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BATMAN AND HARLEY QUINN (2017) review

August 15, 2017

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written by: Bruce Timm and James Krieg
produced by: Alan Burnett
directed by: Sam Liu
rated: PG-13 (for sexual content, language, violence and action, and for rude humor)
runtime: 74 min.
U.S. release date: August 14, 2017 (theatrical), August 15, 2017 (digital) and August 29, 2017 (VOD/digital & DVD/Blu-ray)

 

Last summer, Fathom Events held a successful one-night only nationwide screening of a new DC Animated Universe feature “Batman: The Killing Joke”, based on the popular 1988 standalone graphic novel. Although, it was pretty awful, it wound up grossing $4.4 million worldwide, so it only makes sense that Warner Brothers/DC Entertainment is trying that again this summer with the ineptly-titled “Batman and Harley Quinn”, directed by Sam Liu, the same guy responsible for the controversial “The Killing Joke”. Some have already seen it at the world premiere screening last month at SDCC (that’s San Diego Comic Con), but now everyone else will get a chance to see it before it comes to digital platforms the very next day and DVD/Blu-ray on August 29th. Considering Liu’s last Batman adaptation was a letdown, I went into this viewing with tempered excitement.

There were a couple things that had me excited going in though. One was the involvement of Bruce Timm – who, for those of you unaware, was one of the artists/writers/producers behind the “Batman: The Animated Series”, the excellent animated show which kicked off DC’s now-successful feature-length animated ventures. Although he was involved in “The Killing Joke”, that was primarily award-winning comics writer Brian Azzarello’s R-rated baby and an unnecessary adaptation of Alan Moore’s original work. “Batman and Harley Quinn” is an original story by Timm (who created the rambunctious character with writer Paul Dini, another architect of “The Animated Series), capitalizing on the uncanny popularity of Harley Quinn.

The other reason was the incorporation of the Bruce Timm animation style for this particular tale, which harkens back to the “The Animated Series” look. Previous animated features that have adapted well-known comics storylines or graphic novels try to mirror the work of the original artist for their animation approach, which is understandable. But, I always welcome when Timm and company, revisit the style of “The Animated Series” (also known as TAS), which both Timm and Liu did for the alternate realty tale “Justice League: Gods and Monsters” from 2015. I’m always down for a revisit of this look.

 

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The story opens in a S.T.A.R. Labs facility in Gotham which is being overrun by Jason Woodrue/Floronic Man (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) and Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy (Paget Brewster), a plant pair who are desperately trying to download a secret formula created by Dr. Alec Holland (a name that’ll be met with a knowing nod by DC aficionados), which will help them create and unleash a potent toxin that can help them turn the planet’s populace into plant creatures, since mankind has ruined the earth with pollutants, fossil fuels and deadly carbons (come now, we can’t have a Poison Ivy tale without some mention of the damages of climate change or global warming). Yes, it’s the same goal that Dr. Curt Connors had in “The Amazing Spider-Man“, but there are only so many nefarious plots plant villains can come up with.

The two get away with the information they need before the authorities or a certain Dark Knight could stop them, but it doesn’t take long for Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Nightwing (Loren Lester) to trace what was downloaded and deduce what travesty could befall the world if Floro and Ivy get their way.

To stop the photosynthetic villains, the dynamic duo (for those out of the loop, Nightwing is Dick Grayson, the first Robin) split up, knowing they have to learn Floro and Ivy’s motives and discover who might know their whereabouts. Batman knock on the door of the Advanced Research Group Uniting Super-Humans (A.R.G.U.S.) – a covert organization that’s mentioned in the last year’s two DCEU offerings – and checks in with Sarge Steel (also voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) for some info, while Nightwing gets the short straw and has the task of tracking down Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn (Melissa Rauch “The Big Bang Theory”). This is where things get crazy and where we catch up with the sociopath title character.

Batman reluctantly agrees that he and Nightwing should team-up with Harley because she would know how to finds Ivy, since she has an on-and-off BFF status with the comely eco-terrorist. This turns the 74-minute tale into something of a road trip of the procedural slant, with an overly enthusiastic Harley turning into the Leo Getz to Nightwing and Batman’s Riggs and Murtaugh (respectively). Their mission takes the unlikely trio from Gotham to nearby Bludhaven and to the swamps of Louisiana, home to a certain “Thing”, in order to stop Floro and Ivy from turning everything and everyone into plant life, restoring the world to an idyllic Eden.

