written by: Judd Winick
produced by: Bruce Timm, Bobbi Page & Alan Burnett
directed by: Brandon Vietti
rated PG-13 (for violent content and some drug references)
DVD & Bluray release date: July 27, 2010
Twenty-two years ago, fanboys killed off Batman’s second partner in crimefighting in DC comic’s “A Death in the Family” storyline. Fans were complaining about Jason Todd, who would go on to become the second Robin. It was either their devotion to Dick Grayson, the first Robin, or their annoyance with Todd that led a 900 number light up with a thumbs down verdict. It was the first time readers were exposed to an emotionally raw Batman and the first time a superhero was murdered, in a phone-voting method, no less. But, with superhero comics being how they are, no one dies forever.
In 2005 a year-long story called “Under the Hood’ brought Batman’s biggest regret back from the dead, resulting in an emotional and volatile battle between messed-up mentor and petulant pupil that rocked Gotham City. Now, Warner Bros. has released a DC Universe Animated Original Movie combining both storylines, as the latest in a run of successful direct-to-DVD features. The result is a concise and solid adaptation of a story that shows a vulnerable side to the vigilante we know so well.
The story starts out in Sarajevo, Bosnia, with The Joker bludgeoning Batman’s protégé, Jason Todd, with a crowbar in an abandoned warehouse. It’s not too clear why The Joker (John DiMaggio) is there but it appears Ra’s al Ghul (Jason Isaacs) is involved, obviously not realizing what an unstable sociopathic the Clown Prince of Crime truly is. Despite his best efforts, Batman (Bruce Greenwood) is too late to rescue Jason and discovers the his limp body among the bombed warehouse debris. Needless to say, this event will leave an undeniable.
Five years later, Batman and Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris), are cleaning up the Gotham riverfront of the usual scum and villainy. Nightwing is Dick Grayson, the first Robin, now his own man, fighting crime alongside the man who is like a father to him. Grayson turned out just fine, even more stable than Bruce. But Jason was always reckless and overconfident. Together, they go from fighting some mob goons to battling a virtually unstoppable android named Amazon (Fred Tatasciore) that takes everything they got to take it down. What is this thing and who brought it to Gotham?
Before they can find out, sniper fire from a rooftop takes out the goons. Batman pursues the shooter who turns out to be Red Hood (Jensen Ackles). He’s the guy forcefully taking over all organized crime in Gotham, making life difficult for Black Mask (Wade Williams), the current psycho kingpin. Not only is Red Hood running the crime world but he’s also taking a more forceful, amoral approach to vigilantism than Batman. Being the world’s greatest detective, Batman surmises that Red Hood is actually Jason Todd. Now he has to face what he considers to be his greatest failure and figure out a way to help him. Add Joker back into the mix and we not only get a violent climax but also a pivotal moment where Jason gives Batman an opportunity to rid the world once and for all of his greatest enemy.
DC has been killing in the direct-to-DVD area for years now, while their competitor, Marvel, has yet to rise to the quality of animated features in this market. It all started back in the early 90’s when Bruce Timm (who does a great job here as The Riddler in a fun flashback scene) and Alan Burnett came out with Batman: The Animated Series. That series became a ground-breaking success that paved the way for a Superman and a Justice League series, both fantastic, and that same quality carried over into the several stand-alone features released on DVD/Bluray.
You need not be well versed or immersed in any of those to enjoy “Under the Red Hood” but it helps to be a fan of Batman, in general, as well as the realism that Christopher Nolan has brought to the big screen. With a beaten teen left for dead, this isn’t the “KAPOW!” animated Batman some may expect. Red Hood delivering a bag of severed heads kinda seals the PG-13 rating. Yes, this is animated yet with the level of violence and drama here, it’s far from kid-friendly but that’s what “Batman: Brave and the Bold” is for.
