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The Iron Giant (1999)

220px-The_Iron_Giant_posterDirector Brad Bird has become quite a name in the world of film. He is most commonly associated with Pixar where he directed much celebrated films like Ratatouille and both entries in The Incredibles. Prior to that, he was mostly known for his work as an animator and director on The Simpsons. His directorial debut with the long-running franchise was the Season One highlight “Krusty Gets Busted” and he also contributed to the much loved “22 Short Films About Springfield.” It was his work as an animator with Klasky Csupo that got him his gig with both The Simpsons and The Tracey Ullman Show, where The Simpsons originated. And he probably ended up there largely because of  his work with Disney where he was a promising young animator in the 80s seemingly destined for great things with the company.

That did not happen, and perhaps it’s for the better considering all of the quality television and films we received as a result. And while those works are much celebrated, there are still many who feel Brad Bird’s finest contribution to the world of cinema is the 1999 box-office flop The Iron Giant.

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The Iron Giant is the film directorial debut for Brad Bird.

The Iron Giant originated in a short story by poet Ted Hughes, who unfortunately passed away before the film was completed. It was a tale that captivated many who encountered it and even attracted the attention of famed musician Pete Townshend who crafted an entire concept album about the character. As a result, the story was ticketed for a musical release much in the style of many animated 90s projects, but when Brad Bird was hired to oversee it things changed. It was Bird who reimagined the story as one about a gun with a soul that decides it doesn’t actually want to be an instrument of death. This was partly the result of Bird’s sister Susan tragically being murdered during the film’s production. Warner Bros. also brought in Tim McCanlies to co-author the screenplay and the musical components were eventually dropped, though Townshend still received an executive producer credit.

The Iron Giant is a traditionally animated film which also features some CG elements, most notably the giant itself. The film is about a young boy named Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) who lives alone with his mother in a small coastal town in the state of Maine during the 1950s. Cold War paranoia is sweeping the country and is the framing device for the film. When a mysterious, 100-foot tall, robot crash lands nearby, it’s Hogarth who first finds him and befriends him. Through Hogarth, this massive robot (Vin Diesel) learns empathy and also receives a primer on life and death. The somewhat lonely Hogarth views the giant like an ultimate toy, but also comes to view the behemoth as a friend as well.

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It’s the tale of a boy and his big ass robot.

Now, 100-foot tall robots naturally attract attention. When the giant first arrives on Earth, it inadvertently causes a ship to crash and the captain of that ship alerts the FBI. The government dispatches agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) to investigate and he is able to follow a series of clues, as well as some coincidence, to the home of the Hughes. It’s there Kent realizes Hogarth knows something, and he rents a room from Hogarth’s mother (Jennifer Aniston) to keep an eye on the lad while also hoping to earn his trust and in turn uncover the truth about this giant being that’s eating the community’s metal. In turn, Hogarth has to try and keep the secret of the giant hidden and he turns to a local beatnik artist named Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) for help since he happens to run the local scrap metal yard.

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Mansley is so obsessed with his job that it allows him to be more of a comedic element early on in the film, but he eventually turns quite sinister.

The film contains plenty of elements of comedy and drama as the tale unfolds. Hogarth and the giant have to learn how to communicate with each other since the giant doesn’t understand English initially. There’s also a lot of physical comedy bits between Hogarth and Kent as Hogarth tries to keep his friend hidden and finds creative ways to get Kent off his back. Probably the best piece of comedy occurs when the giant’s hand, having been separated from the robot via a collision with a train, stumbles into Hogarth’s home during dinner in search of the rest of his body. Hogarth is then forced to go to great lengths to keep the mechanical monstrosity from his mother, and eventually Kent, before rejoining it with the rest of the giant.

The latter part of the film loses the comedy in favor of more dramatic story-telling. The central theme of the film is you are what you choose to be, and it’s an important thing for the giant to learn as the robot is equipped with some serious firepower. This is discovered when Hogarth accidentally trips an automated defense mechanism in the robot, and it’s further exacerbated when the army eventually learns about the robot’s existence (because it has to). It’s a rather simple message, but one that easily resonates with an audience which is partly why the film is so beloved. The pairing of a kid with a being not of this world will naturally draw comparisons to E.T. and it’s an apt comparison. The only thing really separating the character of E.T. from the giant is that E.T. largely remains a passivist during his story while the giant most certainly does not.

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It’s a real joy to watch the film play with scale. Here, the giant has to literally squat down to fit in the same frame as Hogarth.

What the film chooses to leave out is the giant’s backstory. We don’t know why he’s here, or where he came from. Both are questions viewers are likely to ponder, but in the grand scheme they mean little just as it didn’t matter why E.T. was on Earth. We also don’t know much about Hogarth and how his life was before the events of the film, save for the fact that he appears to be a good student and a latchkey kid with few friends. And like the giant, it doesn’t matter and Bird was wise to ignore these details because it keeps the film at a quite tidy 87 minutes. Perhaps my biggest criticism of The Incredibles and its sequel is that they’re both just too damn long, so it’s nice to watch a Brad Bird feature that’s under 90 minutes.

The film is set in 1950s Maine partly to invoke images of Norman Rockwell. The choice is an excellent one as the town of Rockwell presented here is quite idyllic and cozy. The woodland scenery is especially gorgeous and lush and the human characters have a style to them that is not derivative of past Warner films or Disney. The giant is animated in CG largely because it was an easy way to keep his steel frame natural and consistent. He has a simple design to him and the texture work is kept fairly simple as well which helps to blend the giant with the hand-drawn visuals that surround it. He doesn’t stand out in an unnatural way, at least he doesn’t as much as a 100-foot tall robot can, and the choice to render the being this way appears to be a sound one as a result.

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The film’s central message is you are what you choose to be. For the giant, that’s Superman.

Michael Kamen is responsible for the film’s score and it’s scope is quite grand and appropriate. When the giant takes to the sky for the first time it’s exuberant and triumphant, and when it needs to be a bit melancholy it strikes the right tone. The film completely discarded its musical origins, save for an in-universe PSA about the duck and cover advice you’ve probably heard about that existed back in the 50s. The voice cast is tremendous and Eli Marienthal as Hogarth is especially deserving of praise given his young age at the time of recording. Aniston and Connick Jr. are perfectly capable in their roles, while McDonald toes the line of obsessive detective and parody rather adeptly in his portrayal of Kent Mansley. Diesel isn’t asked to do much as the giant, similar to his eventual role as Groot for Guardians of the Galaxy, but he does a good job when the scenes later in the film ask more of him. If your eyes don’t well up a bit when you hear him say “Superman” during the film’s climax then you have no soul.

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The film finally received a Blu Ray release in 2016 which also included two minutes of new footage. It was dubbed The Signature Edition.

The Iron Giant is a heartwarming tale about an outcast finding its purpose in life all on its own, even if that purpose strays from what others had earmarked it for. It’s also a tale of friendship and empathy, of right and wrong, and one about being mindful and trusting where appropriate. It’s easy to react to a creature such as the giant with fear, but maybe it’s best to give others a chance first and allow them to give one a reason to fear them beyond simply appearance. It’s also a gorgeously animated film and one of the last of its kind as it wasn’t long after the release of The Iron Giant that the majority of animated features switched over entirely to 3D, CG, animated stories. Most acknowledge now that the reason this film failed at the box office was due to Warner Bros. not marketing it well. Even though it seems many agree with that assessment, it didn’t stop studios like Warner from using commercial failures like The Iron Giant as justification for moving away from traditionally animated films. It’s unfortunate as I fear we as a society will soon lose the ability to create such wonders simply because Hollywood isn’t providing a reason for those to learn these skills. If that’s the case, at least we’ll always have wonders like The Iron Giant to look back on.


An Easter Viewing Guide

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Never forget the reason for the season.

If you are a regularly reader at The Nostalgia Spot, then you’re probably familiar with the holiday version that comes every December:  The Christmas Spot. Christmas is such a big deal in our society that there is an abundance of Christmas themed media, enough to sustain an annual blog for 25 consecutive days. And people like Christmas, despite how much grumbling surfaces every year about decorations appearing in stores in October or the music filling grocery store aisles for weeks on end. I know people like it, because in all likelihood The Christmas Spot has more regular readers than the rest of the stuff I do. My readership always spikes in December and I assume there are a handful of readers that bookmark the page only to come around for December.

When it comes to television, no holiday compares with Christmas and the only one that comes close is Halloween. When I was a kid though, the holiday tier list when like this:  Christmas, Halloween, Easter, Thanksgiving, any holiday that resulted in a day off from school, and then the rest. Christmas was number one because it was the big one:  the toy holiday. I loved toys as a kid, and I still do, so it was a clear number one. Halloween came at number two because it was a unique experience, and it came with lots and lots of candy. Easter was like the compromise holiday. I had Catholic parents, but the religious aspect of the holiday was never enforced in my house so it was just a day that Santa-Light, aka The Easter Bunny, entered my home at night and hid a basket of goodies somewhere for me to find in the morning. That basket contained assorted Easter candies, all of which were awesome:  Reese’s Eggs, pastel M&M’s, Peeps, Cadbury Eggs, and so on. Usually there was one central, big, piece of candy be it a chocolate bunny or one of those giant candy bars that went beyond a king size. In my house, the Easter Bunny also always brought a toy of some kind. Usually it was a modest thing. At most I seemed to get a couple of action figures or a small toy vehicle playset like a TMNT motorcycle thing or something. And that’s why Easter felt like a compromised merger of Christmas and Halloween in my house. There were toys, but way fewer than what Santa would bring, but also a good amount of candy, but not as much as I’d come away with on Halloween.

The combination of toys and candy, plus the fun of hunting for an Easter basket or Easter eggs, made Easter an important day in my house. And I carry forward that tradition now for my kids and I look forward to watching them experience the holiday each year. And in my house, holidays are marked by indulging in moves and television based around that holiday theme. For Easter, I’ve had to put in some work to find stuff. There’s an assortment of biblical videos and such that are just terrible. I mean, if you’re into that component of Easter and get enjoyment from them then more power to you, but they’re not for me. I look for the fun stuff that centers around rabbits and junk. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve put together a solid collection of Easter specials for my kids and I to take in this year and I thought I’d share that with you all. It might seem a little late in the game with Easter so close, but we’re not talking a massive volume here. And most are suitable for all audiences, so that’s a plus, though I did include one that would probably best be reserved for adults only, or at least teens and adults. And I should stress, I’m not saying these are all necessarily good or essential, there’s definitely some crap here, but it’s crap that at least has nostalgic appeal. And when you’re talking one, annual, viewing there’s a considerable tolerance level in place. Let’s get this going and we’ll go in chronological order of release starting with…

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I can hear this image.

