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DVD Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Brandon Vietti
Written by:
Judd Winick
Starring the Voices of:
Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, John Di Maggio
Running time:
75 minutes
07/27/10-direct to dvd
Rated PG-13 for action violence.
" animated film that stands shoulder to shoulder with Timm's original animated Batman series"
Regardless of what anyone thinks of the films themselves, it's difficult to deny that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight lifted an ailing franchise off its deathbed. Director Christopher Nolan not only cast a towering shadow over Bat-cinema, he left his patented mark on the superhero genre at large, fundamentally altering the way moviegoers approach and respond to silver-screen caped crusaders. But the seeds of his darkly defined vision were first planted in 1992 by producer Bruce Timm with Batman: The Animated Series, a decidedly engrossing episodic epic of superheroic proportions. Never before had Batman, his allies or his rogues gallery been so fully realized on screen; never beyond the panels of a comic book had Gotham City's denizens been paid such respect and afforded such care. The successful, award-winning television series even birthed one of the best theatrical Batman films of all time: the oft-overlooked Mask of the Phantasm. However, while Nolan was actively weaving Timm's animated noir into the fabric of his 21st Century, live-action reboot, Warner Bros. Animation had been drifting in the opposite direction for years, slowly diluting the Batman mythos in an effort to make it more accessible to a younger generation. What a difference five years and $1.4 billion makes. Returning to the richly developed characters and arresting storylines of its roots, and referencing the tone and tenor of Begins and Dark Knight, Warner Bros. Animation has finally produced an animated film that stands shoulder to shoulder with Timm's original animated Batman series: Under the Red Hood.

A new threat has emerged in Gotham: the Red Hood (voiced by Supernatural's Jensen Ackles), a masked vigilante willing to do whatever it takes to bring the city's crime lords to their knees. Putting a bullet in anyone who gets in his way, the Hood begins taking over criminal organizations throughout Gotham, and soon sets his sights on the territories controlled by the Black Mask (Prison Break's Wade Williams). Inevitably, his bloody breed of justice attracts the attention of Batman (Star Trek's Bruce Greenwood) and former boy wonder, Dick Grayson, aka Nightwing (a perfectly cast Neil Patrick Harris). Together, Batman and Nightwing work to unravel the identity of the Red Hood, an old alias once used by the Joker (John DiMaggio, licking his lips as if channeling Hannibal Lecter), face off against the Black Mask's assassins, and elicit information from villains like Ra's al Ghul (Jason Isaacs) and the Joker himself. Along the way, Batman also has to deal with his own inner demons, his failure to save friends and protégés like the late Jason Todd (Vincent Martella), his inability to connect with those he doesn't want to risk losing, and the unbearable consequences of allowing a mass murderer like the Joker to live.

Loosely based on writer Judd Winick's own 2005 "Batman" comic arc, "Under the Hood," director Brandon Vietti doesn't emphatically embrace its target audience (longtime comicbook readers who already know all the answers to the tale's riddles) or shamelessly pander to DC newcomers (many of whom couldn't tell Dick Grayson from Jason Todd). Instead, Winick and Vietti pull a trick films like Moon and Shutter Island have employed to great effect: subverting the traditional allure of a mystery by offering revelations early and often, and essentially ejecting any notion of an abrupt Usual Suspects-esque twist. The identity of the Red Hood materializes quickly and naturally. Even those who lack the fanboy-wherewithal to piece together the villain's origin are handed a name and face by the forty-minute mark. The film doesn't offer depth in the form of third-act twists and turns, but in smoldering psychological complexity and captivating thematic resonance. Winick deftly dissects Batman, the Joker and a number of other characters, and manages to tie their independent tragedies and motivations into an labyrinthine web of deep-seated wounds and dissonant philosophies. Batman isn't
merely a noble vigilante, he's a father who's failed his sons, an idealist who recognizes the demons within his own soul, and an avenging angel desperate to atone for his sins. The Joker isn't just a raving madman, he's a narcissistic bully, a calculating sycophant, and an unpredictable force of anarchy. I could go on to describe other heroes and villains that surface, but I don't want to risk spoiling the rewards that lie in wait. That's not to suggest Batman alumni will be shocked by anything Winick and Vietti have to offer, just impressed by the sophistication of their pacing, narrative, dialogue and steady-handed resolve.

But Winick and Vietti aren't the only contributors of note. Under the Red Hood is a beaut, and the DC animation team has really outdone itself. Fight scenes are fluid and unflinching, not to mention brilliantly choreographed. Grappling hooks, knives and smoke pellets are brandished in a variation of rock-paper-scissors, and it's thrilling to watch Batman and the Red Hood scramble to outwit one another whenever they cross paths. Through it all, CG is used sparingly but effectively, bowing to the hand-drawn, Timm-inspired ferocity that takes center stage. And then there's Dusty Abell and Jon Suzuki's character designs, and the film's exceptional cast of voice actors. Abell and Suzuki inject sensibility and simplicity into Batman's cape and cowl, paint the Joker as a physically imposing high-class hyena, lend
quirky resignation to Nightwing's angular physique, and make Robin into a tragically, at-times disturbingly young victim of ego and circumstance. At the same time, Greenwood unearths torment and pain in Batman's haunted register (giving fan-favorite Bat-voice Kevin Conroy a run for his money). DiMaggio drives the Joker in an unexpected vocal direction -- injecting a deep, southern gentlemen growl into his words and an unhinged crackle in his laugh -- but his porcelain-skinned killer is all the more threatening for it, and calls to mind Heath Ledger's schizophrenic intonations. Harris matches Nightwing's amusing demeanor with a self-effacing bob-and-weave routine that earns genuine laughs and provides a nice contrast to the brooding melancholy that permeates the film. Elsewhere, Ackles brings pathos and bravura to the Red Hood, Williams culls '30s gangster cinema for Black Mask, Martella stamps a young Jason Todd with brash fragility (in just a few brief flashback scenes), and Jason Isaacs makes the most of his five-minute turn as Ra's al Ghul.

Winick and Vietti's vision isn't flawless -- Nightwing inexplicably disappears late in the second act, fifth-string DC minion Amazo makes a fun but distracting appearance and, while the story didn't strike me as rushed or overcrowded, an extra ten minutes would have gone a long way in such an action-oriented flick -- but it is riveting. After New Frontier this is easily the best DC animated film to date. Under the Red Hood outclasses almost all of the other recent Timm-produced video films, and injects an entry into the animated Batman canon that's almost as intriguing, compelling and enthralling as Nolan's franchise saviors. Will everyone love it as much as I did? Probably not. But those who give Hood a chance to wriggle into their brains and under their skin will be glad they did.

I expected an anticlimactic, melodramatic dud. I expected eye-rolling fan service, superficial villains and simplistic heroes. I expected... something else entirely. Batman: Under the Red Hood isn't just the best DC animated release to date, it's one of the finest Batman stories on the home video market, animated or otherwise. While it may not be perfect, it does boast impressive animation and character designs, exceptional voice acting, a strong story, sharp dialogue, genuine thrills, psychological depth, fast-paced action, mature themes, a magnificent third act... it's all here, primed for your enjoyment. Whether you already know what secrets lie in wait or have no idea what Winick has in store, be sure to pick up Under the Red Hood. It's that rare, direct-to-video, animated superhero flick that doesn't disappoint..

BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD © 2010 Warner Premiere
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2010 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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