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Batman & Harley Quinn

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // August 29, 2017
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 4, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Criticisms are in no short supply for the current state of DC's cinematic universe, but there's one so widespread that it approaches being a running pop-culture joke: that these movies, especially the ones featuring Batman, are exceedingly dark and lack humor. It's such a prevalent issue that reports (true or not) circulated that David Ayer's Suicide Squad -- starring everyone's favorite Joker minion, Harley Quinn -- underwent reshoots to alter the tone and pump more humor into its heavy chaos. Over the years, even pre-Zack Snyder, the versatility of WB's animation department has swooped in to offset this "grimdark" perception, executing more upbeat, comic-book style elements tangled within the Caped Crusader's signature brooding. Thus, Batman and Harley Quinn seems like a sure thing, boasting deliberate levity and unquestionable potential with the involvement of Harley's creator and Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Bruce Timm, which makes it rather shocking to be left thinking, "What the #$&% did I just watch?!", following its juvenile, bewilderingly trivial escapades that fly too far in the other direction.

Pegging down a specific point in the Batman mythos for when Batman and Harley Quinn takes place isn't a straightforward process, and that's primarily because this caper has been designed to exist in its own little self-contained, inessential space. There are some "clues" one can follow to get a grip on it, though. Harley Quinn has recently gotten out of Arkham Asylum on parole -- considering the existence of the Suicide Squad, the release of this murderous, dangerous henchman to the Joker isn't the biggest leap in believability here -- and has been trying to live as normally as possible for a discredited psychologist and ex-rogue. In response to a dangerous plot cultivated by Poison Ivy and deep-cut DC baddie Floronic Man, Batman and Nightwing (aka a grown-up Robin) hunt down Harley Quinn for help due to her close ties with the plant-based villainess. Reluctantly, she teams up with the Dynamic Duo to unearth the details of their plot and prevent the world from being turned into an overgrown disaster area.

Upon the sight of vaguely art deco scenery and familiar wide-eyed and square-jaw characterization, Batman and Harley Quinn gets one revved up for a detour back into the realm of The Animated Series, even more so with the assurance that Bruce Timm's behind the wheel in the story department alongside director Sam Liu. Something quickly feels … off about what's going on, though, beginning with jokes involving Batman's blackmail tactics and leading into blunt sexualization of female heroes and villains in a Hooters-like diner -- SUPERBABES -- and an unexpected carnal rendezvous that seems yanked off someone's page. The resulting tone attempts to mix the zany, frivolous rhythm of the ‘60s West television series with modern, adult-leaning brashness, eventually even incorporating literal dick and fart jokes into its comedic pursuits. Where side-story comics like "Mad Love" and "Harley & Ivy" naturally entwine silliness and vulgarity with the accepted constraints of their universes, Batman and Harley Quinn clumsily pushes for its blatantly pubescent shenanigans to veer outside those limits, and it doesn't wear that look well.

Expectedly, vets Kevin Conroy and Loren Lester turns in wonderfully grumbly, nostalgic performances as the Caped Crusader and Nightwing, yet they largely take a backseat to the presence of Harley Quinn, whose saccharine nuttiness and sexuality are given a different voice, literally and figuratively, by The Big Bang Theory's Melissa Rauch. Whereas recent comics feature her in an enjoyably wild situation following her release where she owns an apartment building and cracks skulls in roller derby, Batman and Harley Quinn takes a more solemn approach, depicting her as a near-unemployed waitress weighed down, dare I say depressed, by her post-villain lifestyle. Considering her evolution into a Joker-rebuffing antihero in other iterations of the character, this seed of an idea might seem appealing, yet it doesn't communicate well with the inanity of her "hiding in plain sight" at this diner and the deliberate male-gaze exploitation that occurs shortly thereafter. There's always ruffled feathers whenever Harley's voiced by someone new, but Rauch tones down her vocal registry for a familiar, yet grounded take that would've played fine with better material.

Better material this isn't, though. Batman and Harley Quinn swings entirely on Harley's personal, documented connection to Poison Ivy -- that can range from mere partners in crime to outright lovers depending on which iteration of the DC universe you're in -- as justification for a joyride she takes with Batman and Nightwing to follow her scent and cause trouble. Between cruises in the Batmobile that coax humorous banter, among other things, out of this Dynamic Trio, the pitstops they make amount to little more than shallow, tedious diversions, especially a lengthy sequence that takes place in a whacked-out bar between the spaces of two metropolitan cities. It's at a point where an unabashed sexual innuendo featuring twin male singers and a microphone (one on his knees front and center on the bar's stage) soon moves into a shot of a grinning Batman after he guzzles milk to prepare for a barfight that this roadtrip really goes screeching off the road. Imagine The Lego Batman Movie's satirical self-flagellation on a "mature" level, and without its sweetly reverential consideration and love for the character's history.

Considering the energy that's been devoted to Batman and Harley Quinn's exaggerated character moments, it's unsurprising that the end-of-the-world scenario at the root of the story doesn't lead to something fresh or particularly intriguing. Mixing apocalyptic transformations that'd lead to a garden world with the same sociological even-playing-field component as that of Lizard's motivations from The Amazing Spider-Man, this all blossoms into essentially every other scheme that Poison Ivy has cooked up beforehand, with a mini-Swamp Thing as her partner and a climate change undercurrent tossed in for some timely geopolitical inspiration. Therefore, yes, it's a fantasy-driven Batman story instead of one that tries to preserve the illusion of staying grounded, and most of the action sequences respond accordingly. Unfortunately, so much effort has gone into the attempts at humor that equal, if not more, commonsense gets overlooked about the potential for the villains to manipulate their verdant surroundings. Yet, with a wink and a kiss at the end, Batman and Harley Quinn suggests that it doesn't really care, so long as it keeps things light.