Easter Yeggs (1947)

The classic Easter themed Bugs Bunny short directed by Robert McKimson is probably best remembered for the annoying little kid that just says “I want an Easter egg!” over and over. He, like everyone else in the short, is voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc. In this cartoon, Bugs Bunny agrees to help out the Easter Bunny whom he stumbles upon early in the short who appears to be pretty stressed out over this whole Easter thing. Turns out he’s actually just lazy, but Bugs is game and finds out that being the Easter Bunny is no fun. He eventually encounters Elmer Fudd who has designs on consuming the Easter Bunny (what a killjoy) leading to a fairly traditional Bugs and Elmer cartoon. Which is just fine because Bugs Bunny cartoons are pretty wonderful and I need to write about them more. If you want to watch this one, it’s available as part of The Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3 and I can’t recommend the entire Golden Collection enough. It’s also available in HD on the Platinum Collection Volume 3. If you’re strapped for cash though, it can easily be found online for free.

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He’s just so cute!

Happy Go Ducky (1958)

I completely forgot about this cartoon until this year when I just happened to stumble upon it. This is a Tom and Jerry short from the tandem of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who are better known for producing some of the worst cartoons you’ve ever seen. Back in the 40s and 50s though, they were the Tom and Jerry guys churning out award-winning cartoons to rival what Warner and Disney were doing. This little short features an appearance by Quackers, a seldom-used duckling character voiced by Red Coffee doing his best “duck” voice a-la Donald Duck. Quackers is just adorable, as he’s left as a gift for Tom and Jerry by the Easter Bunny, but proceeds to drive them nuts as he floods the home in search of an adequate swimming pool to meet his needs. The sweet thing is that he eventually overwhelms and wins over the duo with his cuteness. Watch this one with young kids and you’ll be hearing them imitate Quackers, as best they can, and his frequent line, “Happy Easter!” This short is available as part of the Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection Volume 3 which is still easy to find and cheap to acquire (especially if you opt for a used copy). It can also be found online, but many places feature a cropped version that probably aired on television years ago as this cartoon was originally done in Cinemascope. Interestingly, there’s an edited version on YouTube just titled “Happy Easter” that isn’t cropped, but is missing several scenes as nearly 2 minutes were shaved off of the running time. This might be my favorite of this list.

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Snoopy helping Linus avoid more embarrassment. He’s a good boy.

It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown (1974)

You can always count on The Peanuts gang for a holiday special. These kids even have an Arbor Day special, for crying out loud. Charlie Brown and his friends seem to have a problem with everything, including Easter. For Peppermint Patty, it’s teaching her friend Marcy how to color eggs. For Sally, it’s finding the right pair of shoes for the holiday. And for Linus, it’s people mocking him for his belief in an Easter Beagle. As was the case with Halloween, Linus appears to have picked the wrong holiday mascot to back. What’s rewarding is the other kids remind him of his Halloween foolishness, but he’s somewhat vindicated in this one. And then there’s Lucy, getting victimized by Snoopy once again. Despite the title, Charlie Brown plays a very small role in this one though he still gets reminded that he is indeed Charlie Brown come Easter. This cartoon gets bonus points for making a good Christmas joke when the kids go to the mall and find it already decorated for that holiday. See people, it’s not a new thing to complain about Christmas arriving early in stores as this thing was made in 1974. Strangely, it doesn’t look any network is airing this special this week (I may have missed an earlier airing this month), but it is available to stream on Amazon. Or you could be like me and just buy a DVD to watch at your leisure each season. Charlie Brown holiday DVDs and Blu Rays are often really easy to find at a cheap price during the offseason. And as a bonus, you’ll get that Arbor Day special!

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This one just might cause you to miss the old shorts.

Daffy Duck’s Easter Egg-citement! (1980)

After the era of the cartoon short ended, but before the explosion of cable providing for a landing spot for old cartoons, Warner Bros. put their now meager staff to work making television specials starring the Looney Tunes characters. Many of them featured Bugs Bunny and some included old shorts with some new wrap-around animation connecting them, but many also featured all new toons. The catch for these though was that the quality was abysmal. If you thought the Warner shorts of the 50s looked poor then you better make sure you sit down before watching anything made in the 70s or 80s. Daffy Duck’s Easter Egg-citment is no except as it looks downright terrible in some places. There’s a shot of Daffy and Sylvester both digging for food out of the trash that is so garish and bright it makes me feel ill. This TV special contains three new shorts:  The Yolks on You, The Chocolate Chase, and Daffy Flies North. In between the shorts, Daffy is present to argue with the animator as he did in the classic short Duck Amuck only it’s far less amusing this time around. None of these shorts are particularly good and all recycle old gags and concepts from past toons. Some even recycle assets from other cartoons. Of the three, I suppose Daffy Flies North is my favorite, but it’s also the least festive. Mel Blanc is at least on hand to do the voices, though he’s obviously a little old at this point. It was also an odd choice to pair Daffy with Sylvester in The Yolks on You since both characters sound so similar. This TV special isn’t a very good Looney Tunes production, but a not very good Looney Tunes production is still better than a lot of other stuff. Plus it’s a lot shorter than The Ten Commandments! If you want to watch this, it’s included on The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 6 as well as The Essential Daffy Duck. It’s also received a stand-alone release. Warner isn’t particularly protective of it, so you can also find it online without too much issue.

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This really happened.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – “The Turtles and the Hare” (1991)

The Fred Wolf produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon that dominated the late 80s and early 90s did not feature a Christmas episode, but it did find time for an Easter one. In it, the Turtles are preparing for Easter when they have a chance encounter with Hokum Hare who actually isn’t the Easter Bunny, but is actually the hare from the fable The Tortoise and the Hare, hence the episode’s title. He sure looks the part through as he’s a big, white, bunny in purple overalls. He’s also pretty annoying. The Turtles end up in his world, Fableland, in pursuit of some crystal and the story turns into mostly nonsense as many episodes of this show do. It all ends with Hokum serving as the Easter Bunny for some Channel 6 Easter Egg Hunt. Most of the episodes of this show are terrible and this really isn’t an exception. It’s amusing for how absurd a concept it is to basically have the Turtles meet a pseudo Easter Bunny, and as terrible as the show is it usually never fails to produce a smile or two from me just because I once loved it so. For nostalgia lovers only. You can find this episode as part of Season 4 of the old cartoon which is available on DVD. If you’re feeling really retro it received a stand-alone VHS release back in the day too. It’s also not particularly hard to find online as well.

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Cartman is relegated to one scene in this episode, but it just might be my favorite one.

South Park – “Fantastic Easter Special” (2007)

South Park has had a pretty nice run of holiday specials, and it saved one of its best shots for Easter. A parody of The Da Vinci Code takes on the form of an Easter special in which Stan questions all of the bizarre traditions surrounding Easter and tries to square them up with the whole Jesus thing. They don’t make sense, and he soon uncovers an underground Easter Bunny cult of sorts that his father belongs to which seeks to protect the true meaning of Easter, as well as the true pope of the Catholic faith. It’s bonkers, and it never lets up as it finds a way to just keep escalating the crazy as the episode continues ultimately building to a pretty satisfying conclusion. This one being South Park, it’s not for the kids nor is it for those who take the holiday seriously. It’s pretty hilarious though, and it came around when the show really hit its peak. If you want to indulge in this one, you’ll be able to see it for certain on Comedy Central (as well as the other, lesser, Easter special) tonight at 5 EST and it’s available in various formats as part of Season 11 of the show.

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Horrifying.

Teen Titans Go! – “Easter Creeps” (2017)

The Teen Titans Go! series has become a reliable source of holiday entertainment. Often times, they find a way to work Santa into the mix too as they did in the first Easter special and in the “Halloween vs Christmas” episode. “Easter Creeps” is amusing to me because the show envisions the Easter Bunny as a humanoid rabbit. He basically looks like The Noid only he’s pink and wears a vest. He lays eggs, which grosses every one out, and he’s overall just kind of creepy as the episode title implies. And because of that, he’s declared the worst thing about this otherwise wonderful holiday. This episode is a bit like the “Halloween vs Christmas” one as it’s going to pit the Easter Bunny vs the Tooth Fairy. It’s a silly experience that’s funny enough without overstaying its welcome. Cartoon Network airs this show all the time and tonight is no exception. A block of Easter programming is premiering at 7 EST tonight that will feature a new Easter special from the show. I can only assume this episode will be featured as well since it’s a full hour of programming.

That’s my list for 2020. If you think I missed any worthwhile Easter entertainment feel free to let me know. I’m always on the look-out for more holiday specials. Happy Easter!

 


Dec. 15 – Animaniacs – “A Christmas Plotz”

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Original air date December 6, 1993

It’s rare when you encounter a cartoon series that has back-to-back episodes dedicated to Christmas, but that happened with the first season of Animaniacs. If you’re not familiar with the show, Animaniacs is essentially the spiritual successor to Tiny Toon Adventures as another Steven Spielberg presented cartoon series. It, even more so than Tiny Toons, draws inspiration from the golden era of cartoons when guys like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Friz Freleng were making audiences laugh at the movie theater. The series is a cartoon variety show with the main characters consisting of the fictional Warner brothers and Warner sister:  Yakko, Wakko, and Dot. It paired them up with many other newcomers like Slappy Squirrel, The Goodfeathers, and perhaps most famously the duo of Pinky and the Brain.

 

Animaniacs premiered on the Fox Kids network in the fall of 1993 and anchored Fox’s weekday afternoon lineup. Perhaps that’s why the producers and writers felt like they had room for multiple Christmas episodes. They aired back-to-back with a week of reruns in between with this one airing on December 6, 1993 and they were the last new episodes of the show to debut in 1993. Reruns took the Warners and Co. the rest of the way with new episodes premiering in 1994. Like a lot of Fox programs, the initial season was a direct to syndication order of 65 episodes with supplemental seasons tacked on. The show ran until 1998, finishing up on Kids’ WB after 99 episodes, and was followed by a direct-to-video movie, Wakko’s Wish, which is coincidentally a Christmas affair. It seems odd that the show wasn’t given one additional episode to get it to 100, an achievement it certainly deserved, but maybe that’s why Wakko’s Wish exists.

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Want to make an episode feel special? Just dress-up the opening credits a bit.

Animaniacs mixes a lot of slapstick humor with satire of celebrity culture. There’s numerous musical segments, honestly more than I remembered when I went back and watched it, and lots of micro segments which many fans probably recall fondly. I’m speaking of the Good Idea/Bad Idea stuff or that little kid who likes to talk about some other person named Randy. It also poked fun at broadcast standards via the Wheel of Morality and is also quite notable for slipping a few risqué jokes past the censors (Finger Prince?). It wasn’t a cheap show and often featured some of the best animation and musical numbers on television. It feels like a show that couldn’t exist today because of this, but Hulu is reportedly bringing the show back in 2020. It remains to be seen what the show will look and sound like, but most of the original cast is back onboard and it’s hard to imagine Amblin Entertainment allowing the show to look worse than it did 20 years ago.

