I was chomping at the bit to get clean transfers of the episodes but apparently a good deal of the tie in merchandise which they’ve been releasing over the last few years sells very well, from what I understand. This includes a Batman ‘66 comic book which continues the adventures of the TV incarnations in the medium which spawned it. Now I won’t go into just how truly ironic this is because of certain things introduced in the TV show which then became ‘Batman lore’ in the comics (I’ll save that info for when I finally get around to reviewing the TV shows) but it seems the comic is every bit the hit that the toys and gadgets released for the show were and so it maybe seems an obvious thing to do a Batman ‘66 animated movie.

I have to say, though, that until they announced Batman - Return Of The Caped Crusaders (and got it out quite quickly), I never saw that one coming!

And so we have Adam West and Burt Ward reprising the voices of Batman and Robin and, as a tasty bonus, they’ve also bought one of the original Catwoman actresses, Julie Newmar, with them. It’s quite cute, actually, when you see the three of them in the sound studio on the extras and realise that Julie was wearing pussycat ears during the recording session. She rocks! I also hear she still throws great parties, too. They also had a load of other fellows voicing the other three main super villains in this movie - namely The Joker, The Riddler and The Penguin.

Now, this is a hard review to write because it’s always going to be fun to watch a new Batman movie taking the camp style of the TV show with some of the original Bat-thespians plus other people mostly sounding like the actors they have been recast as. However, this is a mixed bat-bag in terms of my reaction to it although, for the most part, I took a really positive experience away from this. There are a couple of things that let it down, though, and I’ll get to those in a while.

So yeah, there a some things I did find lacking in this one, for sure, but what it certainly doesn’t lack is both a sense of fun, some imaginative and innovative scripting and... loads of enthusiasm and love for the original shows (it even has a Nelson Riddle-esque score). If you’re an old time Bat-fan then you won’t want to miss out on this one. Even my dad, who was the first to point out the flaws with this, seemed to be taking away something from it. There’s some great humour in here, as you would expect. And anyone who used to find the funny side in the absolutely ridiculous conclusions that Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, would leap to from the various dubious jokes, rubbish riddles and clapped out clues left for them... only to be proven right when they follow up on their loopy leads... will be happy to know that there’s more of the same here.

Yes, Robin’s “Holy...” exclamations are in here with a wonderful homage to Russ Meyer when he first sees Catwoman’s Catmobile and exclaims “Holy Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!”. Other stuff like the musical transformation into Thus Spake Zaruthustra (synonymous to many with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) when the dynamic duo fly their Bat-rocket into space, the bizarre architecture on the space station and the recreation of the ‘Bat ascent’ scene up the side of the space station are also pretty great. There are two of the famous Bat ascent sequences staged in this, though, and I was pretty disappointed that none of them featured ‘special guests’ popping out of windows to question the dynamic duo like they often did in the 1960s.

There are also some nice references to more modern, darker film and comic strip incarnations of Batman in the use of various lines of dialogue Batman uses when he gets transformed into ‘evil Batman’ by Catwoman’s ‘bat-nip’ potion and also in the use of colourful, onomatopoeia style word bursts synonymous with the Adam West show during the fight scenes. For instance, some of the words start of in the calmer sections with silly captions that read “Spork!” or “Sprang!” (the latter presumably a nice reference to golden and silver age Batman artist Dick Sprang) but when Batman becomes more ruthless and evil the bubbles change to things like “Bludgeon!” and “Pulverise!”. A similar nod and dig to one of the more modern versions of the character comes when Catwoman tries to make a deal with Batman near the end of the movie and tells him she’ll give herself up if he’ll give it all up and run off to Europe with her so they can drink tea in a cafĂ©. They all agree however, that this would be a bad ending for their story... thus getting in a nice little poke at Christopher Nolan’s ending to The Dark Night Rises.

Another great joke to the format of the original show is where someone switches their TV camera to “fight” mode which just tilts said camera to coincide with those whacky, Dutch angles the old series would often employ to capture the action sequences. My favourite moment, however, is when Batman gets hit over the head in front of the Julie Newmar Catwoman and his vision goes funny so that he sees three of the Catwoman in front of him... however, the joke is that, with Julie in the middle, the other two images are of Lee Merriweather and Eartha Kitt’s incarnations of the character from the originals. Neat stuff.

However, there are a few little things which really let this move down for me, too. Adam West’s delivery, unlike Burt or Julie, sounded just a little slow throughout. Now, my guess is he wasn’t doing anything different with his voice to how he used to play it years ago and I suspect when you see the actual actor delivering the lines it looks fairly terrific but, when you put it against a flat cartoon, it kinda loses something in translation.

Also, the look of the characters and the way they sound caused problems for me in certain cases. Why do they have a fairly respectable looking Chief O’ Hara and the fake Irish voice to go with him, for example, when Commissioner Gordon, who also sounds like his 1966 TV counterpart, is drawn absolutely nothing like him and is, instead, the classic looking Commissioner Gordon, recently recreated quite well in the Nolan movies. Similarly, some of the villains sound great... the people doing the voices for Cesar Romero’s Joker and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, for example, sound really quite good. So why does The Riddler look nothing like him? I’m not even going to mention The Penguin here.

Which brings me to my real problem with Batman - The Return Of The Caped Crusaders. I haven’t seen any other recent Warner Animation movies as yet but f they’re anything like this then I may find myself steering clear. The animation is lousy. It’s not quite as bad as mid 1970s ‘made for America by Koreans’ cartoons but... it’s not that far off either. I kept waiting for someone to blink a bit to make it look like it was less lifeless. Now, I appreciate that because of the kitsch material the movie takes as its source, there was probably a conscious decision to simplify the animation style but, seriously, if you compared this to a 1940s Max Fleischer Superman short, the Fleischer would win every time. Now, as it happens, I think if you compared the 1940s Fleischer stuff to ‘any’ animation made in the last 30 or more years, the new stuff is going to come up short but, seriously, I was not enthralled by the animation on this one... even when they had some great visual gags on, for instance, the transition Bat-symbol scenes through certain parts of the running time.

All in all,  however, Batman - The Return Of The Caped Crusaders is still a big bag of fun and, once you can forget the not so great animation, you should be in for a good time with it. We even have Batman dancing the Batusi in the end credits, with occasional variants on the famous Batman The Movie “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” scene (although, again, you have to really know the movie and the 1966 character to get why things like this, with no other reference in the body of the current story, are here at all). If you were into the show in the 60s or were lucky enough to catch the 1970s repeats, like me, then you might want to spend some time with this fun, if a little flawed, tribute to those simpler times. If you have no interest or familiarity with the originals (nor why the originals came out in the first place... referenced nicely in this cartoon with the costumes from the 1943 and 1949 serials hanging up in the Batcave)... then you might be better off going straight to those originals before heading into this one.

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