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Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders

(2016) *** 1/2 Pg
78 min. Warner Bros. Animation. Director: Rick Morales. Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Julie Newmar.


Riddle me this! Why does Batman love jokes? Because of the "punch"-lines! "Ooof!" "Zap!" and "Boff!" are just the beginning when it comes to the poker-faced humor of Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. Despite Batman's dark beginnings and his currently prevailing broodiness, most of the people responsible for telling his contemporary stories have an undying enthusiasm for his silliest incarnation: the 1966 Batman of the small and big screens, as played by Adam West. Now that longstanding rights issues have been cleared up, it's possible for the DC Universe Animated Original Movie team at Warner Animation Group to tell stories in the "Batman '66" universe. Re-enlisting original stars West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders serves as a gleeful exercise in nostalgia, a fun and family-friendly Batman story in its own right, and a running commentary on the character's flexible interpretation.

Co-writers James Tucker and Michael Jelenic have scripted a loving tribute to the iconic imagery and alliterative argot specific to the 1966 series and feature film. Wed to the DCU Animation style, the throwback becomes a fascinating pastiche that celebrates the brilliance of William Dozier's 1966 TV series (itself a hybrid of kid's adventure and adult satire), paints on the bigger canvas of the 1966 film, and remembers that West and Ward voiced the characters of Batman and Robin for years in TV animation, while offering something relevant to the current moment and the animated form of today. 

The series' regular characters all return: caped crusaders Batman ("To the Batmobile!") and Robin ("Holy unholy alliance!"), trusty butler Alfred ("It's the Bat-Signal, sir"), Wayne Manor resident Aunt Harriet ("Land's sake!"), and those incompetent top cops Commisioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara ("What would we do without him?" "Saints preserve us!"). Like the 1966 film, the story assembles a superteam of felonious felons—Catwoman, Joker, Riddler, and Penguin—to vex the heroes, in a nefarious plot involving a Replica Ray and the theft of "priceless treasures and irreplaceable artworks." The action includes a trip on the Batrocket to a space station and, in keeping with the series' hallmarks, a couple of "cliffhanger"-style deathtraps, showcases for gadgetry (Bat-zooka, Bat-shield...) and vehicles (Batmobile, Whirly-Bat, Batboat), liberal use of dutch angles, and plenty of exclamatory fisticuffs.

Tucker and Jelenic (who also developed the '60s flavored Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series) are the right guys for this job, in that they understand the original show's sense of humor and aren't afraid to indulge their own. They get off to a great start with a Wayne Manor scene depicting Ward's Dick Grayson learning ballet ("I feel ridiculous in these tights!") and later frame a perfectly square Batman '66 moment involving jaywalking. But they also lightly poke fun at the series itself (and the passage of time): Gordon and O'Hara can't solve a shoplifting case, Batman boasts that his Bat-computer has the information storage of two sets of encyclopedias, and at one point a dizzy Batman sees Catwoman in triplicate, as in the form of Newmar but also the other actresses who played her: Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether. Once the winking references start, they keep coming: shout-outs to Dozier, writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and Golden Age artist Dick Sprang, and best of all, West getting to sideye the 1980s takes on Batman.

Some die-hard Batman '66 fans may be bothered that the film chooses to exploit the possibilities of animation rather than slavishly recreate the familiar tableaus and transitions of the series (and music cues—aside from Neal Hefti's theme, the film features new scoring by the veteran DCU team of Kristopher Carter, Lolita Ritmanis and Michael McCuistion). The Commissioner's office and Bat-rope climbing sequence get the classic treatment, but the animators have fun updating the Batpole-to-Batcave to Batmobile sequence (the Batmobile gets a loving 360º money shot) and redesign the Batcave's atomic pile as a "nuclear silo." Nitpickers might also take issue with an out-of-character moment when Batman parks at Police Headquarters with a well-executed driving stunt West's Batman would consider reckless, or the continuity error that Dick has a closetful of Robin outfits in his room.

/content/films/4992/3.jpgThe greater impression, though, is of loving care taken with the material. Obviously, it's great to have West, Ward, and Newmar back in their roles, even if their age can be vocally apparent at times, and the actors enlisted to voice Joker (Jeff Bergman), Riddler (Wally Wingert), and Penguin (William Salyers) do a fine job filling in for the late Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, and Burgess Meredith, nailing each's distinctive larcenous laugh. (Bergman, a seriously talented mimic, also plays the "Announcer," originally voiced by Dozier himself—it's too bad we don't hear more from the Announcer, such a memorable part of the show's narrative architecture). The animators happily replicate Robin's fist-in-palm posture, although they're not quite as precise with West's body language (including the particulars of the Batusi). And an extraordinary number of baddies come off the bench of the Batman '66 rogues' gallery for one eye-popping fight sequence.

In short, most Bat-fans will love Return of the Caped Crusaders, which has little more on its mind than a message to lighten up and have a little fun with the absurdities of the 77-year-old franchise. Though the film spins out into a couple of extra-goofy moments when dispatching Riddler, Penguin, and Joker at film's end, the film nicely satisfies its twin tasks of telling a Batman '66 story and making a 2016 DCU Animated feature. But wait, the best is yet to come! A sequel is slotted for next year, with William Shatner voicing Two-Face opposite West and Ward. Let's reconvene then: same Bat-time, same Bat-Blu-ray!
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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 11/1/2016

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner Home Video offers Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders in a colorful Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD package with a couple of nifty featurettes. The image packs punch with bright, bold hues and sharp delineation. Other than a bit of banding customary to animation, the picture is a beaut, and the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mix delivers dynamic, full-bodied music, clear dialogue, and potent, well-placed effects.

"Those Dastardly Desperados" (10:29, HD) puts a particular focus on the villains and their voice actors, but also generally describes the Batman '66 tone. Interviewees include Adam West, Burt Ward, Julie Newmar, co-screenwriters/producers James Tucker and Michael Jelenic, Jeff Bergman, Wally Wingert, William Salyers, and Creative Director, Animation for DC Entertainment Mike Carlin.

The same participants show up—along with casting and voice director Wes Gleason—in "A Classic Cadre of Voices" (10:01, HD), which slightly broadens the focus to deal with the voice direction. The disc also includes the previously released "A Sneak Peek at Batman Vs. Robin" (10:07, HD) and "A Sneak Peek at Son of Batman" (9:28, HD), as well as Trailers, including one for the upcoming live-action Wonder Woman.

Bat-fans will definitely want to collect this entertaining addendum to the recently released complete-series Blu-ray set of Batman


"Those Dastardly Desperados" (10:29, HD) Adam West, Burt Ward, Julie Newmar, co-writer/producers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker, Wally Wingert, William Salyers, Jeff Bergman, and Creative Director, Animation for DC Entertainment Mike Carlin.

"A Classic Cadre of Voices" (10:01, HD) casting and voice director Wes Gleason, West, Ward, Newmar, Wingert, Bergman, Salyers, Tucker, and Carlin.

"A Sneak Peek at Batman Vs. Robin" (10:07, HD)

"A Sneak Peek at Son of Batman" (9:28, HD)

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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