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What’s better than dressing up the opening title sequence? Adding an homage to the old CBS Special Presentation bumper! Gets me every time.

The very first segment of the first Christmas themed episode is the one we’re looking at today:  A Christmas Plotz. Plotz refers to the name of the fictional CEO of the Warner Bros. Company Thaddeus Plotz (Frank Welker). He is ostensibly the one responsible for ordering the Warners be locked away in their tower, as detailed during the show’s infectious opening. He’s a miserable old miser, so you can probably see where this is going. Can Animaniacs do a worthwhile parody of A Christmas Carol, or is this yet another forgettable retread? Let’s find out.

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Warner Studios all ready for Christmas.

The episode begins with the fake news reel explaining the origins of the Warner Bros. Yakko (Rob Paulsen), Wakko (Jess Harnell) and their sister Dot (Tress MacNeille) were classic cartoon characters deemed too zany and crazy to exist. Their cartoons were blacklisted and they were sealed away, along with the Warners themselves, in the studio’s water tower. This news reel begins many episodes of the show, but this time it’s presented with snowflakes falling all around. These snowflakes carry over into the opening title sequence and I do love when shows dress-up their opening credits for Christmas! The Steven Spielberg cartoons were frequent contributors to such.

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Thaddeus Plotz is a man in need of some Christmas spirit.

When that business concludes, we begin the show. It’s Christmas time at the Warner Studios lot and some carolers are cheerily singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” In his office, Thaddeus Plotz is not enjoying the festive singing. He opens his window to scream at them and fling fruit cake as well. It seems his subordinates all give him fruit cake at this time of year, even though he hates it (doesn’t everybody?). As he returns to his desk, his security guard Ralph (Welker) enters the office. Plotz instructs him not to sit down as this won’t take long, but Ralph interrupts him by going into a little prepared speech. It seems he expects this meeting to end with him receiving his Christmas bonus, and he thanks Mr. Plotz for letting him work there and presents him with yet another fruit cake. Ralph is the classic dumb guy cartoon archetype. He frequently starts sentences with “Ahh,” or “Duhh,” and adds random plurals onto certain words thus making him immediately sympathetic, which is important for what follows.

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This image makes me feel genuinely crushed.

When Ralph finishes his little speech and presents Plotz with the fruit cake the old man is able to put on a happy face briefly despite his disgust. He then holds up a line graph which apparently details rising costs directly tied to the damage caused by the Warners. It’s Ralph’s job to keep them in line, and he’s failed miserably. Plotz fires him on the spot, then wishes him a sincere-sounding Merry Christmas. As Ralph’s eyes well-up with tears, he slumps his shoulders and walks out.

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This one features a Slappy cameo, but sadly she’s the only one.

That night, Plotz is still busy in his office with budgetary matters. He’s recording a voice memo in which he mentions that in order to cut costs employees will soon be expected to provide their own toilet paper. As he finishes up, an apparition appears before him. It’s Slappy Squirrel (Sherri Stoner) in the Jacob Marley role. She’s mostly transparent and blueish with chains draped over her and isn’t particularly happy to be there. When a frightened Plotz demands to know why she’s here, she pulls out a notebook and reads her lines about him being visited by three ghosts. When he asks why, she tells him she doesn’t know as she lost the rest of the script. She then marches out of there grumbling about how she’s doing this for scale and remarks that she needs a new agent.

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Bring on the ghosts! First up is Wakko as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

With Slappy gone, Plotz thinks he hallucinated her due to working too hard. He drinks some water and then the phone on his desk begins to ring. He answers it and a spectral Wakko pops out of the receiver. He’s mostly blue save for his red nose and hat. He’s also dressed in a manner similar to the classic interpretation of Tiny Tim and immediately goes into a little musical number about taking a trip back to the past to see how Plotz got here. He sets up a little movie theater for the two and finishes his song with a kiss. The reel-to-reel projector is fired up as Wakko enjoys some popcorn and we’re taken to our first scene of the past.

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This is a pretty on-brand way for Wakko to present the past to Plotz.

It’s the birth of Thaddeus Plotz! His mother (Nancy Linari) is resting comfortably and seems quite content with her new babe, but then the doctor brings her the bill and little Thaddeus jumps up in anger. He’s still ticked about the whole spanking of the bum thing by the doc and informs him that he’ll be hearing from his lawyers. We’re then shown a five-year-old Plotz as he confronts a mall Santa surrounded by said attorneys to make his annual demands of St. Nick. He expects many gifts, including a horse, and Santa seems bewildered. The Plotz of the present then informs us he was gifted a pony that year and he still seems ticked off by it. Plotz demands this farce end, but Wakko then shows him another vision of the past, one he promises is the worst. This time he’s an adult and seated behind his current desk. He’s telling an old man (Maurice LaMarche) his services are no longer needed, despite him begging to be allowed to keep his job. That old man was his dad, and Plotz still sees nothing wrong with usurping the company from his old man as he allowed him to keep his medical benefits.

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You just knew they would utilize the present pun. Dot even feels the need to draw attention to it by pointing it out.

Wakko and his accessories then vanish as Plotz returns to his desk once again questioning if what he just saw was real or not. He sits down at his desk and blames his vision on bad cocktail weenies (because that food was considered inherently funny in the 90s, like cheese) when he notices a large present on his desk. He thinks it’s going to be another fruitcake, but a spectral Dot pops out dressed in old-timey clothes and demands to know who he’s calling a fruitcake. She also points out the pun of her being the Ghost of Christmas Present and popping out of a present. She too has a little song to sing, and as she kicks away the nameplate on Plotz’s desk we can see his own name was misspelled on it (Thadius), though I don’t think that’s a joke just an animation goof.

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Well, at least they’re happy.

Dot takes Plotz to a trailer park, and I bet you can guess who lives here. It’s the home of the recently fired Ralph who is seated in an easy chair trying to calm his son (Paulsen) who is irate with Plotz for firing his dad. He assures the boy that everything will be okay. The pair are summoned to dinner and we get to meet Mrs. Ralph who inexplicably looks and sounds exactly like her husband. Their kid seems well-adjusted and perfectly fine though, so he apparently hasn’t been ravaged by his incestuous origin. Mrs. Ralph is serving what they can afford for Christmas dinner:  Turkey Jell-O. It looks pretty terrible, but Ralph is excited to eat it while little Ralph Jr. is decidedly not happy about this current situation. He claims to the camera he’s adopted, and we believe him, and vows to get even with Mr. Plotz some day.

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And Yakko makes three.

Plotz is a bit unnerved by Ralph Jr’s hatred of him and wants out. He soon finds himself back in his office. He’s apparently accepted the reality of this evening as he’s now concerned about the arrival of the third ghost. The clock striking midnight and a thunderstorm brewing outside seem to spook him as he tries to call for security, forgetting momentarily that Ralph was security. He then tries to leave, but finds the door locked. Turning around, he screams when he sees the third ghost. A being resembling the Grim Reaper approaches, sickle and all. It pins him to the door and says his name in a deep, hollow, voice as it extends a boney finger towards Plotz’s throat.

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Yakko’s song and dance number is certainly elaborate, but is it funny? Eh…

Yakko then emerges from the robes to announce he’s the Ghost of Christmas Future. He ditches the spooky stuff and sports a tuxedo as he goes into an elaborate song and dance routine announcing his arrival and intentions. It’s complete with female dancers (voiced by Carol Lombard, Kimberly Fligsten, Brianne Lepon, and Sara Ford) which Yakko hits on mercilessly while Plotz is dragged around and forced to keep pace. Yakko slips in insults here and there while Plotz drops his fear for a minute to just get angry and annoyed. The presence of the women allow Yakko to work in his “Hello, nurse” catchphrase, and the whole thing ends with Yakko tossing Plotz off of the magical stairs that appeared to land in an armchair. I do not know if this song is a direct parody of anything, but Yakko does go into a brief Groucho bit for a moment.

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I wonder who that guy could be?

With both Yakko and Plotz seated comfortably, Plotz looks around and realizes they’re still in his office. Only now it’s not his office. Yakko directs Plotz’s attention to the new man in charge, an angry guy with a huge, bald, head. He’s yelling about Urkel looking ridiculous with his pants pulled up so high at his age as he’s on the phone with someone. He slams it down and returns to his work and Yakko points out to Plotz that this man is actually Ralph Jr. all grown up. It seems he did get his revenge on Plotz, as we soon find out his fate. Unlike Scrooge, Plotz is still alive in this future, but he has suffered a fate worse than death. He’s been made the new Ralph and tasked with keeping the Warners in line. He looks mostly the same, only he has an unkempt mane of gray hair and his eyes are a bit sunken looking.

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Old man Plotz is forced to try and keep pace with the Warners. It’s actually pretty impressive a man of his age can do this much.

Plotz is horrified by the sight, and it only gets worse. The Warners then show up to taunt him, and as he chases after them with a net Ralph Jr. emerges from his window to call down to him. He admonishes him for not catching them, and when Plotz informs Ralph that they’re too fast, he unceremoniously fires the old man punctuating it with a cheerful “Merry Christmas,” just as he did to his father years ago. The future Plotz walks away disheartened, while present Plotz begins to pout and cry.

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The ghosts may be done, but the Warners still have a role to play.

Plotz soon realizes he’s back in his office. It’s Christmas morning, and now he has his chance for atonement. He kisses his desk when he realizes where he is and races over to the window. He goes into the usual routine as he calls out to some kids asking what day it is. It’s the Warners in their holiday threads, only now they’re not blue ghosts. They tell him it’s Christmas Day, and Dot remarks to the camera how he’s not too bright. Plotz then throws down a sack of money and tells them to go buy the biggest fruit cake they can find and deliver it to Ralph’s house. He even tells them to keep the change. Wakko declares that they’re rich and the trio grab the money and run.

 

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Plotz never really atones for his mistake, he just tries to cover it up.

At Ralph’s trailer, the whole place is bouncing up and down with Christmas cheer. The family is singing around their 8″ tall tree when a knock at the door disturbs their celebration. Ralph Jr. answers it to find it’s Plotz armed with a stack of presents. He barges in and demands to know why he’s hearing that Ralph left the studio. A confused Ralph points out that he fired him, but Plotz corrects him by saying he inspires him! He then charms Mrs. Ralph, before turning his attention to Ralph Jr. He begs the boy not to take over the studio, and then tries to bribe him with a pony. The kid demands a horse instead and Plotz makes an expression that basically says, “I deserved that.”

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Grovel, you swine!

Another knock at the door gets Plotz’s attention and he opens it to find the Warners. They tell him they brought the fruit cake and an excited Plotz races outside wanting to know where it is. They tell him they got the biggest they could find, and they weren’t kidding. A helicopter delivers a massive fruit cake, and drops the two-story monstrosity right on top of Plotz. His feet stick out from under it and all we can hear is unintelligible ranting. The Warners jump on top armed with spoons and assure him they can have him out by Easter. Wakko then wishes us all a merry Christmas as the sound of Christmas bells take us out of the segment.

