Director: Curt Geda
Screenplay: Paul Dini, Paul Dini, Glen Murakami and Bruce W. Timm
Based on the comic character by Bob Kane
Voice Actors: Will Friedle (Terry McGinnis), Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne), Mark Hamill (The Joker), Angie Harmon (Commissioner Barbara Gordon), Dean Stockwell (Tim Drake)
Viewed in English language
Openly, I have no intention to cover a great deal of Western animated works, including comic book adaptations, even as bonus reviews unless one was an open co-production with Japan or if there is a clear connection or influence worth me learning of as much as for the viewer. It's worth bringing up this particular DC Comic license because, out of pure coincidence, I discovered that its production team included Japanese staff, from the art director to storyboard creators, who've worked in numerous, well known anime productions. To not call most animation nowadays co-production seems pointless the more I think about it after this straight-to-video work as, while its technically an American work only, the craft needed to create animated films, TV shows etc. has led to the workload being shared out between studios from various other countries as well even if the final work is meant for a single audience originally. An episode of The Simpsons is made in a South Korean studio and this particular case had people from American and Japanese animation working together
It also enforces my own neglect of the entire staff that works on these productions beyond the director, writers and musicians, of those when animation was hand drawn had to paint the cels once ago. I do believe in the auteur theory but being an anime fan enforces the obvious of how much a final work is creation in a group and how every individual contributes to a production, especially in animation when you relay on many hands to complete a single movement of a character. Instead I view auteurism as a fluid concept, with the analogy of a director being the captain of a ship, where the final decision is usually made by them unless superiors influence the final production. Everyone on this metaphorical ship, even the lowliest cabin boy/girl, is vital to actually succeed in the distance required to travel. I dedicate this paragraph, with this in mind, to everyone who worked on this production, to not ignore them as someone who usually watches the end credits with as much interest as the programme beforehand. I looked at the names of those on this staff who worked in anime productions and particularly the names Makoto Shiraishi and Akira Shimizu, the later over the decade past having become a director helming full series or an episode or so like for High School DxD (2012). From the storyboard designers to the synth recordist, individuals from this production started all the way back in 1979 with Hayao Miyazaki's first feature The Castle of Cagliostro. They have worked on Akira (1988)to Studio Ghibli films, even for entry #5 for this blog The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), these people's work directly influencing the films that I've enjoyed and written of on this newborn blog. Not neglecting all the work of the entire staff either, I tip my hat off to them all.
This film has importance for me as well as I grew up with Batman: The Animated Series (1992-5), am acclaimed and Emmy winning animated adaptation that I have immensely nostalgia of. It was celebrated for its production and storywriting, and its of immense important in the Batman canon for Mark Hamill's vocal interpretation of the Joker and creating Harley Quinn, a character so beloved in the series she was absorbed into the original comics and became a fan loved villain. I have hope the series, if I return to it, will still have virtues or be excellent as I've seen The Mask of the Phantasm (1993) within the last few years, a theatrical spin-off feature that shared the series' heavy influence of film noir and pulp storytelling, in aesthetics and plot, and was written as much for adults in its melancholy moodiness as it was for children. The series has interest in being covered on here, as an exception to the rule at the top of the review, as animators from Japanese anime worked on episodes, and one particular team loved it and similar pop culture so much it their experience led to it being a primary influence in terms of character design and plotting for The Big O (1999-2003), an anime series so much more popular in the West its success led to Cartoon Network bankrolling a second series after a cliffhanger left viewers wanting more.
