Episode Number: 16 (101)
Original Air Date: September 26, 1998
Directed by: Curt Geda
Written by: Hilary J. Bader
First Appearance: None
“Animal Act” reintroduces the audience to a part of Dick Grayson’s life it may have forgotten: the circus life. A string of robberies will put Batman and the gang in touch with the old act and give Dick a chance to take a stroll down memory lane. It will also reintroduce, officially, a villain from the previous iteration of the show that had yet to have an episode all to their own. The reveal of the villain is intended to be a surprise, and for this show, it’s actually kept under wraps pretty well. There’s no obvious giveaway in the title and the reveal is saved for the final act. The only real tell is the reintroduction of that villain’s theme, but if you had forgotten it then you’d be kept in the dark even longer. For that reason, I should put out a general warning that if you like experiencing these reveals on your own then maybe store this one away until you’ve seen the episode yourself.
The episode begins with Batman and Robin watching a suspicious character from a rooftop. The rather large looking man is on a nearby rooftop and heading for an antenna tower. Nightwing drops in on the two and he and Batman have their usual frosty disposition towards each other with Batman lecturing Nightwing to work on his stealth. They then turn their attention to the perp who has begun scaling the tower and looks to have its eyes on some control near the top.
Batman springs into action with quite possibly his most absurd act of stealth we’ve seen up to this point. As the suspect’s hand reaches for a device on the tower, Batman’s hand clamps down on its wrist. Batman basically went from one rooftop to a steel tower roughly one-hundred yards away and managed to land on the same tower as the perp and grab its hand all without being seen. That’s some damn fine stealth-work.
The perp immediately swats Batman away and he falls off the tower but is able to grab onto another one. The perp then tries to make a run for it, but gets ambushed by Robin and Nightwing. At this point it’s obvious that this isn’t a man for its arms are massive and it runs like a gorilla. When Robin tries to stop it with a bollo the creature breaks out and takes off again punching Robin as it goes by. Nightwing stops to check on the Boy Wonder before giving chase with his dorky little wingsuit. He catches up to the creature and is able to confirm that it is indeed a gorilla in human clothing. Furthermore, Nightwing knows this gorilla as Peaches. The surprise helps the gorilla to get away from Nightwing and escape the others.
The next day, Dick and Tim make a stop at the circus. It’s well before opening and the circus members are all milling about and getting ready for that night’s performance. As the two stroll through, the cast members all recognize Dick and make small talk as Tim takes it all in. He gets setup by Dick for embarrassment at the hands of a mime clown and marvels at the strong man and axe-tossers. Dick is really here though to check on Peaches and the two find her right where she’s supposed to be in her cage. She seems like a rather ordinary gorilla and Tim is skeptical that this could be the same as the one from the night before.
Dick’s reunion with Peaches is interrupted by her trainer, Miranda Kane (Jane Wiedlin). Miranda looks the part of a stereotypical animal trainer and even has a boa draped over her shoulders and coiled around her leg. She at first mistakes Dick for someone just snooping around and messing with her animals, but he tells her who he is and she soon remembers. It would seem she was a kid with the circus at the same time as “Dicky,” with her family being animal trainers. Her parents have retired to Sarasota (amusing to me for I knew a lot of old people who did the same around 98) and left the animals in her care. She seems some-what happy to see Dick again, though also a tad resentful of the life he ended up living as ward of the wealthy Bruce Wayne, though his name is never mentioned. She tells him he can’t touch the animals, for liability reasons, and eventually asks the two to leave as she has a lot of work to do.
Dick is then shown back at his loft flipping through an old photo album. He’s looking at pictures of his family-life from his days in the circus, until a familiar shadow crosses the page. Batman is there to inquire about his trip to the circus, and Dick tells him he doesn’t think Miranda had anything to do with the robbery from the night before. Batman counters by saying he checked all of the cities the circus had hit recently and all featured a nearby unexplained robbery. This leads to a stare-down between Dick and Batman that is kind of tense, until a pager on Batman’s belt forces him to look away. He growls an angry “What?!” into a communicator and it’s Robin on the other end informing him of a silent alarm that was just tripped at an auto manufacturing plant. Batman heads for the window, but calls back to Dick to ask if he’s coming. Dick grabs his suit and the pair take off.
