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Animation Update! Josh reviews the final Futurama adventure and DC’s new Wonder Woman film!

Two rather high-profile new direct-to-DVD animation projects have been released recently — but are they worth your time and hard-earned dollars?  Well read on, true believers!

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder — And so, once again, we bid farewell to Futurama.  Matt Groening’s lunatic sci-fi series was brutally cancelled by Fox back in 2003 after only four seasons.  Luckily, after several long years of waiting, the series was resurrected for a series of four direct-to-DVD feature-length animated films, of which this is the last.  While these new movies haven’t quite reached the high-points of the series’ best episodes (I’m thinking about episodes such as The Farnsworth Parabox, Roswell That Ends Well, Love and Rocket, War is the H-Word, Amazon Women in the Mood, The Bird-bot of Ice-Catraz, The Problem with Popplers, or The Day the Earth Stood Stupid), they have been very, very good.  The strongest, in my opinion, was The Beast with a  Billion Backs, in which David Cross (Arrested Development, Mr. Show) plays the alien Yivo who attempts to mate with every creature in the universe, while the weakest was Bender’s Game (as I found the extended fantasy sequence in the middle of the film to be a bit dull).

Into the Wild Green Yonder contains all the crazy zaniness, wild side-stories, and obscure sci-fi references that I have come to expect from the series.  The plot is almost beside the point, but I will attempt a summation.  The story begins on Mars, where the construction of a new Mars Vegas is disrupted by a band of eco-feminists.  Pretty soon Fry has been declared the savior of the universe by a bunch of telepaths wearing aluminum foil hats, Bender arouses the wrath of the mobster Don-Bot for making out with his wife, Leela goes under-cover with the feminists, and it all builds to a massive space-ship battle in the middle of an intergalactic mini-golf course.

The DVD is very solid — the animation is GORGEOUS, as always.  The story, despite some digressions, works well as a movie.  There are very few lulls between big laughs.  As for the ending — well, the original Futurama series was cancelled without any time to produce a final episode, so with this being the final DVD (for now, at least — hope always springs eternal that these will have proven profitable enough for more to be on the way!), fans wondered if we’d get some sort of “finale” to the over-all story.  Well, I think they got things just right.  The last scene is just terrific, with some nice closure that doesn’t close the door on further adventures.  And the very last shot?  Perfection.

If this is the end of Futurama then I will consider us lucky at being given the incredible gift of these four direct-to-DVD movies.  BUT… come-on… there’s a lot more mileage left in this series, right?  Let’s see four more DVDs!!

Wonder Woman — The enormous success of Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series lead to several other Bruce Timm-lead DC animated series: Superman, Batman Beyond, and Justice League. Marked by gorgeous animation and adult storytelling, it was intriguing the way all four of those animated series seemed to share a larger universe, with characters and story-lines carried over from one series to the next.  When the door closed on this DC Animated Universe with the end of Justice League in May, 2006, it seemed like the end of a remarkable decade of entertainment.  But soon-after, DC and Warner Brothers delighted fans by announcing that Bruce Timm would be spearheading a new line of direct-to-DVD animated films based on DC comics.  These would not be set in the shared universe of Timm’s TV shows — rather, they would each be stand-alone adventures, many of which would be adapted directly from seminal comic books, and they would be aimed squarely at adults.  Wow!  I’m sure I wasn’t alone at being overwhelmed with excitement at the thought that Timm would get to cut loose with some high-quality PG-13 animated films.

Unfortunately, the track record of this series has been pretty mixed so far.  The first project was an adaptation of the multi-issue Death of Superman storyline that made such waves back in the 90’s.  I don’t have great affection for that sprawling tale, but I was impressed with the way that Timm and co. condensed it into a pretty solid hour-and-a-half film.  Adam Baldwin (Jayne from Firefly) did terrific work as the new voice of Superman, and there was some pretty spectacular action.  The next film was adapted from a much higher-quality piece of source material, Darwyn Cooke’s retelling of the Golden Age origins of DC’s superheroes, The New Frontier.  Sadly, while there was clearly a lot of love on display in the animated adaptation, I found it to be pretty flat, missing a lot of the fun and dramatic energy of Cooke’s original work.  The third project was an anthology of Batman stories called Gotham Knight, with each short story created by a variety of different animators of wildly differing styles.  An interesting exercise, but not that compelling to me.

