Batman: The Animated Series was a beloved cartoon of my youth, especially since back in the '90s there weren't a whole lot of quality comic book series to choose from. The series had a neo-noir aesthetic that made it stand out from all the other cartoons that were airing at the time and it hearkened back to the classic Bob Kane/Bill Finger Batman run--albeit with modern sensibilities. And so after a successful first season of the show, Warner Bros. decided to make a movie adaptation of the series. It was originally going to be released direct-to-video, but at the last minute the studio decided to give it a theater run which also bumped up the budget for the production to $6 million dollars.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm has a dual narrative going--a murder mystery and a romantic subplot involving Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) and his first love Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany). Oddly enough, there really hasn't been much focus on Batman's love life in other adaptations, at least not on any meaningful level. Most of the story of Batman's romance is conveyed via flashbacks in the film and the writing is nuanced and subtle. You actually get to see a full character arc from both Batman and Andrea which is impressive coming from a cartoon meant for children. It's handled in an adult way and really does an excellent job on shining the light on some of Batman's deeper motivations. Andrea is a great female protagonist and she is portrayed as an intelligent and strong woman. It's a credit to the writers that they were able to have Andrea not just be foil for Batman and give her own aspirations and ambition.
The main villain is a cloaked figure shrouded in smoke that is killing off various gangsters in Gotham City. Of course Joker (Mark Hamill) can't help but stick his nose into everything as well, and injects his usual brand of violence and mayhem. This is my all time favorite version of Joker because he's the perfect blend of macabre and cheesy, almost like an evil circus ringmaster of sorts. Nobody does Joker's laugh as awesome and as iconic as Mark Hamill and this is his best voice work of all time. Kevin Conroy's Batman is great as well, and he always strikes a great balance between the smooth and suave Bruce Wayne and the menacing and gruff Batman voice.
With their increased budget, the animators were able to give Mask of the Phantasm a gorgeous and lavish look. The film opens with a swanky CGI trip through the skyline of Gotham City and it looks pretty damn good for the early '90s. Everything has an art deco quality with dark rich colors and plenty of shadows. This is definitely the best looking DC animated production ever made and it still hasn't been topped by recent offerings from the studio. The set-pieces have a real cinematic feel and scope and it was also made in widescreen which allows more visual information on the screen at a time. The action scenes are thrilling but the softer romantic moments are moving. Everything in this film feels epic and like it has emotional weight.
Shirley Walker's score is sumptuous and riveting--she also did much of the music for the animated series. The majority of it is a moody orchestral score but my personal favorite piece is the faux Gregorian chant piece that opens the film. It's so haunting and beautiful and it perfectly represents the theme of lost love in the film. Another memorable section is at the climax of the film where a choir ramps the music up to a fevered pitch, almost like an opera. Shirley has said that Phantasm is her favorite out of all of her compositions.
Not only is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm one of the all time best Batman stories, it's also one of the greatest animated films ever made. Everything about it is top notch: the story, the voice work, the animation and the music. Unfortunately, it's only available on DVD at the moment, but hopefully its cult status amongst fans will convince Warner Bros. to give it a lavish Blu-ray treatment in the future.
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