Monday, September 9, 2019

My Top 10 Batman Direct to Video Movies

I’ve talked in depth about Batman’s theatrical movies, but he’s also had some solid direct to video films that I’ve been itching to talk about for some time. There are currently 25 animated Batman movies that have been released direct to video, and more keep coming every year. Thus, I’m going to keep this post simple, and just rank my current top 10 favorite animated direct to video Batman movies.

#10 “Batman: Assault on Arkham” 

One of the most thoroughly entertaining entries is this animated adaption of the popular Arkham video game series. Presented in the style of a Japanese Anime, “Assault on Arkham” revolves around the Suicide Squad as they break into the prison and wreak havoc. The one thing keeping this at number 10 on my list is that Dead Shot is the lead character, while Batman himself is frequently moved over to the sidelines. Still, this animated venture puts the live-action “Suicide Squad” movie to shame with better rounded characters, and a stronger script. With its action-packed plot set in Arkham Asylum, a dark sense of hummer, and no shortage of cool Batman villains on display, "Assault on Arkham", is an imperfect, but highly entertaining entry in the animated Batman cannon.

#9 “Batman: Mystery of the Bat-Woman” 

The third and final animated Batman movie to be directly adapted from the 90’s cartoon show, and it’s perfectly decent … although, it’s admittedly not on the same ground as it’s predecessors. When a Mysterious new Bat-Woman arrives on the scene, our hero goes on a mission to discover her identity, before she gets herself (or someone else Bruce Wayne loves) killed. There are some good twists, a thrilling climax, an engaging narrative, and all the good stuff you'd expect from Batman. However, the story was nothing special either, and the villains are very boring. It all adds up to an average, yet competently made Batman venture, and sense it’s the final bow from the classic 90’s series … it’s really something to saver for what it is.

#8 “Son of Batman” 

When Batman discovers that his former love Talia Al Ghul bore a child, our dark knight takes it upon himself to raise the boy as his own son, and maybe teach him to be a new partner. It’s an aggressively violent, but competently made entry in the animated Batman saga, and a nonstop thrill ride from beginning to end. With Robin depicted as a vengeful youth, our hero as the conscience that guides him, and Slade as the evil mastermind pulling all the strings, "Son of Batman" is a worthy installment in the saga, and one that breaks away from the common formula’s associated with the character.

#7 “The Batman vs Dracula” 

A unique crossover for Batman to say the least, and one that takes full advantage of what could happen when two legendary figures of the night collide. When Batman goes searching for mysterious disappearing people in the city, his trail leads to a covenant of vampires … lead by none other than Count Dracula himself. The chemistry and rivalry between Batman and Dracula is surprisingly well defined in the film, and it’s genuinely exciting to see the two most famous Bat-themed characters going into battle. There’s plenty of nods to the lore of both Batman and Dracula, and some well-placed characters from the Batman universe … including Vicki Vale, who was featured in the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” movie. The music is dripping with Gothic atmosphere, the animation is stylish, there’s a spectacular dream sequence, everything moves at a fast pace, and its action packed. For the only movie adaption from "The Batman" TV series, it definitely ranks high as … maybe not one of the best, but certainly a personal favorite.

#6 “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight” 

In an altar-net Gotham city, a Jack the Ripper type foe is slaughtering the woman of the city, forcing Batman to join forces with Selina Kyle to solve the mystery. However, in this alter-net universe, even Batman’s closest friends may be enemies. Setting both Batman and Gotham City in the Victorian Era was a creative, and very refreshing change of pace. It lends the film to a unique atmosphere, and is strung together with white knuckled action, a competent mystery plot, and some refreshing surprises along the way.

#5 “Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero” 

A sudden submarine crash in the arctic shatters any chances for the wife of Mr. Freeze to come out of her frozen comma. Now, the villain has returned to Gotham, and is whiling to take any chance to save her … even if it’s at the coast of Bat-Girl’s life. Mr. Freeze is personally my favorite of all the Batman villains, and this film succeeded in telling a conflicting, even emotional story from his point of view. The only downside is that Batman has little else to contribute, and almost feels like a side character. Despite that, "SubZero" is still a worthy adaption from the classic 90's series, and a high point for one of the franchises greatest villains.

#4 “Batman vs. Robin” 

Following after the events of “Son of Batman”, our hero is tying to form a bound with Robin as … not only his new partner, but also his son. Tragically, relations between the two gets strained, all while a mysterious new group of villains called the Court of Owls are taking control of the city from deep within the shadows. To make matters worse, they take Robin under their wing, and force him into a confrontation with the man who raised him. Focusing on complex themes of faith and family-ties over the typical comic-book formula, make this a stand out Batman film. Yet, it's still not without some first-rate visuals, atmosphere, and a menacing group of less popular, but noteworthy villains.

