- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Caped Crusader takes on one of the original supervillains in a mature-rated, animated murder mystery loosely adapted from a sequential-art masterpiece in Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, rated R, 78 minutes, 1.78:1 aspect ratio, $34.99).

Well, huff and pout, I’d like to once again thank Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment for ruining yet another graphic novel classic by fecklessly transforming it into a visually uninspired cartoon.

Now, before my assault, I don’t blame screenplay writer Jim Krieg.

He was tasked with expanding the 52-page, one-shot comic from 1989 that featured Batman within a Victorian-era Gotham City in pursuit of Jack the Ripper.

Much like a plastic surgeon gone wild, his embellishment and rearranging keep the core tenants of Brian Augustyn’s original story, but they radically change key plot points and expand the characters in pursuit of delivering a longer form animated film.

For example, Selina Kyle (voiced by a sassy Jennifer Carpenter) now has a substantial role in the story and plays an empowered stage performer also hunting Jack, and falling for Bruce Wayne and his alter ego.

Mr. Krieg also adds some other familiar characters to the story including Mr. Wayne’s oldest school chum Harvey Dent, Sister Leslie Tompkins, cop Harvey Bullock, street fighter Cyrus Gold (aka Solomon Grundy) and Poison Ivy as an exotic dancer.

Oh yeah, he also adds layers to Jack’s origin to the point of changing the killer’s identity and piles on some steampunk moments (inspired by the comic’s sequel “Master of the Future”), all workable narrative points unless you loved the original novel.

The total sum of changes actually offers a pretty suspenseful story that will satisfy the newer Batman fans that have never read the original source material.

Except, Mr. Krieg’s effort is also at the mercy of the animators.

Let me digress.

Mr. Augustyn’s story was greatly enhanced by the artistry of illustrator Mike Mignola. That’s right. The father of “Hellboy” drew the comic and was supported by the inking style of fantasy artist P. Craig Russell.

The result was a dark foreboding world, minimalist in design but impactful through its glimpses of horror and reimagining of the crime fighter down to a slick, burly outfit and stitched cowl.

What the animation can never do is duplicate Mr. Mignola’s work. Instead, viewers get another cookie-cutter approach with a bland visual character design that would even bore children.

Only brief hints of potential arrive with a scene featuring a whip-wielding Selina Kyle fighting off Jack the Ripper, or watching Batman roar down a cobblestone street on a steampunk motorcycle.

So, what’s it going to take to break these cartoons out of the visually uninspired constraints and let animation masters, comparable to a Mike Mignola in comics, actually handle translating these sacred properties?

I’m stumped, but looking for some young or even veteran, Japanese anime directors might be a good start to deliver a more stylistic interpretation of the original artwork.

However, when I’m more excited watching cartoon series such as “Star Wars Rebels,” “Batman: Brave and the Bold,” “Teen Titans Go!” “Archer” and “Rick and Morty” than diving into a translation of one of my favorite comic books, it’s rather depressing.

Perhaps Mr. Krieg’s character-rich story was better suited as another sequel to the original, with a new super killer, rather than sabotaged by this less than visually appealing effort.

It’s worth noting parental units that “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight” is an R-rated cartoon due to some knife stabbing, blood splatters, a few scantily clad dancers and a pinch of ribald dialogue.

4K UHD in action: Due to the limited animation style, mastering the cartoon in an ultra-high definition format and adding high dynamic range tweaks were a bit of a wasted effort.

In fact, some of definition was so sharp that it exposes the flaws of the animation of the character models; the line and shading occasionally looked pixilated.

Now, I found the Blu-ray version of the film warmer and more visually satisfying with moments such as a wooden Ferris wheel on fire really standing out.

Both disc versions offer a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix to embrace Frederik Wiedmann majestic musical score. It complements the action perfectly with orchestral swells and memorable passages reminiscent of the rich style of John Williams or Danny Elfman.

Best extras: Bless Warner Bros. for offering a 20-minute look at the original one-shot graphic novel. Well, at least a 10-minute look when one cuts out all of the promotional pabulum for the cartoon.

It was great to hear from Mr. Augustyn, Mr. Krieg and executive producer Bruce Timm often-gushing praise on the work of Mr. Mignola. It’s too bad the artist was not available for an interview.

Viewers also get many, many large versions of comic book panels highlighting Mr. Mignola’s great work as well as lots of Batman art from stars such as Paul Pope, Brian Bolland and Bill Finger.

Next, Mr. Timm, Mr. Krieg and director Sam Liu take part in an optional commentary track and talk nonstop about the project.

They offer a wide breath of analysis on the production touching on being respectful to the original source material (hmmm?), creating the Victorian locations, being aware of the violence in the film and adding in the Steampunk influences.

Finally, and always my favorite part of any DC Entertainment animated direct-to-disc release, is the inclusion of a few cartoon episodes from the Warner Bros. animation archive of great superhero television series.

In this case, we get the episode “Trials of the Demon” from “Batman: Brave and the Bold” featuring the Dark Knight, Jason Blood and Sherlock Holmes working together to stop James Craddock (before he became the Gentleman Ghost). It also highlights Batman in his “Gotham by Gaslight.”

And, “Showdown,” a 1995 episode from “Batman: The Animated Series,” features the Caped Crusader hunting Ra’s Al Ghul and ending up listening to a Western-themed story about the gun-slinging bounty hunter Jonah Hex and his adventures in 1883.

Both cartoons feature fantastic animation, peppy dialogue and fun guest appearances by such comic book stalwarts as the Golden Age Flash, Scarecrow and Robin.


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