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A fitting punishment for a lifetime of dickish behavior.

And that’s it for “A Christmas Plotz.” It’s followed by a musical number based on The Little Drummer Boy in which the Warners assume the role of the drummer and lead us through a fairly straight interpretation of the tale. It’s not particularly memorable, but if you like your Christmas with a side of Jesus then it’s probably right up your alley.

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The Warners get the last word, per usual.

“A Christmas Plotz” is pretty entertaining, as most cartoons starring the Warners tend to be. It’s a bit disappointing that a show as creative as Animaniacs went in this direction though as it didn’t really bring anything new to the table. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the old story truncated to 12 minutes or so and punctuated with jokes. The jokes are fairly easy, but still humorous. It’s still fair to question whether or not we ever needed Animaniacs to go this route. An original Christmas story would have been preferable, but obviously more work. I suppose I’m glad the Warners were thrust into the ghost role as opposed to that of the Cratchits. Maybe another holiday parody would have worked better? The slapstick nature of Home Alone would have lent itself well to the show, or maybe just have the Warners run wild through Santa’s workshop? A Christmas Carol parody is the lowest rung on the holiday special ladder, and I just can’t help but feel that this show is better than this. At least this show looks great as this particular episode was entirely animated by the renowned TMS Entertainment. Episodes of this show really don’t come any better in terms of looks than what you’ll see here.

img_0461Thankfully, if you want to spend the holidays with the cast of Animaniacs you have other options. There’s the episode that follows this which is less cohesive, but pretty fun. There’s also a Christmas cartoon starring Slappy featured in the penultimate episode of the show that’s fodder for a future countdown. And there’s also the previously mentioned Wakko’s Wish if you want to spend an even longer amount of time with the gang at Christmas. That feature has the added appeal of making use of the full ensemble so it’s a bit like a celebration or grand finale for the show. If you’re really into the show though, you’ll probably just want to watch all of them. And if so, don’t forget the excellent Pinky and the Brain holiday special!

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This cartoon is fine, but the episode that follows makes better use of the entire cast making it my preferred Christmas episode of the two.

If you do indeed wish to invest some of your Christmas viewing time into Animaniacs then it’s pretty easy to do so. The entire show is available to purchase on physical media or through digital means. By far, the easiest way though is via Hulu which has the entire series plus the movie on it. It also has other Spielberg cartoons so you can really indulge in some 90s animation and basically all of them feature a Christmas special or two. There’s certainly room for Animaniacs at Christmas time, so hopefully you find an episode that works for you.


The New Batman Adventures – “Torch Song”

torch songEpisode Number:  10 (95)

Original Air Date:  June 13, 1998

Directed by:  Curt Geda

Written by:  Rich Fogel

First Appearance:  Firefly

One of the advantages in moving Batman from Fox to The WB was a lessening on restrictions placed on the character. It’s a bit funny since Fox was often the butt of many jokes, usually by shows it was airing, for being willing to put crass and outlandish content on its airwaves when compared with other networks. Maybe it’s just a simple case of escalation, but when The WB Network was launched it proved to be even less restrictive. When Batman was a part of Fox Kids, he had some rules he needed to follow. He couldn’t bleed and for some reason he couldn’t break glass. He often had to deal with his enemies indirectly, though at times he landed some solid blows (unlike Spider-Man who came later who wasn’t allowed to be seen punching a bad guy). Batman did enjoy a major concession by the network in that his foes could use realistic weaponry, so it’s not like it was all bad.

Something Fox was apparently loathe to include was fire. During production on Batman, the writers wanted to include the villain Firefly, a lesser villain but one who had been around for a long time in the comics. Firefly, as the name implies, likes to use fire as his main method of attack and that was apparently a no-no. It’s interesting because the same year Batman premiered, X-Men would as well and it was able to include the villain Pyro in its first season. Whatever. With the move to the new network though, former villains once shot down were now in-play, so here is the apparently long overdue episode introducing Firefly.

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Bruce Wayne, always with a new girl.

“Torch Song” begins with Bruce Wayne taking a new girl to a concert. Her name is Shannon (Jane Wiedlin) and the episode seems to imply she’s a lot younger than Bruce. There’s either a generational gap here, or Bruce could just be really out of touch with pop music. He doesn’t seem too thrilled to be dragged here, but Shannon is quite eager to see tonight’s performer, Cassidy (Karla DeVito), and from some choice seats. As they head in to the venue, they pass Barbara who is apparently there solo. Her seats are much worse. She seems to be amused at the sight of Bruce literally being dragged into the show and into a situation he seemingly has no control over.

Backstage, Cassidy is getting ready to hit the stage. Cassidy is a short, curvy, blonde with a low voice. She’s played up to be rather sexy, but the visual style for this show makes all of the women just look weird to me. She’s in the midst of an exchange with someone who works backstage. He’s a large fellow by the name of Garfield Lynns (Mark Rolston) and he’s more than a little creepy. It would seem the two used to be an item, but now they’re not, and old Garfield isn’t too happy about that. Worse, he’s apparently in charge of the pyrotechnics and we’re about to find out they’re a pretty big part of the show. Cassidy is sick of the conversation and wants the guy fired, but apparently doesn’t see the danger in having a just-fired ex-boyfriend controlling the pyro for the show that’s about to begin.

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Even Iron Maiden would be impressed.

Cassidy takes to the stage. She’s on a podium surrounded by flames. Her voice actress, Karla DeVito, is a professional singer herself so Cassidy both looks and sounds the part of a singer. As she gets into the song, the fire rages around her. It soon reaches unsafe levels, but the crowd is in awe. Eventually, Cassidy can’t continue the performance because it’s too hot as she drops to her knees. The fire then rages out of control and people start to flee. Backstage, Cassidy’s manager tries to stop Lynns from making things worse, but he shoves him aside. Soon he realizes this thing it out of control, and bails.

Bruce doesn’t budge, despite the protests of Shannon. He stands there and is apparently scanning for any way he can get to the woman and save her, but nothing is opening up. Suddenly, Batgirl swings in and makes the save, letting Cassidy know she’s a big fan before taking off. Bruce is apparently not concerned about blowing their identities as he approaches Batgirl to praise her for the rescue. She reminds him sometimes it pays to get the cheap seats.

Detective Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo) is shown storming an apartment with a host of police officers in tow. It’s the home of Lynns and it’s basically a shrine to Cassidy. Lynns is no where to be found though, so Bullock helps himself to the contents of the guys’ refrigerator. Now feels like an appropriate time to note that Bullock’s character model has put on quite a few pounds between series. Lynns is then shown at work in a different building, vowing revenge.

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Probably not the mark of a man in good mental health.

Cassidy is then shown at her apartment having a chat with her agent, Frank (David Paymer). She’s unconcerned with the apparent attempt on her life, and remains so even after opening a threatening letter that burns in her hands after she reads it. The letter contained a picture of her and the message “The star that burns brightest burns fastest.” She’s not going to let this threat prevent her from her next appearance at a new club calls Rock City that night, which is where Firefly chooses to make his entrance.

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The villain of the day:  Firefly.

Firefly comes onto the scene dressed in what I think is an all metal suit. That would probably get really hot really fast, but I guess he’s not bothered by it. He has oversized lenses on his eyes giving him a bug-like appearance which the wings also add to. He has a gun and a tank on his bank making him visually resemble a Bizarro Mr. Freeze since his gun shoots fire instead of ice. His fire-bombing of the venue sends people fleeing, which attracts the attention of Batman and Batgirl who had been enjoying a drama-free evening up until now. They’re able to swoop in as Firefly confronts Cassidy amongst the flames.

fire sword

He’s got a sword made of fire. Better add that one to the notes, Batman.

Firefly demonstrates his wings aren’t just for show, as he blasts off out of there following a wicked right hook from Batman. Batman isn’t willing to let him go, as he uses one of his many ropes to grab onto Firefly. He’s then taken for a ride through the skies of Gotham, but his trip is cut short, literally, when Firefly produces a freaking flame-sword. He slashes the rope binding his ankles sending Batman plummeting pretty violently to the ground where Batgirl and Cassidy are waiting to check on him.

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Cassidy seems quite happy to see Batman.

Sometime later, Batman drops in on Cassidy for a little intel. She seems happy to see the caped crusader and immediately puts on a flirtatious act as she cozies up to the Batman. She tells Batman about Lynns and her past relationship with him. Interestingly, from her perspective they were never really an item, just a pair of people who had dinner a few times and he couldn’t take the hint that things weren’t going to progress any further. She then makes a play for Batman to be her personal bodyguard, but Batman pulls his disappearing trick to get out of that one.

Batman and Batgirl head out to an old warehouse connected to Lynns. Sure enough, it appears to be his hideout as it’s loaded with lots of pyrotechnic equipment. No Lynns though, and as Batman looks around Batgirl is ever chatty. This appears to be a theme for this show where Batman’s sidekick of the moment keeps yapping away while Batman remains stoic, only for the yapper to screw things up. In this case, Batgirl apparently wanted to shine some light on the area and throws a switch as Batman shouts at her not to. Too late, and the building explodes.

firefly kidnapping

Not the hero she was looking for.

As we’re left to ponder the fate of Batman and Batgirl, Cassidy is shown rehearsing in a studio. Things seem rather normal, until smoke starts to fill the studio. As people flee, Cassidy stumbles through the smoke in search of a helping hand. She finds one in Frank, and the two escape. Only, she though it was Frank, but it turns out to be Firefly who now has what he’s apparently sought for some time.

Back at that warehouse, the explosion apparently wasn’t as bad as the cut made it seem. Oh there is tons of fire, but Batman and Batgirl appear to be no worse for ware. The fire is too much for them to handle though, and they’re forced to flee out a window. Some debris falls on Batgirl and she lets out an awful scream. Batman finds her unconscious beneath a pile of rubble.

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It’s always Batgirl that seems to get hurt.

We immediately cut to the Batcave where Alfred is tending to Batgirl. This is apparently now a solo mission as Batman ponders how to deal with this new villain. The police have no leads on Cassidy’s kidnapping, but a matchbook Batman found has an address on it and he seems to think that’s where he should look next. Alfred then ends up being the one to suggest he dawn something more durable, which likely excited the marketing department at Warner since Batman will get a new outfit to turn into an action figure.

The matchbook Batman found was from the Mephisto Paint Company, and lo and behold, that’s where Firefly has taken Cassidy. She’s bound and doing the usual thing of trying to reason with her captor. He’s beyond reason though, and instead chooses to do the old villain routine of demonstrating how his fabulous and destructive scheme will go down. It would seem Lynns is a pretty smart guy when it comes to combustion, and he’s invented a gel that is highly flammable. As he demonstrates it for Cassidy, he explains he’s going to fill the Gotham sewer system with the stuff then set it ablaze. As the city burns, the two of them will make their escape out of Gotham and to a new life in parts unknown.