#3 “Batman: Under the Red Hood” 

The first standalone animated Batman movie with no ties to a previous TV show, and it thrives to this day as one of his absolute best. When a new armed assassin puts Batman to the challenge, our hero discovers a horrific truth … that a guardian angle from his past has now come back from the dead … as a vengeful demon. It may be predictable, and full of used plot lines from other Batman films, but it’s still dark, brooding, action packed, epic, and full of great character complexity, which helps to make this a terrific gem in the Batman saga.

#2 “Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” 

It’s the crossover no-one asked for or needed, yet turned out as one of the most consistently entertaining, creative and special of these animated DC ventures. There’s a self-awareness to the project, like the writers knew how odd this parring was, so they just went all out, with lots of jokes, lots of hard-hitting action, and some wildly creative sequences. I’ve loved both Batman and the Ninja Turtles ever sense I was a kid, yet I never realized how much they work together. Both study in martial arts, both of their main adversary’s command armies of ninja’s, and it’s a real treat to see individual characters work-off each other. Seeing Batman battle with the Shredder is a dream come true, and many of Batman’s adversaries feel like they fit right in with the Ninja Turtles universe. Also, seeing all of Batman’s classic rouges like the Joker, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face and Poison Ivy transform into mutants is something I never knew I wanted, but am so glad I got. If you’re a fan of either the Ninja Turtles or Batman … do yourself a favor, and don’t miss this one … it’s about as entertaining as they get.   

Before I reveal my number one favorite, here are some Honorable Mentions … 

"The Batman Superman Movie"

Batman: Bad Blood

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 1 & 2)

Batman: Year One

Batman: The Killing Joke

#1 “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker” 

An absolute masterpiece, as its dark and brooding, but it’s also very exciting, smart and manages to celebrate “Batman Beyond”, as well as the classic “Batman”. The long-established rivalry between Kevin Conroy’s Batman, and Mark Hamill's Joker truly was one for the ages, and this was the event that brought perfect finality to their legacy. However, the movie goes even deeper, focusing on the personal pain and loss that came with adorning the cape and cowl. There’s great focus on the characters, terrific action, and a stunning hero villain conflict at the center. It’s also quiet dark, violent, shocking and intense for a movie adapted from a children’s cartoon. This is a film that should have been released in theaters, because it’s right up there with some of the best Batman adventures ever. Personally, even if you’re not a fan of the “Batman Beyond” TV series, I still highly recommend checking this one out. In my opinion, it’s the absolute best of Batman’s direct to video ventures, and one of his all-time best movies.

The End. 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) (Movie Review)

    October 2019 will mark the premier of “Maleficent: The Mistress of all Evil”, which will be a sequel to the 2014 spin-off movie “Maleficent”. That film was a semi-remake of Disney’s animated 1959 classic “Sleeping Beauty”, but with the titular villain in the leading role as opposed to the princess. Speaking personally, I had no desire to see “Maleficent”, I don’t plan on ever watching it, and I certainly don’t care to see its theatrical sequel either. It did still leave me wondering why Disney didn’t just remake “Sleeping Beauty” in live action the same way they eventually did with both “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast”. 
Was it an attempt to try something new while also tying in with a familiar Disney product, or was the original just not good enough in the eyes of the studio? Either way, it’s got me rekindling the flames of nostalgia for the original, and what better time to talk about it then prior to the release of its second live action spin-off. “Sleeping Beauty” was the studios 16th animated feature film, and for me, I always viewed it as the cap to a figurative trilogy that began with Disney’s animated 1937 classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and continued with 1950’s “Cinderella”. These were the original three Princess tales brought to us from Walt Disney himself, and while more animated princess would populate the studio’s animated works, these would remain the three classic girls that started it all. Back when I was just a little boy, I surprisingly found myself drawn to these three animated films more so then the other films of the studio … and I remember “Sleeping Beauty” was my absolute favorite to watch as a kid.   

    Our enchanted tale begins with the birth of a Princess, and a wicked witch who prophesied that her death was to take shape in sixteen years. Fearing for her daughter’s life, the king and queen of the land entrust their little girl’s life to the caring hands of three fairy-godmothers. 
Years later, the princess grows up, and falls in love with a handsome stranger, unaware that he’s the very prince she’s been betrothed to from birth. Just as a magical ending seems on the horizon, the evil Maleficent makes her move by putting the fair princess in a death-like sleep, along with the whole Kingdome. She then locks the prince away in her dungeon, where she plans to keep him for several years until he becomes a withered old man. Upon which she’ll release him to be reunited with his love, as a miserable old figure. In short, the strength of the film comes from the experience, while the narrative structure is admittedly very weak. Rather then tell a flowing story, with character arc’s or morals, the film is primarily built on individual scenes. Like … here’s the scene when our two leads fall in love upon meeting for the first time … here’s the scene with the fairy’s goofy antics … and here’s the scene when the villain takes command, and it’s all kind of one-note. However, the film isn’t about channeling emotions through a gripping narrative, it’s all about the emotions felt through the things we experience as the film unfolds.

