The Dark Knight of Gotham returns to the animated silver screen, joining forces with one of his greatest nemesis, in ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’. The city of Gotham comes under grave danger yet again, this time under a poisonous spell from Pamela Isley (Paget Brewster), better known to her enemies as ‘Poison Ivy’, that transforms citizens into plants. Faced with a dire urgency to save the day and find out quick about their powerful foe, Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Nightwing (Loren Lester) seek help in the most unlikely of sources; the sinisterly dangerous Harley Quinn (Melissa Rauch). The trio collide on more than a few occasions, but learn quickly that they must achieve the common goal of taking down the Poison if they are to return to simpler times. ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ is rated PG-13 for scenes of action and peril, and is directed by Sam Liu, the very same man responsible for some classic animated hits from Marvel and D.C.
It’s become a bit of a tradition to get a new Batman animated feature every year now, with Fathom Events, and ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ continues that tradition with arguably the most clashing of ideals team-up that comes to mind. I was a bit disappointed with last year’s ‘The Killing Joke’, but If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve come to appreciate that film a bit more. That’s not to say that this newest chapter is anything terrible, it just feels so contradictive to what we have come to expect from the legendary D.C Animated Films productions that seem to get things correct when the live action movies do not. This film truly felt like one of those experiences where I myself had a lot of fun with what was transpiring on-screen, it just came at a steep price for those characters and concepts that I grew up, and how some less than stellar liberties were taken with their source materials. There’s some nice Easter Eggs in dialogue with past editions of Batman comics like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, or even the original live action television show, complete with BAM!!! and KAPOWS!!! hitting the screen. But this (like other straight to video releases from D.C) feels like a chapter in itself, and that will undoubtedly divide audiences looking for more of a callback from the 90’s animated series that might just be the single greatest Batman offering that has ever graced a screen.
At least the animation is still carefully detailed, depicting the Gotham skyline with that same crimson red filtering above that reflects that of the blood spilled in these corrupt streets. This is the one aspect where I feel like fans of all Batman walks will agree that D.C continues to amaze. During an age when other studios have moved onto 3D outlines for their presentations, this company remains faithful to the style and traditions that brought it to the dance, echoing a rich vibrancy in color coordination, while never overdoing it into making Gotham somewhere that it isn’t. This definitely feels like a callback to my childhood days of soaking in the colorful personalities and costume designs within this world, but there’s enough experimentation to commend it for never playing things moot. Some of the fire and smoke illustrations are really attention-grabbing, and continue to move even when it feels like a character is in pause because of the next stenciling in page flips. The finale too, sets the stage appropriately once again for the central antagonist, immersing us into an ever-changing swamp that changes the more the situation does.
One thing that I commend these films for is that even though their visual stylings and plots can be considered for younger audiences, the material is anything but. This film has no problems with earning its coveted PG-13 rating, as there is no shortage of adult language exchanges, mature content in both the violent and sexual nature, and reliance upon comedic stick that does overstay its welcome quite often. I understand that this story relies around the Quinn character, but I feel that the campy vibes that radiate from this film are ones that do a disservice instead of an enhancement in creativity. I did laugh a few times, but there are plenty of examples of material that drowns on for far too long, feeling like a comfortable padding for the barely 75 minute presentation that we got. A fine example is a scene that takes place in a gay bar, complete with Harley musical performance and Batman pick-up lines. Awkward? a bit, but it pales in comparison to yet another unwanted sex scene between two characters that is every bit as unnecessary as it is cringe-worthy. Hinting is fine, but when the film stops to subject us through these sequences, I can’t help but feel bad for the youth in the audience who were as embarrassed as I was when I saw my first sex scene at 9 years old in ‘Heavy Metal’.
The script too has its problems, mostly because once again there’s an uneven distribution of plot progression that hinders our antagonists. Based on the title, it’s obvious where the film is focused on, but without that compelling antagonist plot to combat them, their journey of unlikely teammates doesn’t gel the way it rightfully should. I did enjoy seeing the daily life of Harley in her environment, as I feel it offered us a look at the human side of Quinn that we rarely get to see, especially in the day and age of the ‘Suicide Squad’ further diminishing her character origins. One problem for me that picks up in this film where ‘The Killing Joke’ left off was the notable absence of Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, or even Bruce Wayne from the fold. On the latter, I feel like it’s important to offer audiences an equal dose of Wayne versus Batman, and doing so only limits the true capabilities that a force like Conroy can convey. More on that later. A scene or two with these characters could certainly do wonders in keeping up the pacing, which does an alright enough job through the minimal runtime, but something great always beats something good. The ending left me slightly disappointed, mainly because one of the two antagonists is defeated in the most eye-rolling of ways, and the other we don’t get much of visually. The film just kind of ends with more of a hint than an actual result, and if this were a live action movie, I would be wondering if the production ran out of cash for a cheap exit like this one. Even the emergence of a D.C favorite hero felt completely unnecessary, especially when poked for fun by Harley herself after his brief cameo. It certainly doesn’t leave you with the greatest taste exiting this thing, and that is unfortunate because it feels like some solid performances were virtually wasted.
Upon them, Kevin Conroy is once again putting on a clinic as the defining Batman for all time. Conroy has been playing the caped crusader for over two decades at least, but he never feels redundant in his portrayals. Here, Batman is every bit as cryptic as he’s been, while playing into the intelligence that renders him a step above his competition. Kevin’s brooding release is everything that we have come to define for this character that was alive long before Conroy walked the Earth. Loren Lester adds up to one truly charismatic Nightwing. Not only was it nice to see this seldom used character depicted on screen, but Lester vocalizes him with the young adult side of the spectrum, falling for good looking girls, as well as fart jokes that he at least committedly plays into. The only performance I wasn’t in love with was Rauch as Quinn. The reason I say this is because she only truly channels one side of Harley, the jester, and leaves the menace in the closet for another actress to pull out. As the comedian Quinn, Rauch is well timed and articulately captures the Bensonhurst accent that is essential to the character. But I never felt the truly deranged side of her performance, and that missing link feels like only a half performance for such a complex antihero.
THE VERDICT – The newest Batman animated adaptation has wings, but quickly gets winded with a thin script, as well as an over-dependency of humorous material that frequently lets the air out of the mystic sails. Conroy and Lester make a solid team, and the animation is as good as it’s ever been. But the ambiguous ending leaves much more to be desired from the ambitious set-up that never quite quenches the thirst of the audience it narrates to. Even still, the nostalgic glee of the animated setting is worth the cost of a DVD evening in with your own Harley or Batman.