BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD

Everybody who’s a DC Comics fan knows the stories of the five Robins that have been with Batman. First was Dick Grayson, who later became Nightwing. Second was Jason Todd, who was murdered by the Joker. Third was Tim Drake, who became Red Robin. Fourth was Stephanie Brown, who is now Batgirl. And fifth is Damian, the biological son of Batman/Bruce Wayne. The stories of these five people are unique and a lot of fun to dig into and discuss with fans. Everybody has a favorite Robin.

Batman: Under the Red Hood is the story of the second Robin – only after he was killed by the Joker and brought back to life by Ras al-Ghul. Judd Winick wrote the script, based on the Batman arc he wrote that revived Jason Todd, and it serves pretty well, but I know it couldn’t do true justice to the whole story. There’s a lot of history in this tale, and all of it worth telling.

As far as this direct-to-DVD effort goes, the story can’t relate all the years Jason was around after Batman caught him stealing the tires off the Batmobile (something that fans simply couldn’t imagine being done even back in the early 1980s). He lasted for five years before getting killed, and was dead for seventeen years before he was brought back to life.

All the fans believed Jason was dead. After all, didn’t DC Comics run a phone contest for fans to decide his fate? (Right after that, Warner Brothers – the parent company – got hold of DC and asked what they were going to do with the warehouses full of Batman AND Robin products they had to sell!) So a third Robin was immediately in the offing.

Comic heroes are notorious for not staying dead. Used to we could point at Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes and say, see? Bucky’s dead. Only now Bucky is the new Captain America and Steve Rogers was dead – except that he’s now back alive too.

Simply put, there’s a lot of emotional context and resonance and real-time history missing from the pared-down story on this disc. However, it is slam-bag full of all things Batman. First of all, there’s lots and lots of action. And there’s a ton of Bat-toys. Then there’s the appearance of Nightwing, Ra’s al-Ghul, AND the Joker.

There’s a lot going on in this movie. The beginning of the film is gripping, and the assault on Jason Todd/Robin is brutal. Watching it with my twelve year old was a little hard because I didn’t expect that level of intensity. The Joker was played as perverse and evil, and he stayed that way through the film. I love how he turned the tables on Blackmask.

The art is rendered beautifully. Loved the explosive action, the detail, and the cityscape. The world depicted here really felt like Gotham in all its glory and grime.

I found the ending a little disappointing, though. Plenty of questions were raised, and everybody got a look at the heroes’ moral compasses, but the main question concerning Batman’s relationship with Jason Todd wasn’t satisfactorily answered. Batman makes a choice at the end, but where does he stand after he makes it?

I know part of this story is still ongoing in the DC Universe, so the movie is an excellent lure to pull readers into the six-part Red Hood story now being published. But in these direct-to-DVD adventures, I’d really appreciate a whole story. This one ends almost where it starts, and we still don’t know the true outcome.

This Blu-ray disc comes with lots of extras, including two episodes of the original Batman The Animated Series. These episodes recount the origin of Dick Grayson/Robin, so they’re a special treat. There’s also a lot of material (interviews and comic content) depicting Jason Todd’s history. And there’s sneak peek of the next DC Comics direct-to-DVD movie, Superman and Batman: Apocalypse. The best part, though, is the Jonah Hex short feature written by Joe R. Lansdale.

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WALL-E

Wall-E hit theaters today and packed the seats a noon at my local movie house. I’ve enjoyed every Pixar movie that’s come out, and this one is no exception. However, I have to admit that after the deluge of trailers that have haunted the television set later I was expecting to be blown away.

I wasn’t blown away, but don’t misunderstand. The movie was a good romp that kept all the tykes in the audience on the edge of their seats throughout, and there were quite a few giggles for the adults too, but the movie just hit all the expected twists and turns without becoming anything more than an adventurous love story mixed with ecological and physical health issues.

The movie takes place about eight hundred years in the future. Message #1 comes about when all the viewer can see is endless mounds of compacted refuse stand as towering high-rises. Wall-E, our everyman hero, toils alone in the garbage heap that used to be our planet. Well, there’s no denying that axe because everyone in the film grinds that one home. When there was nowhere left to stack refuse, humanity abandoned the world and went out into space.

That’s a sour but realistic take on the world’s current population, but I have to wonder if a spaceship would actually launch into space with no destination. According to the story, the people aboard the Axiom have been in space for 700 years. How was population growth maintained? How about food sources? If the ship was capable of regenerating food and water every day, why wasn’t that done on earth? But I digress. In my defense, Pixar writers and developers generally do a much cleaner job of world-building.

Wall-E is an adorable character. The thought and care that went into his construction is immediately evident. In a way, he reminded me of Johnny Five from the movie Short Circuit, but that was good because Johnny Five was a kid-friendly character and movie as well.

I loved Wall-E’s mannerisms and the motions he was capable of as he went about his daily job of crushing trash. His home was a delight and many of the kids, including mine, laughed and enjoyed everything. Pixar is so good at details in these movies that I’m constantly surprised at the depth to which they think about everything. Having Wall-E visit the graveyard of his fellow robots was a great touch. It introduced the pathos of his loneliness, pointed out his eventual future, and explained how he kept working away after wearing out parts. The bit with him hanging his treads up as he entered his home was terrific.