While this is a sold, concise adaptation of the Winick storyline, Timm and company could have made this one even more realistic. It’s hard to believe that after repeated blows by a crowbar, young Jason Todd could even move. It’s also hard to imagine that in a climactic brawl between the Red Hood and the Dark Knight, involving heads been smashed against porcelain sinks and toilets, that neither of them suffer concussions, much less a pulverized face. Instead, they’re not even out of breath, able to carry on with dialogue after their fight. I know, these aren’t actors. But they are animated characters placed in an urban setting that represents the seedy side of life. It would’ve helped if Timm and Co. pushed the red, black and blue a little further. Now, I don’t have a bloodlust but I if you’re gonna go there….then go there!
Still, that’s a small quibble as there is little to complain about here. As mentioned, Winick does a solid job trimming down a lengthy story but if anyone should do it, let it be the original writer as is the case here. He may have short-changed Black Mask to a low-rent goombah but at least he gets the emotions of the two main characters right, which is really what’s at the core of the story. Winick is able to neatly inject some pivotal flashbacks that flesh out the story while navigating around the action and thrills.
Credit also must be given to both composer, Christopher Drake and casting & voice director, Andrea Romano. Both have been integral assests in previous DC Universe Animated Features and confirm their talent here. Drake delivers a score that’s moody and compelling where needed and adequately frenzied during all the action. Getting just the right cast assembled for these features is what makes or breaks such an endeavor and Romano gets it just right.
Bruce Greenwood, stepping in for Batman veteran Kevin Conroy, doesn’t get lost in his gravel-voiced Caped Crusader (you hear that, Christian Bale?) and adds just the right amount of emotion to the role of Bruce Wayne. In fact, he’s a perfect fit. As Jason Todd/Red Hood, Jensen Ackles (“Supernatural”) does a good job conveying the needed rage and recklessness under the hood. There’s also some great yet underused work by Neil Patrick Harris as Dick Grayson/Nightwing, maybe DC can give him his own feature. The standout though is John DiMaggio (best known for his role as Bender in “Futurama”) as The Joker, who brings an eerie weight that the story calls for. Moreso heath ledger than the superb voice work from Mark Hamill we’ve been given over he years. You won’t hear Bender at all in this part, just an animated and unsettling sociopath.
Bottom line, any fan of the excellent animated series that started it all will enjoy this. Anyone familiar with Winick’s storyline will understand the logical adaptation changes and should appreciate how straight-forward and concise it is while still being entertaining.
Now for the bells and whistles….
The 2-Disc set and the Blu-ray have about the same Special Features which keep the geeks happy long after viewing the main feature. There are several trailers for past releases and significant coverage for DC’s next animated feature release, “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse”, which hits the streets on September 28th. Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy return to their respective roles as Superman and Batman and they are joined by Andre Braugher as Darkseid, Summer Glau as Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, and Susan Eisenberg as Princess Diana/Wonder Woman. Expect an animated short with Green Arrow to be included in the 2-Disc set and Blu-ray.
Just as the last DC Universe Animated Original Movie came with an all-new animated of The Spectre, under the label DC Showcase, “Under the Red Hood” presents a fun, exclusive short featuring Jonah Hex, directed by Joaquim dos Santos. Adapted by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Grey and Phil Noto, this is an Old West yarn that finds a dangerous Madam (Linda Hamilton) coming in between Hex (Thomas Jane) and his bounty (Michael Rooker). The story, acting and music is just right for the character and setting. While the animation is a bit too anime, this is still an awesome piece of work and it’s a shame the big-screen film (released in June) didn’t take this approach.
Rounding out the rest of the extras Robin: The Story of Dick Grayson which focuses on why the creators gave Batman a sidekick (“so he could have someone to talk to”) back in the day and how that character came to be Robin. It has various creators and DC heads talking about how Robin balances out Batman and what the color green means (?!?!) in an unnecessarily long feature. It’s kinda funny considering Dick Grayson is barely in the feature. I would’ve preferred interviews with the voice-acting talent.
Overall, this is a great package deal and with a satisfying featuere surrounded by fun extras. It shows that DC continues to rock in the animated feature department. Time will tell if this kind of quality work will translate well to the live-action big screen.