Thursday, December 08, 2005

Puddin'!

I'm thoroughly enjoying Batman the Animated Series: Volume 4, which collects together the 24 episodes the show produced after its initial run on Fox, when it moved to the WB network. These were the "new look" Batman episodes, where longtime producer Bruce Timm re-designed all the characters to make them more angular, more streamlined, and somewhat more in line with what the same team was doing on the "Superman" animated series.

The re-designs were always controversial and I don't think they're altogether successful; the new look of the show more or less abandoned the '40s film noir look of the Fox series for a sleeker, more sci-fi look. And because a lot of the appeal of the "Batman" animated show had to do with the look and the atmosphere (even when the plot was not up to snuff, the show just felt dark and cool), the somewhat more generic look of the WB episodes brings it down a notch: it no longer has the distinction of looking and feeling unlike any other show on TV, because the look and feel is now recognizably similar to the "Superman" show. Also, some of the character designs are simplified to the point of almost seeming like different characters, and not in a good way. Poison Ivy, a character who wasn't particularly well-known before the animated show, looked like a sultry femme fatale in the Fox episodes; on the WB she looked distressingly like Kim Possible. Drawing the Joker without lips was one of those things that probably made him easier to draw on-model but generally made him less fun to watch.

The plots were, overall, more dependent on action and fighting than the Fox shows, which were (appealingly) rather leisurely for a kids' action series, and unusually dependent on character development. Also, the practice of giving Batman young sidekicks to make him more kid-friendly got a bit out of hand: here he had a new, little-kid Robin, Batgirl, and Dick Grayson as Nightwing, and most episodes included one, two or three of them.

I'm a partisan of the idea that Batman is usually better off without sidekicks; I just think he's a guy like John Wayne in Rio Bravo who wouldn't want amateurs tagging along, which means he might be okay with Dick Grayson (if we're doing Rio Bravo comparisons, Dick is clearly Colorado) but never the Commissioner's spunky daughter or some kid off the street. Actually, the best-known episode from this season, "Over the Edge," pretty much proves the point that Batman should tell Batgirl to go home and stop risking her life. There are three or four episodes in this run that have just Batman fighting villains alone, the way he usually did in the first season on Fox, and it's kind of a relief to see him without any kids hanging around.

So these episodes aren't as good as the Fox episodes, but like I said, I still enjoy them a lot. They've got plenty of great stuff carried over from the Fox seasons (the superb voice cast, Shirley Walker's music) and the slightly more modernized look of the show allows for some slightly more modern-skewing stories, like the episode with a fashion model turning evil and getting revenge on the modeling industry that has rejected her as over-the-hill. Also, the WB's Standards and Practices people were apparently more permissive than Fox's, allowing for a bit more violence than the Fox show could get away with, including a violent onscreen death. Most popular episodes in the bunch include the aforementioned "Over the Edge," the Batman-through-the-ages tribute "Legends of the Dark Knight," and "Mad Love," which Paul Dini and Bruce Timm adapted from their comic book about the origins of Harley Quinn and her masochistic obsession with the Joker.

One thing I get when watching these episodes is kind of a bittersweet, nostalgic feeling, because they're part of the end of an era. They aired on the WB in the 1997-8 season, by which time Warner Brothers had transferred most of its animated product from Fox to its own network. But the fact that WB's best animated shows generally skewed older -- appealing to teenagers, college kids and parents as much as to little kids, if not more -- had already hurt the network with the advertisers, who weren't interested in advertising toys and such on shows that didn't have a monolithically young audience. So by 1997 the WB was already in the process of phasing out the cartoons that appealed to older viewers, having cancelled "Freakazoid," halted production on "Superman," and put "Animaniacs" on semi-hiatus. But they still had "Batman" and "Pinky and the Brain" in production, and those shows aired a lot of episodes on the WB in the 1997-8 season. And with both those shows, the WB had production halted and replaced with semi-spinoffs targeted at a younger audience.

"Pinky and the Brain" became "Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain," while "Batman" was replaced with "Batman Beyond." Now, "Batman Beyond" was a very fine show and probably, overall, more satisfying than the WB run of "Batman." Still, the upshot of it was that the WB had pulled the plug on all the shows that were part of its '90s TV animation boom -- the Spielberg shows, "Batman." None of those shows would come back, and the whole idea of making daytime cartoons for the whole family, as opposed to just kids, was being steamrolled by "Pokemon" and Pokemania.

So the end of the "Batman" series, along with the end of the "Pinky and the Brain" series (which gets a shout-out in one of the WB "Batman" episodes, "Torch Song") marked the end of a particular kind of TV cartoon that no one has ever quite been able to replicate. I respect the same team's "Justice League," but the plots are of necessity so outlandish and fantastical that they're not really my thing; the special appeal of "Batman" is that it's not really sci-fi, not really fantasy, more of a psychological crime drama with funny costumes.

Because the WB pulled the plug on "Batman" and the team moved to "Batman Beyond," the WB run of "Batman" feels incomplete; there are some story ideas that seem to be set up but not followed up on with an actual episode, and a new character, the Creeper (who looks and acts like what Timm's original conception of Freakazoid might have been) was supposed to be a multi-episode character but appears only once. Would be interesting to see what the show might have done if it had run longer, but it had the longest run of any of WB's animated shows of this period, so it's hard to complain about it.

1 comment:

Beppo said...

Well said. As a 33-year-old who still likes cartoons, I wonder why the classic stuff like Animaniacs, Freakazoid!, and Batman: The Animated Series aren't being made anymore. Even if they start something new, why can't they put the same kind of quality into it?

I realize having quality scripts, good animation, and an original orchestral score add a lot of cost and development time, but those shows were very popular. I know a lot of people who enjoyed them and who will buy the DVD sets.

These kind of shows can be shown on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, where non-kid cartoons can be more "free" (though they should keep the depravity out of it). I think the audience is there... if only the network execs would realize it.

I hope there's another revolution in cartoons, where quality returns and everything isn't dumbed-down.