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There’s a Batman under there.

Before Firefly can set his plan in motion, Batman arrives. He really does have wonderful timing. Sporting an all black heat-resistant suit similar to Firefly’s, Batman goes after him demonstrating that it will take more than a few fireballs to take him out. Firefly turns to his trusty flame-sword to turn the tables on Batman, slicing up some piping and causing it to fall on him. He then sets his plan on motion by starting the gel feed, then turns his attention back to Batman. The flame-sword may have been a handy equalizer, but it’s also a useful tool for Batman to screw up Firefly’s plan. He kicks it out his hand, and it lands in the gel, igniting it. Since it didn’t have time to spread into the sewer, only the plant they’re in goes up in flames. That’s not an issue for two guys in fireproof suits, but poor Cassidy sure has a problem with it. Firefly runs off to apparently try and correct this error, while Batman goes after Cassidy. He’s able to get her to safety, and it must be his lucky day because Firefly stumbles out of the burning building and collapses due to exhaustion, or maybe heat stroke, who knows?

As an epilogue to the events of the episode, Cassidy is shown dining at a restaurant with Frank. She seems to have returned to her defiant and headstrong personality in spite of all that has happened to her as she brushes aside Frank’s concerns about her wellbeing. And Frank couldn’t be happier as all of the publicity created by Firefly has made her more popular than ever. As Frank goes on about incorporating a fire theme into her persona, Cassidy’s gaze goes to a dessert at nearby table which is ignited with flame. She flinches, and Frank takes notice by asking her what’s wrong. As the camera tightens on her face, a look of horror fills her eyes as the episode ends.

bat fire suit

It’s not often an episode gives us a new look for Batman.

Batman: The Animated Series had a lot of success in adapting B-tier villains and boosting their image. Sure, not every one of them was successful, but many were and they became favored villains for viewers of the show and even readers of the comics. Firefly sort of settles in the middle. He’s got a solid gimmick and he’s certainly creepy given the whole stalker aspect of his persona, but I never really bought into him as a high stakes villain. Batman suggests he is by going with this new suit, but it doesn’t really feel earned. Not that I mind the new duds which just strike me as practical. If you’re going to fight a guy who shoots fire, it’s probably a good idea to go with something flame-retardant.

The Cassidy character is fine. I like that they hired someone in Karla DeVito who could both handle the speaking role and do the singing to add some authenticity to her. I can’t decide if we’re supposed to think of her as just a very strong and self-confident individual or if we should view her as foolish for not taking Firefly’s threat seriously. I suppose it’s a little of both, though I admire her bravery. It makes the ending, which seems to implicate she’s going to be traumatized by the events of this episode for years to come, feel a bit mean. It’s similar to how the villain of Riddler’s debut episode turned out who was shown living in fear of The Riddler coming to get him. Cassidy didn’t earn that, and I can’t tell if the episode wants us to think she deserves this. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and presume we’re just getting a glimpse at the lasting impacts one of these supervillains can have. Even though his scheme ultimately failed, Firefly still left a mark that’s pretty significant. It’s not something we’re shown often.

Visually, this episode is pretty neat given all of the fire on display. I feel hot just watching it, though maybe that’s because I’m writing this during a brutal heat wave. Firefly is a bit silly looking, but at least his suit appears functional. The look of it would have fit I quite well with the previous iteration of this show as it has a retro design. Batman’s fire suit is a little more bland by comparison as it’s just an all black suit with no mouth opening or cape. It’s easy to animate at least, and like Firefly’s suit, it certainly looks functional which is probably what Batman would prioritize over style. It’s just not something I’d be clamoring for an action figure of.

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Poor Cassidy is going to have some stuff to work through.

Firefly will not be a one and done villain as he has one other appearance yet to come. As I said earlier, he’s fine and so is this episode. It’s nice to get some new blood into the mix and not every villain needs a sympathy angle. As for Cassidy, this is it for her so we’ll never learn what lasting damage Firefly inflicted upon her. Maybe she would have been brought back had this show received a second order of episodes, but that was not to be. I actually would have liked to have caught up with her again. Since the show declined to follow-up on her, I’ll take the road of the optimist and assume she got the help she needed and was able to live a well-adjusted life going forward. It feels cruel to assume otherwise.

 


The New Batman Adventures – “Holiday Knights”

holiday knightsEpisode Number:  1 (86)

Original Air Date:  September 13, 1997

Directed by:  Dan Riba

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance:  Robin (Tim Drake), Mo, Lar, Cur

After pausing for a week to discuss the 1998 film Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero we have now finally arrived at The New Batman Adventures era of the show. This is essentially the start of a sequel series, but it’s been retconned over the years (or just simplified) as Season 3 of Batman: The Animated Series. The Blu Ray set released in 2018 simply refers to it as such and the intro for each episode is the Season One intro from the Fox Kids era. The show largely exists thanks to two new developments since the previous series ended in 1995:  the WB network, and Superman.

Warner Bros. and Fox had a nice relationship in the 1990s where WB created several shows that Fox aired as part of its Fox Kids lineup on weekday afternoons and Saturday morning. At some point, the executives at WB decided it would just make more sense for them to start their own network. On January 11, 1995 The WB was launched and alongside it came Kids’ WB. That block of programming would be occupied by cartoons primarily, most of which included characters WB owned. Gradually, as the license agreements with Fox expired the shows WB had created for that network migrated to its network.

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The New Batman Adventures placed greater emphasis on Batman’s supporting cast.

The network’s flagship action cartoon was Superman, or Superman: The Animated Series. It was decided that it would make a lot of sense for Superman to simply be partnered with Batman to form an hour programming block of DC’s hottest heroes. It would make sense for the two to cross paths, and so WB commissioned a new Batman series envisioned as a sequel to BTAS. Like the second season of that show, this one would focus on Batman and a supporting cast of heroes. Dick Grayson would return, but not as Robin but rather Nightwing. In his place was a new, much younger, Robin and Batgirl would be there as well. The show would need to be updated to match the style of Superman and to also make the show cheaper to produce. “Dark Deco” was now out, in its place was a modern Gotham with cell phones and (gasp!) color TV. Oddly, Gotham would also feature a red sky apparently to heighten the darkness of the show vs the much brighter Superman. There is a reduction of shadows as well making everything lighter in appearance. Perhaps something that disappoints only me is the dropping of title cards. I loved the title cards on BTAS and I was so bummed to see they weren’t continued here. It also makes each one of these posts a little less interesting to look at.

TNBA redesigns

A look at the various villains from the show, some old some new.

This new style meant character redesigns. Batman would ditch the blue of his prior costume opting for a strictly black and gray ensemble. His belt was also muted in tone and more utilitarian in appearance. Robin’s costume dropped the green and Batgirl ditched the gray as well. On the villain’s side things were a bit more extreme. We’ll mostly get to them as they show up. To highlight a few; Scarecrow received an entirely new look while Joker featured an aggressive redesign that removed the sclera of his eyes and the red of his lips. Some of these redesigns are quite interesting on their own, while some are just plain inferior to the previous look. The characters had to be simplified to reflect the shrinking budget, but some sacrifices just aren’t worth making.

Most of the creative staff was returned for the new series. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm served as executive producers alongside Alan Burnett. Dini and Timm would both contribute to multiple episodes as writer while Dan Riba returned to direct multiple episodes as well. Also returning was the majority of the voice cast from the prior series, with the only notable change being Tara Strong (then known as Tara Charendoff) as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. A lot of new blood was also brought in, many of which would hang around the DC Animated Universe which was about to expand to include The Justice League and Teen Titans. This is basically the beginning of an expansive television universe by WB and DC which is basically the television equivalent of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m primarily only interested in Batman when it comes to DC, so don’t expect me to do this for the other shows. Hopefully no one is disappointed.

TNBA logo

New show, new logo.

The New Batman Adventures was released on DVD as Volume 4 of Batman: The Animated Series and is included in both the DVD and Blu Ray box set of the series as Season 3. For this feature, I considered simply sticking with the BTAS title, but decided this show was different enough to change it up. I’ll include both the episode number as it relates to this series as well as how it relates to the entire series. We’re also sticking with production order as opposed to air date order. The show was ordered as one season, but aired as two seasons of 13 and 11 episodes respectively concluding in January of 1999. At some point I’ll summarize my thoughts on the whole of Batman: The Animated Series, but since we’re getting started with The New Batman Adventures I’ll say upfront that I find this series to be inferior to its predecessor. It’s less unique looking and not as well written. The new villains introduced aren’t as memorable and we also lose a little bit of Batman by switching to an ensemble format. He’s made to be more grim, apparently to heighten how different he is from his younger companions, and as such loses some of his humanity in the process. He’s overall just less interesting as a character, and the focus on the others doesn’t really make up for that. It feels like a diservice to the excellent Kevin Conroy, who simply has less to work with in regards to Batman and Bruce Wayne.

Anyways, let’s finally start talking about this first episode, shall we? First airing just over 2 years after the conclusion of BTAS, “Holiday Knights” is a pretty bizarre way to kick-off this series. For one, it’s a Christmas/New Years episode that’s presented in anthology format with three separate mini stories starring different heroes and villains. It’s based on the Batman Adventures Holiday Special released in 1995 written by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Oddly, WB chose to air this as the premier as well in September rather than stashing it away until closer to Christmas like Fox did with “Christmas with the Joker,” the second episode from BTAS. Also complicating things, the new Robin (Mathew Valencia) debuts here even though the second episode is the one that details how he met Batman and came to assume this persona. Clayface is also the featured villain of the middle tale, but his actual return from the events of “Mudslide” is recounted in a later episode as well. This episode almost feels non-canon as a result, and it’s just overall a weird and confusing way to bring the series back.

new ivy

Ivy has apparently spent the past few years avoiding the sun.

The episode begins on December 22 and quickly reintroduces us to a pair of villains:  Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing) and Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin). Harley largely looks the same as she did in the previous series, while Ivy has received a fairly dramatic makeover. Her hair is more stylized and her skin bone white. She displays what is basically the new female body-shape on the show:  short, pointed, with an oversized head. It’s a more “toon” presentation and is less realistic compared with BTAS. I personally don’t care for it, but it is what it is.