    There’s no sense beating around the bush, so let’s just jump right in to the main attraction of the movie … the villain. Maleficents popularity has basically led her to be the flagship villain of the animated Disney franchise. I think every countdown of classic Disney villains would feature Maleficent securely ranked among the top three absolute best … and for good reason. While previous animated bad guys could stand out as highlights, Maleficent marked the first time a villain completely stole the show, and actually stood out as my favorite character in the whole film. 
Something I didn’t even notice as a kid was that her screen-time was very limited, and she didn’t dominate the scenery until the third act. It’s a perfect case of a villain never overstaying their welcome, yet still leaving a memorable impression. She has such a cool design, with a long purple and black cloak, a long cape that resembles flames, bat-like wings coming from the neck, a green face, and devil horns. Even her name is awesome, so it's definitely an A+ with the presentation. Another strong element in play is that Maleficent combines both quiet, sophisticated evil with monstrously dominate evil. In other words, she can attack you both mentally and physically, which is the perfect combination for a classic villain. Of course, I have to mention that Walt Disney himself insisted that no other actress voice Maleficent other than Eleanor Audley, who had previously voiced the evil step-mother from “Cinderella”. It was absolutely the right call as the actress knows how to highlight both the subtlety and over the top elements of the character. Her wicked laugh is the stuff of legend … like one of the all-time most identifiable evil laughs.  

   With all my initial praise given to the villain, I certainly don’t want to undermine my feelings for The Fairy Godmothers, as they too have a secure spot among my favorite Disney characters. While the film was initially in production, their only character traits were the individual red, green and blue colors in their designs. Thankfully, the writers decided to give them some added dimension, like individual personalities that would bounce off each-other, and make them just … all around delightful characters to have on screen. Despite being infectiously lovable, I’d go even further to call them the main heroes for the movie. These are the charters who come up with all the plans, share the most emotional moments, take the most action, have the most layered arc, and likewise share the lengthiest amount of screen time of any other characters in the film. While still marketed as supporting players, I still view them as the main leads, and I think it makes for a refreshing change to see three middle-aged women as the stars of a children’s animated picture.    

    Now, let’s talk about our leading female protagonist, … oh boy, this is one issue with the film that’s only gotten worse with age. 
Despite being my childhood favorite Princess themed Disney movie, this has always been my least favorite leading girl. Just to spot-light how boring and one-note this Princess is, people in general never refer to the character by her name … which is Princess Aurora, who’s also colorfully nicknamed Rose by her guardians. Still to this very day, everyone I know refers to her as Sleeping Beauty, even though that’s only the movies title, and has nothing to do with the characters name. Yeah … despite the popularity of “The Little Mermaid”, audiences still refer to that films Princess by her name … Ariel, as opposed to referring to her as the title of the movie. There really isn’t anything about Princess Aurora (or Sleeping Beauty) that makes her stand out, and the movie never gives me a reason to care for her. Say what you will about either Snow White or Cinderella, those movies at least got me to care about them on some level. I wanted to see Cinderella make a life for herself outside of that horrible house, and I was emotionally torn-up after Snow White bit that poisoned apple. In the wake of Princess Aurora pricking her finger and falling into a sleep like death … I never once felt a single thing for her. She didn’t have much of a personality, and even her design was kind of generic … although, I will say that I’ve always preferred her blue dress look over the pink attire. 

    The heroic Prince Philip is about as boring, but to be fair, he’s actually an improvement over the prince characters featured in the earlier two Disney Princess films. Those two didn’t even have names (none that I can remember anyway), nor did they speak more then two lines, and were mostly just reduced to silent cameos. So, Prince Philip was at least an attempt to add some dimension to the stereotype, but he still doesn’t leave much of an impression. One detail that always bugged me was that, neither the Prince or Princess have any speaking lines after the middle part of the film. They are both consistently silent through the third act, and it makes them both feel like extras in their own movie. The one redeeming factor to these two is their shared song number … “Once Upon a Dream”. Despite being a product of it’s time, this song still holds up on its own, and in my view is the most memorable romantic song from any of the original three Disney princess movies. Seriously, whenever I try to remember a romantic title from either of these three films, “Once Upon a Dream” is the first and only one that ever seems to come to mind.   

