Batman: Mask of the Phantasm represents the next logical step from Tim Burton's gothic and dark take on the character in 1989's Batman and the superior follow-up, Batman Returns. Mask of the Phantasm was released a year after Returns, and saw Bruce Wayne struggling with the validity of his crime fighting alter-ego, trying to figure out whether he needs The Bat in a world where his usually non-existent personal life is blossoming thanks to a burgeoning romance. This unprecedented personal approach to the saga, while still retaining the gothic aesthetic of Burton's previous work, was the perfect formula to take this series into new territory.
Too bad that Mask of the Phantasm was an animated project that wasn't supposed to be a continuation of Burton's films, and its box-office failure, along with Batman Returns' underperformance, led the studio to go for a campier and more colorful approach, with Joel Schumacher's gaudy and annoying sequels. With the hindsight of a couple of decades and the release of Christopher Nolan's terrific Dark Knight trilogy, Mask of the Phantasm has gained quite a cult following that defends it as the beginning of the darker and more introspective take on the character, an approach that would gain more mainstream appeal during the 2000s and forward.
The film takes the half gothic expressionist, half old Superman cartoon aesthetic of the 1990s animated TV show and improves it with some groundbreaking animation that deftly mixes hand-drawn and CGI elements. The way that it mixes the old WB cartoon style with the (then) new technology creates a fairly timeless feel, even though the CG backgrounds in the opening credits look like a Windows 98 screensaver. The story sees Batman being blamed for the deaths of mobsters, when in fact a mysterious figure named The Phantasm is the culprit. Meanwhile Bruce Wayne has to contend with the return of a woman who used to be the love of his life. That relationship made him question whether or not he could continue being Batman with a happy personal life, and now that she's back, the questions rise to the surface once again.
Compared to the recent slew of hard-PG-13 animated DC movies, the PG-rated Mask of the Phantasm looks kind of quaint, which is part of its charm. It feels a bit old fashioned now, but the focus on the dark style and character-based storytelling makes it a hell of a lot more relatable now than Batman Forever and Batman & Robin ever will be. The voice work is exceptional. Kevin Conroy, as far as the voice is concerned, is the perfect Batman, and Mark Hamill proves once again why he should be the only voice for Joker.
The disc comes with the choice of watching the film in its theatrical 16:9 aspect ratio, or a "TV Version", which is in 4:3. Before you get nostalgic feelings about old DVDs that used to offer widescreen and pan-and-scan options, the situation here is a bit different. Mask of the Phantasm started as a straight-to-video project, and was mainly animated in 4:3. Later, it was retrofitted to 16:9, which makes both aspect ratios the correct decision to watch it in many ways. I personally prefer the eventually intended 16:9 presentation. Otherwise, both 1080p transfers captures the muted and stark colors of the animation very well, with great contrast and a crisp look.
We only get a DTS-HD 2.0 option. As much as I appreciate being given a lossless track, it would have been great to get a surround option, especially for a film from the 90s. The original mix might have been 2.0, but that should have been an easy fix. Apart from that, the track shows great range between the boisterous score and the dialogue.
We only get a Trailer.
Especially for fans of the recent DC animated universe, Mask of the Phantasm should hold a special place. It showed that The Bat could have been steered towards the right direction after Burton's departure.