1997 saw the release of Batman and Robin, Warner Bros.' fourth live-action Batman release. Mr. Freeze was one of the villains propelled from the four color pages to the silver screen, with Arnold Schwarzenegger delivering such exruciatingly painful one-liners as "you-uh not taykeeeng me to duh cooooluh!" and "tonayat, hey-all freezes uvah!" Seven months after its release on the usual home video formats, an animated take on Freeze crept quietly onto video store shelves.
Mr. Freeze is the primary villain of two of my favorite episodes of the various Batman animated series: "Hearts Of Ice" from the original run on Fox (nominated for an Emmy, if I recall) and Batman Beyond's "Meltdown". I was looking forward to yet another example to screen for unbelievers who look down on excellent animated material like Mask of the Phantasm without giving it a shot, yet happily plunk down eight bucks to watch tripe like Batman and Robin. Unfortunately, though, this is very much not a recommended starting point to showcase the excellence of the animated Batman.
Subzero begins as Mr. Freeze, minus his trademark body armor, is cavorting about in the arctic, accompanied by a pair of polar bears. It's not as exciting a life as duking it out with the Dark Knight in Gotham, but it allows Victor Fries to bide his time until a cure is found for his terminally ill wife, who he's keeping on ice in the meantime. A rather daft submarine crew decides for whatever reason to surface in Fries' cave, destroying the surroundings, shattering Nora's oversized mason jar, and tearing Fries' dreams of reuniting with his beloved to shreds. After dishing out some cold revenge on the sub's crew, Fries dons his supercooled suit and heads towards Gotham to seek out the assistance of a strapped-for-cash former colleague. Nora can be revived, though it would require an organ transplant from a limited pool of the AB- Gotham populace. There are no matching organs among the deceased, so attention is shifted towards the land of the living. Among the seventeen potential candidates is Barbara Gordon, and Mr. Freeze sets out to harvest her innards. As fans of the animated series should be well aware, Barbara also happens to be the daughter of the police commissioner and, as Batgirl, a close friend of Batman and Robin. The Dynamic Duo race against time to save Babs before she finds herself at the unpleasant end of a scalpel.
Mask of the Phantasm was brilliant, eclipsing any of the live action efforts. Return of the Joker also trounces its big-screen counterparts, though falling a couple of notches below Phantasm. It's no secret that Batman's animated incarnations are superior to what any director has been able to mold with plywood, foam rubber, and countless millions of dollars. Much of the success of these animated adventures can be attributed to the incomparable duo of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. These creative masterminds were not involved in any capacity with Subzero, though, and their presence is sorely missed.
Writer Randy Rogel and co-writer/director Boyd Kirkland are alums of the animated series, and their work is competent. Unlike the other feature-length animated films, though, Subzero feels limited in scope. Its runtime of 62 minutes is almost exactly the length of three episodes of the series minus commercials, and it looks and feels like its belongs on the small screen. The animation at times looks great, particularly in fight sequences that visually rank up with the best of the hundred-plus episodes of the series. Less dynamic portions aren't nearly as attractive. The CGI work is atrocious and highly distracting, particularly with the poor blending of traditional animation with computer-rendered graphics on the freeway chase. Even though Subzero barely breaks the hour mark, it's so uninvolving, predictable, and plodding that it seems interminable.
Batman: The Animated Series is adored and appreciated by a great many people of a variety of ages, and Mask of the Phantasm and Return of the Joker were clearly created with an older audience in mind. Subzero, on the other hand, seems as if it is more heavily geared towards a younger crowd, though certainly not as embarrassingly pandering as Schumacher's pair of live-action efforts. I didn't go in anticipating anything on the level of Mask of the Phantasm, yet even with such limited expectations, I still found myself disappointed by Subzero. The most enthusiasm I can muster would be to say, "it's okay, I guess." Subzero is still better than Batman and Robin, as faint praise as that is, but I've come to expect much more from Batman's animated exploits.
Video: A mild amount of controversy has been swirling about on message boards regarding Subzero's intended aspect ratio. Though the project was, as far as I'm aware, always intended as a direct-to-video release in the United States, the 1998 Laserdisc was matted to an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. This DVD, however, duplicates the full-frame appearance of the film's VHS release and its broadcasts on cable television. Which presentation is preferred by the filmmakers is uncertain. It does seem to have been animated to allow for such matting, perhaps for some sort of theatrical release overseas, though the amount of headroom at the top and bottom fo the frame doesn't feel empty or wasted. I have no qualms about watching Subzero at this aspect ratio, though for those interested in a comparison between the two, below are three sets of images courtesy of our friends at Toonzone.
The presentation of this DVD is fine, on par with Mask of the Phantasm. The image isn't as strikingly sharp as that of the more recent Return of the Joker, though I suppose Subzero is about as crisp as it is ever likely to appear. Colors seem to be an accurate reproduction, and black levels are, given the dark design of the series, predictably strong.
Audio: Subzero's English stereo surround track sounds remarkably similar to what I would expect from a broadcast on the Cartoon Network. There is surprisingly little subwoofer activity, even in an opening scene that includes a submarine crashing through a thick sheet of ice and the collapse of a cave. The explosive climax doesn't fare much better in that respect either. The rears remains fairly loud throughout, with Michael McCuistion's score roaring from all directions. Surrounds are also used to provide echo effects as well as to reinforce certain lines of dialogue and assorted sound effects. Their use is sometimes awkward, such as during the high-speed car chase. Though the screeching of tires is handled well, other sounds seem to be cut off just the tiniest bit too soon in the rears while the same action is still occurring in the front portion of the soundstage. The soundtrack is passable, but I guess watching the more aurally engaging Return of the Joker in the same sitting spoiled me.
Spanish, French, and Portuguese tracks have been provided as well, along with subtitles in each of the four languages.
Supplements: Subzero includes a decent amount of supplemental material, though little of it is of any interest. There is a cast and crew list, and it is, in fact, just a list. No biographies, filmographies, or the like are to be found. "The Art Of Batman" is a montage of various sketches and stills, playing over the expected techno soundtrack.
"Get The Pictures: Batman" is fifty seconds of an artist rendering a pencil sketch of the Dark Knight, sped up greatly. "The Hunt For Mr. Freeze" is a useless 'game' that invites viewers to follow the events of Subzero, with brief clips from the film as a reward.
Finally, there are trailers for Return of the Joker, Subzero, The Batman/Superman Movie, various Scooby-Doo video releases, as well as a letterboxed teaser for this summer's live action take on Scooby-Doo.
Conclusion: Subzero isn't nearly as astonishingly wonderful as other Batman animated releases that have made their way onto DVD. Collectors and devoted fans of the animated series will find a purchase to be a no-brainer, but a rental will likely be preferred by those with a more casual interest.