Harley is bored and not at all excited to be stuck in a slummy motel for the holidays. She bemoans their lack of a Christmas tree, which naturally sets Ivy off as she views them as a form of genocide against trees. Ivy insists she has a plan that will brighten up their holiday and urges her friend to trust in her. We’re then taken to a gathering of the wealthy at the Vreeland estate where we get our first look at the new Bruce Wayne. He dresses all in black now with a white shirt under his suit and red “power” tie. His hair is black as well and slicked back to give him a real douchey look befitting a billionaire playboy. He’s socializing with Veronica Vreeland (Marilu Henner) who has returned to her red-haired look after a brief dabble with being a blonde and seems amused when a gaggle of women swarm Bruce. While Bruce is being pushed around by the ladies, one of them plants a kiss right on his lips. It’s Ivy, and as we learned way back in “Pretty Poison” getting a kiss from her is not something anyone should desire.

bruce ivy harley

Not the women Bruce was hoping to take home.

Bruce leaves the party and as he heads for his car he’s invited into a limo by a pair of women. Bruce finds himself unable to control his own body as he’s subjected to Ivy and Harley’s whims. They then use Bruce and his fabulous wealth to go on a shopping spree. A montage plays which feels fitting for a holiday special and is set to a saxophone rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The women seem to enjoy themselves while Bruce is helpless. As they force him to carry all of their purchases he begins to make some headway in fighting off the effects of the poison. The girls realize too late that he needs another dose, and as they approach to do so Bruce is able to back away falling into an open elevator shaft. The girls are indifferent to Bruce’s plight as they still have his credit cards and continue on with their evening. Meanwhile, the gloved hand of Batman reaches up from the depths of the elevator shaft.

harley ivy shopping

The Ivy and Harley montage is probably the best part of the whole episode.

Harley and Ivy make their escape in their stolen limo being driven by another brainwashed lackey, but soon enough the cloaked outline of Batman flashes behind them. Harley warns Ivy about who’s on their tail and Ivy makes some evasive maneuvers to avoid The Dark Knight which leads them to a toy store – how fitting. Batman enters and encounters all manners of toy-related traps:  wooden soldiers, giant boxing gloves, and Harley’s trusty mallet. The ladies lure Batman through their fun house leading up a tower of toys before they hastily attempt a retreat. As the duo turn to rub salt in his wounds, Batman fires his redesigned grappling hook (it makes a less satisfying hissing sound when fired and features an end that’s just a bladed Batman logo) to hook the base of a massive Christmas tree. He topples it landing right on the thieves putting a damper on their holiday, but returning to the Christmas tree gag with Harley who’s strangely comforted by its presence.

santa bullock

Santa Bullock, ho, ho, ho.

Our second story takes place on Christmas Eve. Barbara is shopping at Mayfield’s Department Store for a gift for her father. As she’s paying for her gift, a crying child gets her attention and the clerk remarks it’s been like that all day. Not far from the checkout station is a department store Santa being played by none other than Detective Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo). Apparently, Bullock isn’t the best Santa and tends to leave the kids who sit on his lap in tears. Serving alongside him as his elf is Officer Renee Montoya (Liane Schirmir) and the two are apparently on a stake-out which is why Bullock isn’t exactly into this whole Santa schtick. Bullock does at least find the Christmas spirit momentarily when a little girl sits on his lap asking to have her dad back for Christmas. Apparently, her dad is a crook Bullock just helped get put away. Not really knowing what else to do, he gives her some money. That should cheer her up.

Barbara is amused by Bullock’s turn as Kris Kringle and makes her way for the exit. Along the way she notices a child who appears to be shoplifting. The daughter of Gotham’s police commissioner can’t stand idly by as someone commits a crime, so she reaches out to grab him only she comes away with a handful of mud instead. Montoya then receives word to be on the lookout for a rabble of child thieves which fellow detectives are chasing through the store. They corner the kids, who then all merge into one being right before their very eyes.

batgirl crowd control

Batgirl showing off her new attire.

It’s Clayface (Ron Perlman), and he’s not the type of bandit to go quietly. He immediately begins trashing the place forcing Barbara to duck out and re-emerge as Batgirl. She takes the fight right to Clayface knocking him through an oversized window and onto a skating rink outside causing him to smash through the ice. Santa and his elf arrive to provide backup, though their guns do little to bother Clayface. Batgirl hollers at them to stop wasting their ammo and to aim for the Santa. Bullock at first confuses her command to mean him, but above Clayface is a giant, lighted, Santa as well as strings of Christmas lights. Bullock and Montoya take aim and blast the Santa down to land on top of Clayface. The frayed wires land in the water around Clayface electrocuting him and putting a stop to his rampage. Montoya then leaves Bullock to handle the clean-up.

new joker

I don’t like this new Joker at all, but at least we still have Mark Hamill doing his voice.

Our final tale takes place on December 31 and involves The Joker (Mark Hamill). He’s sent out one of his famous broadcasts to the people of Gotham revealing his New Year’s resolution to not kill anyone in the new year. This means he needs to make up for it all tonight and send the current year out with a bang! A taping of this broadcast is being viewed by Batman and Robin in Commissioner Gordon’s office. It would seem Gordon stopped heading to the gym following the events of BTAS as he’s a lot smaller and older looking now than he was before. Gordon (Bob Hastings) informs Batman that they have a lead on Joker as a GothCorp scientist was murdered earlier in the day. The scientist specialized in sonics and had been working on a new weapon that could kill with sound. Batman deduces that Joker’s likely target will be The New Year’s Countdown in Gotham Square and it’s likely he’ll have this new weapon in hand.

jokers favors

Joker’s party favors.

Joker is shown at Gotham Square with some of his finest: Mo, Lar, and Cur (all voiced by Ron Perlman and obvious reference to The Three Stooges). They’re rigging the sonic bomb to a massive bell. Apparently at midnight, the bell goes up to ring in the new year and when that happens the bomb will go off. And to make things harder on Batman, Joker has some “party favors” to distribute.

Batman and Robin head for the party and realize finding Joker will be a bit harder than expected. Joker has distributed his Joker masks to all of the party-goers making it hard to find the real Joker. Batman peers through some binoculars and spots a clown in a purple suit at a piano in the middle of the gathering onstage. He’s wearing ear muffs and so are the rather large men flanking him. Figuring that’s his man, Batman and Robin head for the stage and Batman dings Joker’s head with a Batarang knocking off his ear muffs. They then turn their attention to Joker’s goons, but find they’re pretty hard to deal with. Joker ends up grabbing the upper hand by smashing a bucket full of ice and champagne over the back of Batman’s skull.

joker champagne

This will be a short-lived victory for Joker.

Joker grabs the bottle of champagne to celebrate and apparently die with everyone else. As Joker gloats over Batman, The Dark Knight is able to snatch the bottle of champagne and spray it all over the controls to the bell shortening out the killing device. As he does so, Joker tries to stop him and shoots at him and actually hits Batman in the right arm. As Batman lays on the ground, Joker laughs like only he can. As he does so the bell begins to fall, and it just so happens to land right on Joker who offers a well-timed “Ouch,” from beneath it to close out the scene.

bat gordon toast

We’re introduced to an annual tradition for Gordon and The Dark Knight.

With Joker’s plot foiled once again, Commissioner Gordon is shown entering a diner around 2 AM. The owner (Corey Burton) ushers everyone out and tells them he’s closing up as Gordon takes a seat at a booth. The man brings him a mug of coffee as well as a second mug and wonders aloud if Gordon’s buddy is coming. Gordon assures him he is, and Batman soon enters through a rear door. He sits down and the two indicate this is a yearly tradition of theirs. They speak only a few words before Gordon turns to request something from the kitchen to go. When he turns back he finds an empty booth and a couple of bucks left on the table to cover the tab. Remarking he’ll one day beat him to the check, Gordon collects himself and heads out into the night while Batman is seen swinging off into the red sky himself.

As I said, this is an odd way to begin the series. Three fragmented stories which lean heavily into comic relief that contain characters who will require a true introduction (or reintroduction) further down the road. It at least gets a lot of characters on-screen though giving us a peek at this new look. In general, I’m not much of a fan for how this series looks. It uses mostly straight lines in its characters and the women and children have huge heads. I mostly hate the new Joker as his face just lacks personality and is so bland and wooden to look at. The removal of his lips also just makes his mouth flaps look odder as he’s all teeth gnashing together. He looked so great in BTAS so it’s just really disappointing to see him reduced to this. This practically elderly looking Commissioner Gordon is also not a favorite of mine and Bullock looks like he’s gained about 50 pounds.

clayface hk

Clayface doesn’t come across looking so hot. Meanwhile, less censorship apparently extends to Montoya’s attire as well.

Not surprisingly, Clayface isn’t as well animated as he was before. He still contorts his body into weapons and other beings, but not a lot of resources are spent on the transitioning animation. He’s also far more stable looking than he was in “Mudslide” and has almost a rocky appearance compared with his old one. It should also be pointed out he was previosuly immune to elecrocution so either that was a goof by Dini or they intentionally took that immunity away from him. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but this is just a less interesting looking show. They wanted it to be in-line with Metropolis from Superman and it wouldn’t make sense to have Gotham look like it was trapped in the 1940s and Metropolis like something from the 90s.

harley and the tree

It’s nice to have a little Christas in June, right? Interestingly, the comic this episode is based on portrayed Harley as Jewish.

There is one advantage this show has over its predecessor and that appears to be with the level of violence on display. It’s blatantly discussed that Joker murdered someone and he has an apparent lust for carnage and mayhem that was more tip-toed around on Fox. Batman is also free to punch people while villains, and the police, are still able to wield realistic looking weapons. Warner must have desired a way to differentiate its network from Fox and upping the violence was apparently one such way.

As an episode, this is a pretty benign, disposable, piece of entertainment. And there is entertainment value for it largely as a comedic vehicle. I wish it had chosen to end on Batman and Gordon sipping coffee together rather than turn to the tired gag of Batman vanishing whenever someone turns their back on him. I think that would have been the way the old series would have ended this one with a somber, but also sweet, ending. I guess this is just one more way for this show to announce it’s here and it’s not the same one we’re used to. Since I am a bit of a Christmas cartoon junkie, I should add that as a Christmas episode this is also just all right. It doesn’t linger much on the holiday, but it also doesn’t beat anyone over the head with Christmas clichés. It’s probably a touch better than “Christmas with the Joker” actually though less memorable. I don’t think either makes a strong case to be included with annual Christmas viewings, but you could certainly do worse.


Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero

Batman_&_Mr._Freeze_SubZeroOriginal Release Date:  March 17, 1998

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Boyd Kirkland and Randy Rogel

Animation:  Dong Yang Animation Co., Koko Enterprises Co., LTD.

Running Time:  67 minutes

I feel like we can’t move onto The New Batman Adventures without first talking about Batman & Mr. Freeze:  SubZero. This direct to video feature is essentially the true finale to the original run of Batman:  The Animated Series. It’s existence can be owed to the fact that Warner Bros. wanted to do a tie-in film with the upcoming feature film Batman and Robin which featured Mr. Freeze as the main antagonist. This was supposed to be released alongside that, but since that film was so poorly received it was held back until March of 1998. This complicates things as by that time The New Batman Adventures was airing on Kids WB and had even aired a Mr. Freeze episode that follows the events of this story. It was released to video, which in 1998 meant VHS, and also aired on Kids WB. I could only find one release date listed online so I’m not sure when the television premiere took place (it could have been the same day), but that’s how I first saw this one.