   Outside of “Once Upon a Dream”, there really aren’t any song numbers that stand out. There are quires with lyrics herd throughout the film, but no other real songs. Regardless, the instrumental music heard through the film is outstanding, and it was lifted right from the famous ballet of the same name. In fact, this ballet music was Walt Disney’s biggest influence on making the movie, and it’s felt all through out. It was George Bruns who composed the music, and his work on “Sleeping Beauty” won him the Academy Award for best film score of the year. 

Despite the movie’s weak narrative, the technical experience of the picture remains one of Disney’s strongest after all these years. Before I started writing this review, I made the conscious choice to watch this movie again on an old VHS tape, just to see how the animation looked without the polished Blue-Ray enhancements. I’m happy to say that for an animated picture from 1959, it’s still one of Disney’s absolute best-looking films to date. The designs, colors, backgrounds, artistry … it just pops. The animators were inspired by tapestry work, or paintings you’d see in a medieval castle, and it’s what characterized the overall look of the film. Future animated Disney movies like “Pocahontas” clearly drew a lot of influence from this film. I also love the design of Maleficents castle grounds, as it feels reminiscent of “Night on Bald Mountain”, and maybe even an influence on the art work seen in “The Black Cauldron”.     

    Another ace up “Sleeping Beauty’s” sleeve is that, in my opinion, it has some of the best atmosphere of any animated Disney project. 
Right from the start, I just feel like I’m breathing in the films magical air, which further adds to some stand-out moments. One of my favorite individual scenes from any Disney picture is when the three fairy godmothers bless the baby with their gifts of beauty, song and hope. While the artistry on display is really something to admire for the time, what I really love is that the scene is presented with a sense of euphoria, almost like something you’d experience in a dream or meditative haze. Another small highlight I have to mention is the one cooking scene. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something instantly appealing about seeing ordinary house hold objects magically coming to life in an animated Disney picture. It’s something that’s so commonly present in other Disney works, to the point where it feels like a staple in their animated projects. If there was any one scene I always felt should have been axed from the film, it would be that needlessly long detour with the two kings, and their bickering plans for their children’s royal engagement. Oh, that scene always grinds the film to a halt, and I distinctly remember as kid, I’d always fast-forward through that.     

   The last highlight I have to address is that, after all these years, “Sleeping Beauty” still features my absolute favorite final battle of any animated Disney picture. It’s kind of ironic that an early 1950’s, princess-themed Disney movie would feature my favorite climax, but that’s why it’s so special. One of the most classic staples of the fairy-tale genera is seeing a prince ride off to rescue a princess, who’s locked in a tower, guarded by a fire breathing Dragon. That is the classic formula, and this is the classic final battle that set the template for sword wielding heroes fighting monstrous foes. This finale isn’t just epic for its presentation, but because it came from a time when animated pictures rarely featured anything of this size and level of excitement. Most animated films at the time would end on a very light and simple note, but this climax is just blazing with top notch animation, lots of energy, and a thrilling musical score that keeps building and building. We get to see the fairies work their magic against attacking villains, we see the prince swing his sword, and of cores we have a great villain showing off all her destructive power. The big showstopper naturally is when Maleficent transforms into a giant, fire breathing dragon! Kids today see stuff like this all the time, but this dragon battle still holds up very well, and I can’t even begin to imagine how awesome this must have been for kids back in 1959 … they must have been jumping out of their seats. Even as a grown adult, this finale still gets me thrilled.  

   It may seem hard to believe, but “Sleeping Beauty” was actually one of the studio’s biggest gambles, as well as one of their lengthiest productions that took nearly ten years to finalize. The payoff was worth all the effort, as “Sleeping Beauty” turned out the second highest grossing film of 1959 behind “Ben-Her”, which is some good company to be in. 

Over the years, it’s remained an animated classic, although in the shadows of its two fairy-tale predecessors. Personally, I feel the film is brought down by its rocky narrative structure, as well as featuring two of the weakest leading princess and prince characters. Had those two elements been touched up on, then the film would rank higher among my favorites of the studio’s collective works. Still, the remaining strengths of the film, like the animation, the villain, the music, the fairies, the magical atmosphere, and the final battle all have secure spots among my favorite elements of any animated Disney picture … so it’s kind of challenging to rate this film. In the end, all I can say is … I loved this movie when I was a kid, I’ve loved sharing this movie with my kids, and I think it holds up as a gem among Disney’s animated works. If I had it my way, I’d say … ignore those two live action spin-offs (unless you really want to see them … entirely up to you), and just stick with the original classic.

I give Disney’s 1959 animated classic “Sleeping Beauty” … a healthy 4 stars out of 5.