Eve is a robot of a different sort. She’s sleeker and more powerful, and definitely quicker on the trigger. I didn’t quite warm up to her as much as Wall-E, though she is our heroine and female romantic lead, but the expressions they were able to create with her eyes alone were fantastic.

Wall-E continues showing up for work every day even though the rest of the world has bailed on him or become totally dysfunctional. That was incredibly touching, though no explanation is given for why he developed a personality. Eve’s arrival to search for plant life (though we don’t know that for a long time, and there’s not really any reason given for why the Axiom couldn’t simply have gone on to another planet) changes Wall-E’s existence forever.

The fact that he was able to fall in love with her was great and served the story, but Eve is portrayed as having no personality. I had to let that go because part of me wanted to be an adult and learn how the AIs had progressed that far. See? I struggled with technology versus fantasy throughout the film, but that may have just been men.

When I looked at the movie through a child’s eyes, I was kept happy. The characters are cool. The visual aspects are beautiful. And the pacing is thrilling.

I was impressed by how much could be done with the computer “voices” of the characters. The feeling and emotions I projected on them were as much from the situations they were in as from the tonal quality.

I also especially liked Auto, the robotic second-in-command of the Axiom, because he was so nasty. His design as a ship’s wheel was awesome, and the holes in the ceiling that allowed him to pop out anywhere was exciting and made for tense moments.

The plot is simple and straight-forward, but the Pixar people obviously had a blast putting this one together. It runs like a Swiss watch and hits all the emotional triggers for the audience as plucky Wall-E and Eve take on Auto to bring the earth back to the people lost in space.

Wall-E is definitely going to be another hit masterminded by the Pixar people. One of the best treats is the short cartoon feature before the movie. Don’t get to the theater late and take a chance on missing it. This one left me laughing out loud because it was so inventive and wildly funny. Take the kids out to this one. And if you don’t have any kids, take yourself out and be a kid for a couple of hours. You’ll have great time.

KUNG FU PANDA

My ten year old is currently working on his senior red belt in karate, so when we started seeing trailers for Kung Fu Panda I knew it wouldn’t be long before we’d have to see it. Sure enough, opening weekend arrived and we took our seats.

I’m a big fan of kids’ cartoon movies, really looking forward to Wall E, but I wasn’t too sure of this one. Jack Black can be hit or miss with me, and I really wasn’t aware that Dustin Hoffman, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and Angeline Jolie were involved with the movie until the end credits rolled. The voices sounded familiar, but that’s not unusual given the quality of voice work these days.

The opening montage of the movie made me sit up and take notice at once, though. That artwork alone was worth the price of admission to me, and if they’d produced the movie in that format it would have been interesting to see what kind of reaction reviewers would give the finished product.

The movie quickly settles into predictability, though, but it’s a pleasant trip and I was satisfied. My son was ecstatic as he watched the events unfold. He wasn’t surprised at the plot’s twists and turns either, but the bright color, rapid pacing, and quick action is mesmerizing for the adult mind as well.

Po, the Kung Fu panda of the title, works in his father’s noodle kitchen. His father is a goose and the explanation for that is never given, though it is a distraction during a more serious moment when Po’s father reveals an important secret to him. Black provides a great vocal characterization of Po and I found myself rooting for him even though I knew he didn’t really have anything to worry about.

The villain sequences were actually chilling. Seeing Tai Lung (Ian McShane) held in prison was impressive when you realized what he had to escape from in order to become the all-encompassing threat deal would have to deal with. The darkness and threat of those scenes might cause some concern for younger children, but I loved the cinematography and the amazing choreography of Tai Lung’s escape.

The unwillingness of the Furious Five to embrace Po as a student is as predictable as his eventual winning them over. But the pacing makes that easy to absorb and enjoy. The relationship between Shifu (Hoffman) and Oogway is warm and moving, and the scene where the great turtle ascends to the Celestial Heavens is powerful.

After everyone learns that Tai Lung has escaped and is once more menacing the countryside, the Furious Five launch into interception mode and go after him. Again, the fight sequences are huge and enjoyable, truly knockout efforts. But it’s no surprise that they’re defeated.

Shifu takes Po off for lesson and the sequence where Po becomes the Dragon Warrior is a lot of fun. Still, after Po is trained and ends up getting the Dragon Scroll (which is gotten with Oogway’s staff in a marvelous little puzzle piece), everything still looks like they’re going to lose anyway.

While helping the villagers abandon town, Po speaks to his father and gains an incredible insight that causes him to stand his ground against Tai Lung. I have to admit that the thinking behind this reveal wasn’t all that deep, but it was effective. And it proved to be the catalyst the brings about the battle between Po and Tai Lung. That fight is a great one, and even though I knew Po would win, I still found myself sitting on the edge of my seat. My son was doing the same thing.

Kung Fu Panda doesn’t break any new ground when it comes to children’s animated entertainment, but it sure serves up a feast that hits the spot. This is one you’ll enjoy on a lazy Sunday afternoon with the kids, then again when it comes out on DVD.