Batman and Nightwing arrive at the factory and find an unconscious security guard in the parking lot. Batman checks his vitals, and confirming he’s all right, they turn their attention to a commotion coming from inside. As they slip in, the camera lingers on a keypad by the door which suggests that whoever gained entry did so legitimately, as in they entered the correct passcode. The duo creeps in and find a rather large, hairy, creature rummaging through a big container of components. It pops it’s head out of the container to regale the two and reveals itself to be a very large brown bear. Before the two can really react a second bear swats them from behind.
Nightwing and Batman recover and square-off against the two bears. Nightwing makes a lot of bad jokes and puns all throughout. He kicks some barrels at his bear, and the bear demonstrates it’s been trained by hopping on the barrel and riding it while standing on its hind legs. Batman is able to avoid the bear he pairs off with and ends up leading it towards a hydraulic lift for an automobile. With Batman on top of the lift and at the controls, he lowers it on top of the bear pinning it to the floor. Nightwing has considerably less luck with his opponent. He seems to think this bear behaves like a character from Punch Out!! as he searches for a soft spot to punch at. This goes about as well as expected and Batman is forced to make the save with a fire hose. Still, that only irritates the bear, but it allows Batman to get its attention long enough for Nightwing to return with a forklift. He’s able to pin the bear against the wall between itself and the forklift, but not before first comically driving around with the creature stuck on the front.
Later that night, Miranda is unloading the bears from a police van back into their cage and Detective Bullock (Robert Costanzo) is on hand to supervise. He’s his usual grumpy self and warns the woman that he’ll be back to file a police report (why isn’t he doing it now?) and she better come up with a better reason for how those bears got out than “I don’t know.” As he makes his way towards his car, the clown-mime that got Tim earlier is lounging on the hood of the cruiser. Bullock is not amused by the clown’s mime routine and threateningly pulls out his handcuffs. The clown persists with his act and Bullock lunges for him, but misses and ends up eating dirt. The clown then waves goodbye and mimes opening a door while Bullock growls about hating clowns. He seems like the type that would.
Miranda angrily heads into her trailer and is confronted by Dick when she does. He claims she left the door open, but that doesn’t diffuse the situation much. Miranda insists someone has been messing with her animals, and Dick seems to believe her. Later, Dick returns to his loft and finds Batman waiting for him. He muses about getting an alarm, apparently failing to see the irony in Batman doing to him what he just did to Miranda. Batman is there to show him the security tapes from the factory the night before. As the two watch, they observe the bears enter the building, turn off the lights, and enter in the passcode on the door. Dick remarks that they’re smart bears, while Batman adds “Too smart.”
Back at the circus, the previously silent clown is approaching the bears in their cages and congratulating them on a job well done. He removes some circuit boards from their fur, but is soon confronted by Miranda. She demands to know what he’s doing to her animals, and he’s more than happy to explain that he’s no humble clown, but the man formally known as Jervis Tetch, better known as The Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall). He appears to be completely unafraid of what Miranda may do to him now that she’s discovered his secret, and that’s with good reason. Her boa soon constricts around her trapping her as the Mad Hatter looks on approvingly.
Batman and Nightwing arrive in the Batmobile. As Nightwing begins leading Batman to Miranda’s trailer, a scream alerts them that maybe they should head elsewhere. They race over towards the scream and find Miranda locked in a cage with a pair of lions. The heroes break in and Nightwing brandishes a whip to corral the beasts. He yells out to them by name, and I expected to see Miranda give him a look or something, but none comes. They’re able to get the male lion bound up, and Batman instructs Nightwing to get Miranda out of there. As the lion breaks through the ropes, Batman does the old school lion tamer routine of wielding a whip and a chair as he backs out of the cage and slams it shut behind him.
