From 1941 to 1943, the Fleischer brothers released a series of Superman cartoons that set the standard for animated action shows. In these shorts Superman didn't move like a cartoon character; his actions were realistic looking even when he was leaping into the air to fly to Lois Lane's rescue. Not only was the animation excellent, but the stories were dynamic and exciting too. Unfortunately, in the fifty years following the first Fleischer Superman cartoons the art of adventure show animation had not improved at all. No advancements were made, and most of the shows were substantially worse than these early classics. Sure there were some action oriented cartoons that were shown in the intervening years, like Transformers and G.I. Joe, but while these had a certain charm to them, they were little more than extended commercials for toy lines. Crudely drawn with predictable plots and watered down action scenes these latter offerings paled in comparison to the Fleischer's early 40's material.
Then came Batman. In 1992 Batman: The Animated Series debuted as the first worthy successor to the Fleischer brothers. It is not exaggerating to state that this show revolutionized cartoons; from the visual style of the show to the sophistication of the scripts, this was ground breaking material that influenced many shows that came after it.
Warner Brothers, after an abortive attempt to release the show on four episode discs, is continuing to dispense this program in healthy 28 episode chunks. Do to the vagaries of afternoon television, season sets aren't really practical (there were 60 episodes in the first season, but only 10 in the second.) These sets of 28 episodes are a good solution. They give a healthy dose of the show, but not at an unreasonable price. The shows are presented in production order, not the order that they were originally aired.
The episodes included in this set are:
Cat Scratch Fever
Moon of the Wolf
This set has the show at the absolute top of its form. There isn't a lame show in the bunch, and many of the episodes in this set are destine to become classics. Prechance to Dream, the second show in the set, is a wonderful look at what might have happened if Bruce Wayne's parents hadn't been killed. After being knock out while chasing some crooks, Bruce wakes up at home, uncertain as to how he got there. He's surprised to find that the entrance to the Batcave is blocked, but even more astonished to discover that his mother and father are still alive. Bruce must figure out what going on, but in doing so, he knows he'll ruin the happiness that he's discovered. (This show is based on the excellent Superman comic story "The Man Who has Everything" written by Alan Moore.)
Almost Got 'im, probably my favorite show of the series. This story takes place during a "villain's night out" where Batman's main enemies aren't committing crimes. They are all sitting around a table in a bar playing poker, relaxing. While talking, the conversation turns to Batman of corse. Like a group of fisherman swapping stories, each crook takes a turn telling the time that they were closest to killing Batman. The little vignettes were all full of action, and the framing story was very funny. A great combination, with an excellent ending line.
The Batman's background story takes is fleshed out in a couple of episodes too. His early training plays an important part in Night of the Ninja, and I Am the Night introduces Dr. Leslie Thompkins who is an important person from when Bruce was young. Viewers get to find out just where the Batmoblie came from in The Mechanic, a great show that explains some aspects of Batman's world that usually gets glossed over.
Robin's origin is recounted in Robin's Reckoning, a two part story which won an Emmy. This story examines the bond between Batman and Robin, and why the Dark Knight agreed to raise a young boy.
The writing on the show is top notch. The show doesn't dumb itself down to appeal to a young audience, the creators thought that if you have well written intelligent stories, kids would be attracted. They were right but the show also appeals to adults for the same reason.
The art decco look of the show, something fairly daring at the time, especially for a kids cartoon, really gives the program atmosphere. The police blimps that start off the credits, the thick heavy lines of the Batmoblie, an the black and white TV sets all sever to let the viewer know that they are in a world similar to ours, but very different too. It makes the show interesting to watch and also sets itself apart from other animated Batman shows. There's no confusing this program with Super-Friends.
DVDTalk Reviewer Adam Tyner covered many of these same points more thoroughly in his excellent review of the first volume. Readers who want more details on the strengths of this outstanding series are invited to read his review here.
This set offers the viewer the choice of English, Spanish or French soundtracks, all in stereo. I viewed the show in English, and was very happy with the quality. The dialog was easy to discern and the sound effects came through clearly and at an appropriate level.
The thing that really stands out about the audio to these shows is the wonderful orchestration by Shirley Walker. Each episode was scored and had a full orchestra behind it, making this one of the best sounding made-for-TV cartoons around. The music comes through fully and with great clarity, making this a very good sounding DVD. There are English, French and Spanish subtitles.
The full frame picture quality is good for a show of this age. The colors that are used for the show are dark, so there are few vivid and bright scenes. The detail in the shadows and in the night scenes are good, and the colors do not appear to have faded with time. The picture is just a touch on the soft side, but this fits the mood of the show. On the digital front, there are some defects, most notable some aliasing and minor compression artifacts in the background but nothing that would be considered distracting. A nice looking set.
This set has some really good extras included with it. There are four commentaries by Bruce Timm (Producer) and Eric Radomski (Producer.) They provide an alternate audio track for Robin's Reckoning, Heart of Steel part 2, Almost Got 'im (where they are joined by writer Paul Dini) and Harley and Ivy where the pair are joined by Boyd Kirkland (Producer.) There were some pretty big stretches of silence during a few of these, but they were still a lot of fun. They point out a lot of inside jokes (like the origin of Harley's gun) and background details that the casual viewer might have missed, as well as giving behind the scenes information about the production.
There is also three featurettes included on the discs. Robin Rising is an eight minute look a the Caped Crusader's sidekick, and him placein the series. Gotham's Guardians takes ten minutes to look at the supporting characters surrounding Batman including Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, Selina (Catwoman) Kyle, and Harvey Bullock. The last one is Voices of the Knight where the voice actors are interviewed. All three of these were fun extras. The first two don't stop at just giving a history of the characters, but also discuss why the characters are included, and how they fit into the stories that they wanted to tell. The last one was my favorite, giveing fans a chance to learn a little about the actors behind the faces so to speak.
I really like this show, and this volume contains some of the absolute
best episodes there the series has to offer. Full of adventure and
action with just the right mix of humor (but not camp) thrown in, Batman:
the Animated Series is one of the best cartoon series ever made.
This four disc set of 28 episodes has some wonderful extras as well as
looking and sounding very good. All animation fans should check it
out. DVDTalk Collector Series.