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Mr. Freeze has returned, and he brought polar bears this time.

Mr. Freeze was first introduced to the animated viewing audience via “Heart of Ice” which first aired in 1992 as part of the show’s first season. It was so successful at rebooting the previously campy Mr. Freeze into an A-tier villain that the writers were reluctant to return to the character out of fear that whatever they came up with couldn’t possibly match “Heart of Ice.” Eventually, they relented and Mr. Freeze appeared in the penultimate episode “Deep Freeze” in which he partnered with Walt Disney Grant Walker in an evil scheme, but eventually turned and become a reluctant hero in the end. The episode basically proved what the staff feared initially as it wasn’t nearly as good or on par with “Heart of Ice.” It’s not a bad episode, but hardly a highpoint for the series. As a result, SubZero feels like a second attempt at capturing the magic once again and perhaps the lengthened running time will help tell a worthy story.

For the film, most of the principal players from BTAS were able to return. In the director’s chair is Boyd Kirkland who directed many episodes in the series as well as the show’s other feature, Mask of the Phantasm. Kirkland also co-wrote the film with Randy Rogel, another individual who had several writing credits in the main series. The voice cast was also largely returned for this one including Kevin Conroy as Batman, Loren Lester as Robin, and Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze. The only notable change is Mary Kay Bergman taking over the role of Barbara Gordon for Melissa Gilbert. This would be Bergman’s only performance as Gordon as she would be voiced by Tara Strong in The New Batman Adventures. The other notable absences are Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, who were credited with this new version of Freeze. They were likely busy working on Superman and The New Batman Adventures during the development of the picture. Also missing is composer Shirley Walker who was replaced by Michael McCuistion, who had previously worked on some episodes of the show. He would go on to score 3 episodes of The New Batman Adventures as well as several more for other DC animated productions. Walker would also contribute to the sequel series.

gordons and dick

Barbara has a new voice actress, Mary Kay Bergman, and a new beau.

The film basically picks up where the series ended. Victor Fries has made a home for himself in the arctic alongside his still in stasis wife, Nora. He’s acquired a pair of polar bear companions as well as a twelve-year-old Inuit orphan named Koonak (Rahi Azizi). When an expedition by a US submarine disturbs their home and destroys the containment unit keeping Nora alive, Fries is forced to once again don his Mr. Freeze persona.

Nora cannot survive for long outside her containment unit which brings Freeze back to Gotham and in contact with an old colleague, a cryogenics expert by the name of Gregory Belson (George Dzundza). Belson just so happens to be in great financial distress as he tried to game the system with some insider trading in the futures market that didn’t pan out. He’s desperate for cash, and Freeze has access to a gold ore vein in the arctic. He needs Belson’s help to perform an operation for the only hope Nora has at survival is via an organ transplant. Unfortunately, she also has a rare blood type and no organs are available and are unlikely to become available in time, so they’ll need to harvest them from a living donor.

nora fries opening

Once again, it’s the welfare of Nora that motivates Freeze.

That’s where Barbara Gordon comes in. She’s the unlucky one who matches Nora’s rare blood type and is also of similar build. Mr. Freeze abducts her from a club while she is on a date with her new boyfriend:  Dick Grayson. It would seem Barbara got over her Bat-crush and settled on the Boy Wonder, though the film makes it seem like everyone is still keeping each other in the dark regarding alter-egos. Freeze, along with his two polar bear companions, takes Barbara to an abandoned offshore oil platform where the surgery will be performed against her will.

Most of the film involves the setup before transitioning to a focus on Batman and Robin’s detective work which will eventually force a showdown with Mr. Freeze. At a mere 67 minutes, the mystery of where Freeze took Gordon and what he wants with her isn’t lingered on for too long and there’s plenty of time saved for the climax on the oil rigging. It’s paced well and the movie moves along without feeling rushed. If anything is sacrificed, it’s the final confrontation at the end. Batman and Freeze really don’t have much of a confrontation, as circumstances force them to contend with a burning platform. It’s a similar setup to the episode “Deep Freeze” in that regard, but with smaller, more obvious, stakes.

batman robin batcave

Batman and Robin have some detective work ahead of them, but at least Robin’s gloves are now the proper shade of green.

The film in large part feels like a referendum on “Deep Freeze.” If you recall, in that episode Freeze learns his wife is still alive and then immediately agrees to help a wealthy man destroy the planet to revive her. It was a pretty outlandish setup which is why Batman was able to convince Mr. Freeze to not go along with Walker’s plan. In this film, Nora’s life is on a timer and in order to save her Freeze merely has to sacrifice one woman he doesn’t even care about. While it would have been interesting to see how he would have responded had someone been able to reason with him that Nora would never want an innocent to die so she could live, that’s never broached and it’s conceivable to think Freeze would not be swayed. He’d likely rather Nora live and despise him than for her to die. Freeze’s desperation causes him to act impulsively throughout the picture, and his relationship with Belson gives him a plausible reason to return to Gotham in an effort to save his wife knowing it will likely put him in the crosshairs of The Batman.

dr belson

Belson is pretty much a slime ball.

In many ways, it’s Dr. Belson that ends up being the film’s ultimate villain. He’s described by others as a jerk and he’s essentially a criminal for engaging in insider trading. Had he been successful with his futures play he might have been caught. When Freeze first approaches him for aid the film teases he won’t go along with murder, but he’s mostly feigning his apprehension and just uses it to leverage more money out of his old colleague.

barbara fighting back

Barbara may spend most of the film kidnapped, but she never stops fighting.

Barbara Gordon’s kidnapping may be the main plot device that gets this film rolling, but she’s hardly playing the role of damsel in distress. Her kidnapping is voluntary, as she doesn’t want Mr. Freeze to harm any of the patrons of the club she’s abducted from, especially Dick. She also tries to escape her confines more than once and realizes she has a sympathetic ear in Koonak. It would have been disappointing if the woman who is Batgirl just sat around and waited for Batman and Robin to save her, but Rogel and Kirkland know what they’re doing.

The film is visually quite nice and a noticeable cut above the television series. Dong Yang Animation, which animated most of season 2 and some of season 1, did the traditional spots with Koko Enterprises doing the CG. The colors are an obvious upgrade as Robin’s costume actually features two shades of green instead of that odd blue. The scenes on the flaming oil platform are especially spectacular and it’s obvious more care was put into this project as a whole. I also really like a spot at the beginning of the film where Fries emerges from the arctic waters. His body is coated in a thin layer of ice which cracks and breaks apart as he moves. The CG is used probably more often than I would like. It’s dated, but not woefully so. It’s a touch distracting in some of the chase sequences and with the Batwing, but it looks nice at the film’s onset with Fries swimming in the arctic amongst a swarm of CG salmon. The only real disappointment I have with the look of the picture is that it’s presented in 4:3 instead of 16:9. I assume that’s the aspect ratio it was created for since it was going to be broadcast on television, and since this was before the proliferation of 16:9 television sets, there was basically no need to develop for that if it was only ever going to be viewed on a TV set.

koonak and barbara

I hope you didn’t get too attached to Koonak, because he’s not coming back.

This film is the final presentation of Batman and the other denizens of Gotham in this art style. For some characters, like Summer Gleeson (Mari Devon), this is their final appearance all together. Veronica Vreeland (Marilu Henner) also has a cameo, but as a blonde now instead of her traditional red hair. It’s also the last appearance of Nora Fries and the only appearance for Koonak. I definitely miss this art style and the change for The New Batman Adventures is what kept me from getting into that series initially. When this surfaced on television it was like going back to an old friend.

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero is a worthy follow-up to “Heart of Ice.” Even with the benefit of triple the minutes, it’s still not quite as captivating as that episode and I think that’s largely due to the surprise that initial episode had going for it. This film at least takes the character of Mr. Freeze and gives him a reason to act like a villain once more. It’s surprising that Paul Dini and Bruce Timm weren’t involved, but maybe turning to the duo of Kirkland and Rogel meant the pressure of doing something worthwhile with the character was largely removed freeing them to explore him unencumbered. For both, this was their last contribution to Batman: The Animated Series and it’s a worthy note to go out on. Had this been a theatrically released venture we’d probably unfairly compare it with Mask of the Phantasm where it would come up short, but for a direct-to-video venture this is more than acceptable.

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero was originally released on VHS, but has since been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s also streaming, if that’s your preference. The best way to view it, for my money, is via the Batman:  The Animated Series Blu-Ray set which includes this film as well as Mask of the Phantasm in one package alongside the entire television series.


Dec. 4 – Taz-Mania – “No Time for Christmas”

no time for xmas

Original air date December 25, 1993

Before there was an entire broadcast television network owned by Time Warner, there was the relationship that existed between Fox and WB. Fox, needing a lot of content to launch its kid programming block The Fox Kids Network, partnered with WB and Steven Spielberg to bring the world Tiny Toon Adventures. It was a success, and before long Fox and WB were coming to terms on a number of shows. One such show we’ve covered quite a bit on this blog, Batman: The Animated Series, and another early 90s staple of Fox programming was Taz-Mania. Taz-Mania took the classic Looney Tunes character the Tazmanian Devil and gave him his own show. The character had become inexplicably popular in the early 90s in the realm of merchandising, as basically all of those characters did. He was just more surprising because the actual character was just a mindless predator out to consume the likes of Bugs Bunny. Aside from his rather interesting look, his other notable feature was his ability to whirl in place like a tiny cyclone. It was a pretty odd move to make him the vehicle of a whole new show, but it worked fairly well and Taz-Mania made it to 65 episodes which aired across parts of 3 years from 1991-1993.

taz-mania

Taz and his family (left to right): Jake, Jean, Taz, Hugh, and Molly.

Taz-Mania stars the Tazmanian Devil, who is simply referred to as Taz (Jim Cummings) from now on. He is the eldest son of Hugh (Maurice LaMarche) and Jean (Miriam Flynn) and older brother to Molly (Kellie Martin) and Jake (Debi Derryberry). They live in Taz-Mania which is basically an offshoot of Australia as it’s populated by dingoes and platypus. Taz is similar to his classic portrayal, only he’s more of a gentle soul now. He still speaks in gibberish and shuns clothing, unlike his family. They’re all relatively “normal” individuals and all wear clothing and have modern concerns. Hugh, who sounds like Bing Crosby, is consumed with being a model patriarch and is often even-tempered. Jean is the classic go-go career woman and mother who doesn’t have much time for much of anything in her busy schedule, but always maintains a cheery disposition. Molly is a self-absorbed teen while Jake is a fairly typical little kid. They all seem to quietly tolerate Taz, but also sometimes take advantage of his mental shortcomings. In watching this episode and reflecting on the show in general, it’s a little uncomfortable at times how Taz is treated by his family since he obviously has special needs, and sometimes the family is almost unintentionally cruel towards him. This was the early 90’s when the “R-word” was still in fashion and those characters were played for laughs. If this show were invented today, I bet it would take a different slant or at least punish the characters who casually mistreat Taz.