Batman Beyond (1999-2001) was a series I did see episodes of, but its a strange beast to consider if I ever get back into watching these animated series again. On paper, it's an incredibly controversal idea for the Batman formula, a futuristic update where Bruce Wayne is now an old man and a new Batman in the form of a street punk called Terry McGinnis is under his wing to protect Gotham, no longer the urban, noirish metropolis it once was but Blade Runner (1982) after a primary colour paintjob. None of the original rogue's gallery of villains appeared in the series unless their offspring were to be involved or they were heads in a jar a la Futurama. This film does bring back the Joker however, Batman's arch nemesis and the most iconic of the villains, appearing to terrorise Gotham once again despite Bruce Wayne claiming to McGinnis that he died decades earlier. I can appreciate the film, by itself without context of the series, for the production quality. It's nice to see in fluid, highly detailed animation a work that is creatively depicted even if an obvious setting, painstakingly detailed in terms of every building and skyscraper in the background. It's interesting to cover a Western production too as, in contrast to most anime, American animation from my experience like here is more streamlined in terms of designs, with one or two distant colours for characters and bold but simplistic designs, an emphasis on quick action scenes that are executed well rather than the limited movement and more detailed designed of some anime. The plot for this film, bringing in references to other characters from the original series and the comics in general, has potential in how notably dark is gets. Unfortunately the Columbine High School massacre had taken place as it was being readied for release, leading to drastic censorship of the few moments of bloodshed and the more harsher content including references to death. I saw the uncut version, which was finally released only a few years afterwards, and even though it's not adult the slightest in content, it's surprising to see where it goes. Mark Hamill's The Joker, admitting I'm going from childhood memories only here, was more cartoonish alongside Harley Quinn in comparison to darker interpretations, but seeing a subplot here of them kidnapping one of the Robins to brainwash is surprising. It does prove, emphasising as much like its Eastern cousin, that American animation isn't just for children and can do this without becoming incompetent in execution.
Brutally however, Return of the Joker warns me about revisiting the Batman Beyond series as it falls flat immensely in other areas. Despite the quality on display - including the voice acting - the film doesn't stand up well. Batman for starters, despite the craft of the sci-fi setting, feels at odds with said setting. To merely give the character a floating Batmobile does not connect the tissue of both pieces well. The extended flashback dealing with the Joker's apparent death returns back to the world of the original animated series and there is a vast contrast in mood lacking in the futuristic setting. It's not only because the flashback contains the most compelling and disturbing content either, but because even as the realistic Christopher Nolan adaptations proved, Batman is a figure for dank, urban environments rather than a sci-fi cosmopolis unless changes are made to make the two sides work together.
Even though I've suffered through worst made anime, seeing this film emphasises why I created a blog called 1000 Anime rather than 1000 Animation. There is a problem with the Western animation I've seen as an adult where it has to drag itself through having to make the stories journeys of discover through leaden dialogue and generic plotline. Even Pixar films suffer from the idea that one has to explain even to kids how to believe in oneself but without the sense of how to. Here, for example, you have a terrible subplot where McGinnis stops being Batman because a vague, convoluted doubt he may or may not have exists because Bruce Wayne doesn't want him to take on the most sadistic villain he had to fight in the old days. The viewer has to suffer through a crisis of doubt with no real concern to it of drastically effecting to story at all as McGinnis is dragged back into the caped mantel immediately after in another scene. In anime, even if there is a crisis of doubt, many usually lead to a literal roadblock in the way that needs to be trained to be better than, a plot device that changes the story's next act drastically, or a literal psychological or world effecting scenario. Even exceptionally dumb anime manages to get this right just from a clear mentality of characters in the storytelling having to lace their own bootstraps up or be dragged along by an irate acquaintance. Yes, I may end up thinking of this if I ever come across an anime which makes the same mistake, maybe eating my own words, but in anime, a crisis of doubt usually leads to how Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6) depicted it, characters dragging themselves out of actual chemical depression and trauma, and the world ending, rather than a whim.
There's small pleasures for me to have with the film if anything. The references to figures from the franchise, including one which has importance to this plot's dramatic core. Dean Stockwell making an appearance in a major role. Henry Rollins in a small cameo, and Melissa Joan Hart of Sabrina The Teenage Witch as the twin duo villainesses whose heritage is a funny wink to the audience. Frank Welker, who has voiced probably every animal or beast person in an animated work you loved as a child, playing a strange hyena boy and the Batdog who is used against him, effectively fighting himself vocally. Small details that are sweet to have but sadly contained in a very generic work scored to bad, cheesy metal guitars and electronics. The plot even becomes the James Bond films Diamonds Are Forever (1971) rather than a Batman story, with the two women who beat up Batman and the satellite weapon, a comparison that is even more surreal to recognise having watched both by accidental coincidence the same night. My hesitance, baring the recognition of wanting to explore various country's animation and to not be a Weeaboo biased against Western animation inherently, is that even bad anime appeals to me more in terms of storytelling and style. Even the disasters and squirm inducing moments of anime is more watchable than when American animation sinks like a lead submarine. This film was covered really to appreciate the in-between animators and storyboard creators I neglected until now, rather than the final product.