The Blu-ray:

WB and DC's Animation Department come out swinging with yet another limited edition gift set for Batman and Harley Quinn. Enclosed in a large box, the standard edition of the Blu-ray boasts attractive cover artwork that lends some "realism" to the Animated Series-inspired artwork in the film, further enhanced by the embossing work that can be felt on the characters, the building's gargoyles, and the film's title text. Inside is about what's to be expected at this point: duplicated cover artwork from the slipcase, two silver-topped discs -- one Blu-ray, one DVD -- with the same image of Harley on ‘em, and a digital slipcover. The limited edition also comes with a nifty Harley Quinn static figuring, wearing her getup from the Animate Series days.

Video and Audio:

Over the past decade or so, WB's animation department has progressively refined their home-media presentations, tweaking their processes to minimize recurring issues that lower their presentations from being purely spectacular to, "great, but … you know". Batman and Harley Quinn marks the latest of these releases, and the latest of these refinements, as well as first of their releases to also receive a 4K UltraHD presentations and a mini-reunion for the fan beloved Batman: The Animated Series. Therefore, it's no surprise that this 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment is, well, spectacular. It's a predominately dark film, and the black levels and inky and rich just as they should be, with little to no murkiness throughout. Brighter scenes, like those in a diner or involving green energy waves, draw vivid reds and greens from the artwork that are striking yet properly adjusted with the animation's apparent intentions. Lines are mostly sharp and distinct against darker background, though a few are overly bulky, and the fluidity of 24p renders smooth motion throughout.

Always packing a punch, WB's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track hits all the right action-movie notes with their presentation of Batman and Harley Quinn. Granted, there aren't a lot of really aggressive sequences in the film, but the handful that are there -- notably a brawl at the beginning and the wilder, bombastic events in the final act -- telegraph firm lower-end response and fine midrange clarity with each punch, kick, and thud present. Subtler effects, like energy waves and radar bleeps and, yes, farts hit strong, attuned high points. Most importantly, dialogue remains razor-sharp and natural throughout, whether Harley's in her slightly deeper registry or in higher, aggressive mode, or whether Conroy's gravelly Batman or Floronic Man's low booming are running comfortably on the lower spectrum of the sound design. There's no distortion, absolute crispness in quiet sequences, and well-balanced musical accompaniment across the rear channels, which are carefully used for ambience. English, French, and Spanish subs are available.

Special Features:

The Harley Effect (21:15, 16x9 HD): As with several other of these animated Blu-ray releases, the dedicated extras to elaborating upon one of the characters ends up being just as interesting as the movie itself, if not more so. This time, the discussion falls upon an elaboration on Harley Quinn, spearheaded by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini as they chat about her humble origins and her psychosis. Thing is, these topics were already touched upon in an extra for Assault on Arkham, leaving the crew to find new ways of chatting about the character. Which they do: complete with a clinical psychologist discussion histrionic personality disorder and Paul Dini drawing connections to Tweety Bird, referencing Arleen Sorkin as an original model for the persona herself, and how the character's instability and intelligence are woven into her interactions. Mad Love and the "adult" nature of the storytelling and themes are unpacked, as well as how the character morphs depending on who she's hanging around with and her unexpected, evolving popularity.

Loren Lester: In His Own Voice (11:46, 16x9 HD):
This one's another really cool surprised, focused on the voice of Robin / Nightwing (also from The Animated Series) as he charts his experiences through the audition process and building BTAS into a "cinematic" compliment to the Tim Burton films. Kevin Conroy jumps into the mix to discuss his experience working with Lester, while the discussion also covers the character's transformation from Robin to Nightwing … and how they tailored Lester's vocal talent to sounding lower, gruffer, yet not like Batman. And finally, the last few minutes also hones its discussion upon this being like a Batman: The Animated Series reunion.

WB and DC have also included a Sneak Peek at Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (8:30, 16x9 HD), the upcoming adaptation of their iconic Elsewords book which touches upon the new opportunities for characterization and setting with the adaptation, as well as sneak peeks for past production The Dark Knight Returns and Assault on Arkham. We've also got a pair of episodes From the DC Vault: BTAS "Harley and Ivy" and "Harley's Holiday", and a foursome of Trailers that don't, unfortunately, include one for Batman and Harley Quinn.

Final Thoughts:

If you were to tell me before seeing Batman and Harley Quinn that I'd be choosing between whether to suggest a rental or a skip-altogether rating for this Bruce Timm-fueled creation featuring Harley Quinn and starring original Batman: The Animated Series cast members, I would've thought you were bonkers. Alas, this oddly juvenile pseudo-comedy leaves one conflicted about precisely how to feel about it, sporting far too much ineffective lowbrow humor and the trivial plotting that follows such a singularly-focused movie. The voice talent, even newbie Melissa Rauch as Harley Quinn, is on point; the art style and camera movement tap into a distinct sort of nostalgia; and there's some meaningfulness behind how they've tweaked a recently-released Harley Quinn into a world unaccepting of her following her mistakes as ... well, as a supervillain. Unfortunately, the core reasons for this film's existence, its jocular sense of humor and brazen interactions between the Dynamic Duo and the jester-like antiheroine, leaves much to be desired with its frustrating immaturity and triviality. Give it a Rental for the reunion of voice talents and for the extras on the disc, but proceed with more caution than you might've been expecting.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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