 

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What stands out the most in “Batman and Harley Quinn” is the comedy. It’s not outright slapstick, but it’s full of zingers and ribbing (mostly from Harley) and impeccable comic timing on the part of both the animators and the voice actors. There are great action sequences here with fantastic choreography, but what’ll stick from this feature will be the sometimes awkward/often hilarious interaction between Batman, Nightwing and Harley. It’s welcome escapism from the “grim and gritty” approach we’re often subjected to from the DC Universe, be it comics or cinema.

Granted, some of that interaction will bring an awareness of this movie’s PG-13 rating (maybe too late for some parents) – let’s just say that when it comes to mention of “sexual content”, this movie could’ve easily been called “Nightwing and Harley Quinn” (or “Nightwig”, as Harley likes to call him). No doubt, there will be objections to such adult situations and humor in “a Batman cartoon” – which I understand considering I felt a little uncomfortable seeing a young boy with his father exit the theater the same time I did – but hey, it is mentioned in the rating. Maybe that boy got a kick out of Harley farting in the Batmobile like I did. I may have had it with fart jokes in comedies, but I must say that the sequence here was quite an unexpected hoot.

The comedy isn’t just limited to the dialogue however, it’s also found in the situations and locations the trio found themselves in. When Nightwing tracks down Harley, she’s hiding in plain sight, waiting tables in her super-villain duds at a diner called Superbabes. It’s a place that’ll be met with a knowing nod by DC fans and maybe even uneasy male-gazing for some viewers. The roadside bar where Harley takes Batman and Nightwing to find some information that will lead them to Ivy’s whereabouts.

It’s an ingenuous location, created by co-writers Bruce Timm and James Krieg, where henchmen go to drink and dance (the camera pans, revealing a room full of dancing henchmen who move in much the same way as Schultz’s Peanuts) and as our trio walk in, they witness identical twins (who resemble Jimmy Olsen) onstage, belting out obscure deep cut, “Don’t Pull Your Love”, the 1971 classic from soft rock trio Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. This is also where Melissa Rauch – who nails her portrayal of Harley throughout – gets a chance to belt out an original tune of her own as Harley and it’s a nice change of pace from all the chases and fights we expect in these features.

 

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Fans of the TAS, may remember an episode called “Harlequinade” from Season 2, where Batman enlisted the help of an incarcerated Harley Quinn in order to stop Joker from unleashing a bomb on Gotham. That was 1994 and Harley Quinn as a character has skyrocketed since, so it should be no surprise to see Bats teaming up with the Joker’s right hand gal. Thankfully, there’s no mention of the Clown Prince of Crime, allowing Harley room to take center stage. What you’ll see in this feature is

As expected, the voice-acting here is excellent, with seasoned professionals returning and providing spot-on portrayals of iconic characters. We all know Kevin Conroy is the best Batman, but it’s a kick to see him stretching his comedy chops a bit here. There’s still the deadpan Dark Knight delivery down, but he also knows how to perfectly convey Harley getting under Batman’s cowl. Anyone who’s met or have seen interviews with Conroy, knows that he can be quite funny. Again, Rauch is fantastic here as Harley (easily placing herself alongside Arleen Sorkin and Tara Strong, a few of the great talents who’ve voiced the character in the past) and exudes an impressive range in her performance of the manic and resilient anti-hero/villain. The screenplay allows Rauch to mine the character for some depth and complexities that may surprise viewers, this can be specifically seen in her interaction with Brewster’s Ivy.

One highlight is how Lester’s Nightwing is just as prominent a character as Conroy’s Batman, something you may not expect going in. Nightwing not only gets into some compromising positions with Harley, but he also has some great reaction shots, hilariously responding to the story situations. Lester, who was the original voice of Robin in TAS and went on to portray Dick as Nightwing in the series, hasn’t voiced the character since the 2003 video game “Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu”. So, it’s a real treat to hear him back in the role, working off of the identifiable chemistry that’s established between him and Conroy within the past twenty-five years.

There are some missteps, but they don’t take away from the enjoyment of revisiting these characters in this style with these actors. Some of the length of the action feels a little padded and the ending feels kind of rushed, but I’m not gonna complain since there are enough clever laugh-out-loud moments that really stick. Still, “Batman and Harley Quinn” is proof that Timm and company still have a enthusiastic affinity for these characters, especially Harley.  If you are at all a fan of Bruce Timm and his classic style and irreverent humor, you need to check this one out.

NOTE: There are a couple of great end credit scenes you’ll want to stick around for. Imagine Harleen Quinzel hosting a television show that’s a mashup of Dr. Phil and American Ninja Warrior. Need I say more?

 

 

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RATING: ***

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