Which brings us to Wonder Woman.  I am pleased to report that this is a solid little adventure.  As always with these DC animated projects, the voice-cast is stellar.  Keri Russell is fabulous as Wonder Woman — tough but also able to bring a lot of humor to the role.  Speaking of humor, Nathan Fillion (Captain Mal from Firefly — I guess the casting director liked that show, huh?) is as reliably great as he always is as Steve Trevor, the pilot who crash-lands on Wonder Woman’s home of Paradise Island.  Fillion’s energy lifts every scene that he’s in, and he effectively walks the fine line between being a bit of a cad, but a lovable one.  Alfred Molina gives good menace as the villain, Ares, and Rosario Dawson, Oliver Platt, and Virginia Madsen also turn in fine work in supporting roles.

The design of the characters — the look and feel of the world — is very well done.  The design of Wonder Woman herself is particularly good.  She is strong and feminine without looking silly, and they gave her a slightly exotic look to her face that gives her a distinct, unique look, as opposed to appearing like a generic super-bimbo.  The animation is solid but not spectacular.  The film builds to a particularly carnage-filled battle in Washington, DC., which is cool, but the animation doesn’t quite sell the scale of things.  I think about an animated film like Akira, released back in 1988, that so gorgeously captured the enormous devastation that would result from the clash of super-powered beings.  In comparison to that, Wonder Woman‘s final battle looks pretty small.  (Although, to be fair, so too does almost EVERY American animated film released in the intervening years!  And this certainly isn’t a big-budget theatrical release.)  I suppose the problem is that live-action super-hero films have gotten so good at bringing the world of super-heroes to extraordinarily vivid life that it’s hard for these modestly-budgeted animated efforts to compete.  For many years, these animated adventures could show us the type of spectacle that a live-action movie could never possibly capture.  But having just watched a film like Watchmen, it is now clear that the sky’s the limit in terms of what those films can accomplish with their visual effects — and these sorts of animated projects really need to raise the bar in order to compete.

I also found myself distracted by some pretty large plot holes in the film.  Who the heck were Steve Trevor and his fellow pilots fighting in that first aerial dog-fight?  After the other pilots are killed and Steve is rescued by Wonder Woman, he goes off on an adventure with her following Ares for the rest of the film.  But, um, doesn’t he have to check in with his superiors in the military, to let them know that he’s alive?  During the final big battle in DC, the President orders a nuclear strike on Paradise Island.  Cut to a missle shooting out from right over the Washington Monument.  Um, hasn’t it been established that Paradise Island is somewhere over by Greece?  Don’t we have some missiles closer to that part of the world that we could launch?  Do we really have a nuclear silo right by the Washington monument?  These sorts of lapses are distracting.

I sound like I’m being very critical of Wonder Woman, and I don’t mean to be.  It really is a nice rousing adventure story.  I really appreciated the more adult areas that the PG-13 rating allows this film to explore.  The combat sequences are pretty violent, and Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor’s banter is allowed to be a bit more risque than one otherwise might have expected.

Ultimately my disappointment is that this type of story isn’t where I wanted DC’s direct-to-DVD series to go.  The original announcement had seemed to indicate that the series would focus more on adaptations of classic comic stories as opposed to this sort of one-off origin story that isn’t based on any specific source material.  This is the sort of thing that most of the live-action super-hero films do, creating a new story that is sort of a “melange” of various bits of story-lines and background from the many years of the character’s history.  It’s not what I was hoping for from these DVDs.  (To my dismay, the preview included on the Wonder Woman disc seems to indicate that the next DVD, a Green Lantern adventure, will be exactly this same type of not-based-on-anything-specific tale.)  Where is my epic animated adaptation of The Great Darkness Saga?  Or Batman: Year One?  Or Kingdom Come?  How cool would that be?

Maybe someday…

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