Miranda immediately starts into a tale about The Mad Hatter, but Nightwing cuts her off with a “We’re way ahead of you.” They head for the big tent and find their old foe back in his usual attire. Usual in that it’s clearly inspired by Alice in Wonderland, but like most of the villains old Jervis has received a rather drastic redesign. He’s apparently aged horribly since we last saw him as he’s small and shriveled, but still mostly lacking a chin. His once blond hair is now white and he’s considerably shorter than before. His green suit makes him look more like a leprechaun than the character we’re used to, and his ears are pointed which just makes that comparison even more apt.
The Mad Hatter goes into a boastful routine about how he’s mastered the art of controlling animals, but explains that controlling humans still requires he be nearby. That’s the cue for Miranda and the other performers to become zombie-like creatures at the control of The Mad Hatter. They turn on the heroes and since they lack fear and don’t experience pain, they’re pretty formidable. Batman and Nightwing really have their hands full and it takes an errant blast of fire from the fire eater which strikes The Mad Hatter’s mind control hat to break the spell. The Mad Hatter, seeing his pawns suddenly free, takes off and slides under the tent. He ends up at the gorilla cage and it looks like he’s going to try and take control of Peaches again. Batman and Nightwing show up and Nightwing destroys the Mad Hatter’s hat with a whip-strike. The Mad Hatter still isn’t without a trick, as he pulls out a pistol to hold the good guys at bay. He starts monologuing once again, sort of apologizing for resorting to such a weapon, which lasts long enough for Batman to nail it with a batarang and Peaches to emerge from her cage and take him out.
The next day, Dick and Bruce are shown strolling through the circus grounds. Dick tells Bruce that Tim expressed interest in the circus and he got him a job working with Miranda. Bruce seems to think this entails working with the animals, but Dick corrects him. Miranda is then shown telling Tim there’s a lot of work to get done as Tim is shown cleaning the gorilla cage. The episode ends with Dick making a crack about missing show business as the camera lingers on Tim literally shoveling shit into a bucket.
“Animal Act” is a touch unconventional given it pits Batman and Co. against circus animals, but it also fits the classic mold of an episode of Batman given its act structure. I like the save for the reveal on Mad Hatter and the clown character he portrays is not a dead give-away since he’s not voiced and the character’s redesign makes him look quite different from before. It’s an episode I want to dislike when I read the premise, but in action it’s actually fairly entertaining.
It’s not all sunshine though. The Nightwing character is a bit too much for my taste as his numerous quips and puns just aren’t funny – they’re tiresome. Even Batman has some bad lines, in particular when he explains the situation of the brainwashing of Miranda to Nightwing. It’s possibly Kevin Conroy’s worst line-read in the series, but I don’t place the blame at his feet as much as I do on the script. Batman is a character that works best when his speech is simple and direct, he talks too much throughout that fight and basically all of his lines are completely unnecessary.
Mad Hatter, on the other hand, can’t say enough. His lines are delightful and also wickedly playful too. His motivations for these crimes are perhaps not well explained. It seems he just needs microchips and circuit boards for his mind control tech, but he’s also insane which is perhaps all the explanation one needs. I don’t care for his new look, which was previously shown briefly in “Over the Edge,” but his actual character is about as good as it’s ever been.
This episode is the final appearance of The Mad Hatter. That’s partly due to there only being a handful of episodes after it, but also due to the passing of voice actor Roddy McDowall just a few days after the original airing of this episode. McDowall was terrific in the role and terrific in this particular episode so it’s not at all surprising that the character was not recast and brought back in one of the other DC Animated Universe shows. He did appear in the Superman episode “Knight Time,” which aired exactly one week after his death.
In researching this episode for this post I was surprised to find out that Bruce Timm considers it one of the worst episodes of the series. I certainly think the script left something to be desired, but the episode as a whole seems fine to me. I much prefer it to “Critters” and I can think of several episodes I’d rank behind this one (a feature for another day). As a Mad Hatter episode it’s appropriate and introduces a new wrinkle to that villain’s schemes. It brings back a piece of Dick Grayson’s past and doesn’t have any weird production inconsistencies or anything like that. Sure, there are better episodes out there, but I don’t think this is one the production staff should be embarrassed by.