In addition to the family, the show had a wide supporting cast and many of them will be covered in this write-up. The show also spawned a few video games though surprisingly I don’t recall much merchandise beyond that. No real toys lines or anything, but I suppose it wasn’t that kind of show. It helped keep Taz popular, and he went on to appear alongside the other Looney Tunes in Space Jam. His star, like most of those characters, has faded over the decades, but he’s still rather unique considering the other Tunes never really received a true starring vehicle like Taz-Mania.

Taz and Molly

Taz seems to enjoy licking stamps.

“No Time for Christmas” opens on the home of the Tazmanian Devil family on the day before Christmas. Taz is eagerly getting ready for Christmas and stuffing presents in a big, red, sack while his mother, Jean, is talking to someone on the phone. She rattles off all of the things she has to do, some mundane like wrap presents, and some insane like re-pave a parking lot. She’s baking cookies as she does this and Taz tries to get himself some, but he’s denied. She leaves behind one, lone, burnt cookie that Taz scrunches his face at, but eats anyway. Seeing that his mom has no time for him, he ventures off to Molly’s room. She’s busy writing and mailing Christmas cards and tries to get him out of her room before realizing that maybe he could be of use. She sets him up with a bunch of envelopes and stamps and instructs him to lick and place a stamp on each envelope. Taz is happy to help, but finds the glue on the stamps rather tasty and just licks them. Frustrated, Molly boots him out of her room.

Taz and Hugh

I do empathize with Hugh here as Christmas in a warm climate must be pretty weird.

Next Taz encounters his little brother Jake snooping around for presents in their parents’ room. Taz seems like he wants to help (he only speaks in grunts and noises, for the most part, aside from the occasional phrase), but Jake tells him, rather nicely, that this is a one-man operation and closes the door. Taz next encounters his dad in the living room. He’s all bundled up and standing by the television which is tuned to a fireplace channel and talking about Christmas. Taz realizes the room is freezing and his dad explains he’s cranked the air conditioner to simulate a real, northern, Christmas like the ones he’s never experienced. He’s lost in his own Christmas fantasy and Taz leaves him to it. Somewhat sadly, he wanders off from home with only his sack of gifts.

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Daniel and Timothy are looking to win a trip to Fresno by having the best decorated house.

Taz’s first stop is at the home of the Platypus twins, Daniel (LaMarche) and Timothy (Rob Paulsen). They’re a cheery duo with a deep affection for each other. If they weren’t brothers you would assume they’re gay. They’re the brainy characters of Taz-Mania and they’ve outfitted their home with an elaborate lighting display. The problem is, one of their elves has blown a head and Rudolph’s nose has burnt out. Taz shows up with a gift, and they’re happy to receive it, but have no gift to offer him in return as they’re much too busy. They incorrectly assume Taz would love to assist them in their work and they send him up a ladder with a new bulb for their reindeer. Taz goes along with it as the two brothers then take the ladder away saying they need it to retrieve a spare elf head. Taz replaces the bulb and the reindeer lights up. He then loses his footing on the roof and tumbles down into the space previously occupied by the broken elf. Now holding “hands” with the other elf decorations lining the roof, he appears to be taking the place of the discarded elf and the Platypus brothers thank him before remarking how it’s likely obvious where this bit is heading (they’re so smart that they’re self-aware and break the fourth wall rather liberally). They head over to a giant electrical switch and flip it, causing Taz to be comically electrocuted. He’s shot off like a cannonball from the house, and when one of the brothers remarks that he forgot his sack, Taz’s arm stretches back into the image to grab it before he resumes his flight.

Taz zapped

Taz exploding with electricity. This kind of thing seems to happen often when he visits Daniel and Timothy.

Taz next drops in on Didgeri Dingo (Paulsen) who was expecting him. He’s ringing a bell Salvation Army style in the middle of the deserted Outback and remarks that Taz is late. He quickly outfits him with a Santa Claus outfit while explaining that Christmas is the time for charity and they’re going to raise money for his favorite charity – Didgeri Dingo. Taz is rather delighted by the Santa suit, causing him to remark his catchphrase for the episode, “Taz like Christmas!” but he is not at all happy about being forced to ring a bell for charity in the middle of nowhere. In true cartoon fashion, Didgeri sends him off and he’s immediately hit by a bus that literally came out of no where. He’s then hit by a trio of trucks and a train to drive the point home as he’s swept away. Didgeri pauses to speak with the camera so apparently the Platypus brothers aren’t the only ones who get to break the fourth role.

santa taz

Now we’re getting into the spirit!

The train dumps Taz in another part of the Outback where a couple of bushes are speaking to one another. They have tails and hats and are obviously the Gator characters of Bull and Axl, two hunters who are always trying to catch Taz. They’re the common cartoon archetype of a short, intelligent, abusive, schemer and a tall, dumb, subservient one. The only wrinkle with Bull (John Astin) is that he possesses a rather cheery disposition. When Bull explains to Axl (Paulsen) they’re in a Christmas episode he pops him with an oversized candy cane to further remind me that WB cartoons actually just love to break the fourth wall.

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Nothing like a little Yuletide violence to warm the soul and dent the head.

Taz knows these two, and he’s not as dumb as we think. He intentionally lets himself get caught in their rope trap and is suspended upside-down as a result. Axl is somewhat horrified to see they’ve caught Santa, while Bull tries to explain to him that he is indeed wrong. Taz breaks free, and then clobbers the pair in a whirling cyclone that also relieves him of his Santa suit. He leaves the two their present before heading off, while Axl sees the error of his ways. They didn’t capture Santa, Taz is Santa!

taz, bull, and axl

Taz even has gifts for his enemies.

Taz’s next stop is the Motel Tasmania, where he is an employee. Bushwacker Bob (Cummings) is standing around trying to read his copy of Life magazine with Bugs Bunny on the cover while patrons of the motel keep bothering him on the phone. Constance Koala (Rosalyn Landor) bothers him further by bumping into him and then having the nerve to point out how her feather duster is in poor shape causing Bob to go on a rant. He’s the typical asshole boss character who thinks his employees do nothing but complain and act lazy. He further points out the “shoddy” work of Constance by gesturing to some fungus on the ceiling. His observation is incorrect and Constance points out he’s referring to the mistletoe she hung up. And since they’re both under it…

bob and bugs

I’m always down for a Bugs Bunny cameo.

Mr. Thickley (Dan Castellaneta), a wallaby, enters the picture next and when Bob suggests there’s something he’s supposed to be doing, Thickley can only assume he’s referring to the mistletoe once more and plants another big smooch on him further enraging Bob. Thickley goes off to do whatever it is he does, but he stops to say “Hi,” to Taz and also demonstrates he too possesses fourth wall breaking power. Bob takes notice of Taz and asks him what he’s doing out of uniform. Taz apparently says it’s his day off and Bob can understand his grunts, but he’s not really happy with the response. Taz gives him his present, and Bob seems upset at its small size. When he suggests there should be something more, Taz naturally assumes he’s looking for another smooch and gives him one causing Bob to throw him out. Then Taz, finding that no one has time for Christmas, slowly walks off into the sunset dragging his sack behind him while sad music plays.

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Mr. Thickley seems to have a lot on his plate.

Taz returns home to the frigid living room. He sits down in front of the television which is still playing a roaring fire. Taz’s pet, Dog the Turtle (Paulsen), comes running in excited to see him which picks up Taz’s spirit. He gives Dog his Christmas present, a bone, and Dog happily grabs it and runs off. When Taz whistles for him to come back, he does not. Dejected, Taz plops down on the couch while his tears freeze upon forming. Reminding himself that “Taz loves Christmas,” he lays down and falls asleep.

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Nothing says Christmas like the love between a boy and his dog, or, a devil and his turtle?

Taz is awakened the next morning by his family. His mom has baked him a tray of cookies and Molly apologizes for being a jerk and gives him a Christmas kiss. Soon all of the characters from throughout the episode enter the house to give Taz his Christmas presents. In doing so, we see that Taz had gifted them all very thoughtful gifts. The Platypus brothers received a new elf decoration, Didgeri a prized bottle cap, the Gators new nets, and so on. Hugh even ushers in the rest of the cast they ran out of time for leading to a whole, group, gathering in the Tazmanian Devil living room. Hugh then gives a speech about Taz and how he never lost the spirit of Christmas. His schtick is that he gives boring, long-winded, speeches and as he gets further into this one everyone else sneaks away leaving Hugh all by himself as the episode appears to end. It’s a fake-out, and the iris shot close re-opens as Hugh informs the audience they can’t end the show without a big holiday group shot. We’re wished a Merry Christmas, and they all imitate Taz’s various noises and tongue thing to close it out.

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A sad, frozen, Christmas tear.

“No Time for Christmas” is a simple and effective story. Choosing to focus on the rush of the holiday, the more free-spirited and pure-hearted Taz distills Christmas to just giving gifts to the people he cares about while the characters around him are caught up in everything else. Or in the case of the “bad” characters, they’re either ignoring the holiday or trying to enrich themselves through it. Everyone coming together at the end to make up for their mistreatment of Taz is predictable, but it works well enough. It’s certainly better than doing a parody. Because it’s rather obvious in where it’s going, the episode lacks a real emotional payoff. It’s still rather sad to see a dejected Taz, since that’s not a common sight, but the episode doesn’t really linger on it or really play it for tears. It’s a comedy show, and it never loses sight of that. It’s also not the type of comedy that’s uproariously full of laughter. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it subtle, since the numerous fourth wall breaking jokes are anything but subtle, but it’s the type of humor that just wants you to smile along as opposed to laugh. It’s also probably why Taz-Mania was never appointment viewing for me, because it was just fine as supposed to truly funny.

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We have to end it on the group shot too.

As far as Christmas Specials go, “No Time for Christmas” is suitable. Most who watch it will probably enjoy it well enough. Unlike most episodes of this show which were split into two shorter cartoons, “No Time for Christmas” uses the full 22 minute duration to tell its story. Shows that do such a thing sometimes struggle with the longer runtime, but this one moves along quite well. Like a lot of early 90s cartoons, Taz-Mania is no longer broadcast anywhere and hasn’t been for some time. Also like many cartoons from that era, it has only received a partial home video release and “No Time for Christmas” is not on either DVD set. The only way to watch this one is via streaming online, and it’s not hard to find. If you’re looking to watch a special you have not seen and want it to be good, then I think this one is worth the investment of time.


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