Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Batman vs. Dracula

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Batman vs. Dracula.

Of all the Batman TV series out there, one that seems to fly under a lot of radars is The Batman (no relation to the 2022 film of the same name), which debuted on the Kids’ WB Saturday morning block in 2004 and ran for a total of five Seasons. I actually have some personal connection with this show, since it was the first Batman cartoon I ever watched as a kid, though admittedly I only ever watched the first three Seasons at the time. Perhaps lesser known is the one DTV movie based on the series, The Batman vs. Dracula, which came out in 2005 and escaped my notice even when it aired on TV. After finding out the movie existed while browsing HBO Max, I made the time to watch it and found something much more than I initially anticipated.

During a Bingo match at Arkham Asylum, one inmate lets Penguin (Tom Kenny) in on an escape attempt, with the reward being half of a hidden treasure at Gotham Cemetery. However, Penguin is more shocked that said inmate also told Joker (Kevin Michael Richardson), who has escaped, triggering an alert from the guards. Penguin also manages to escape in the confusion, with him and Joker on their way to find the treasure, only for Joker to be thwarted by Batman (Rino Romano). As Batman goes after Joker, Penguin makes a wrong turn at the cemetery thanks to some vague directions and finds a coffin held by chains. While checking to see its contents, Penguin accidentally cuts himself on his umbrella and bleeds on the corpse locked inside, inadvertently rejuvenating the king of vampires, Count Dracula (Peter Stormare).

The Penguin (Tom Kenny, center) accidentally awakens Dracula
(Peter Stormare, right) with his blood.

Though based on a TV series, the movie works surprisingly well as a stand-alone experience, without requiring any prior knowledge of the source material. That said, it does help to have some cursory knowledge of Batman in general, though the dialogue still provides some context clues on characters such as Vicki Vale for the uninitiated. While I hadn’t seen beyond Season 3 of the series, which introduced Batgirl, at the time I first watched this, I was aware that Robin debuts in the TV series afterwards, though the absence of both here suggests that this movie takes place sometime within the first two Seasons, around when it would have been produced.

As for the story itself, it’s surprisingly darker than what I expected, even if the show it was based on had its own intense moments at times. Count Dracula is perhaps one of, if not the, darkest villains ever faced by this iteration of Batman, plus the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale provides an emotional crux to the story that works well in its favor. While there are still some funny moments, not to mention some pun-laced dialogue, they don’t detract from the seriousness of the threat. Some plot points are a little predictable, however the story is still well-written and engaging enough that one can easily look past it.

While the visual style is retained from the original series, the quality is a step up from what can be accomplished on a TV budget, with fluidity and lighting on par with the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series and even feels reminiscent of that show at times. The character designs by Jeff Matsuda (of Jackie Chan Adventures fame) are excellent at capturing the essence of familiar characters in their own way, with special mention to Batman himself and the titular Dracula. That said, it is understandable if Joker’s design is not to everyone’s liking, even though this film makes use of Joker’s second design from the show.

Joker's (Kevin Michael Richardson, right) design won't appeal to everyone.

The increased animation quality and the lack of network Standards and Practices holding the movie back allows for some more intense imagery, especially as far as vampires are concerned. Blood is featured prominently in some scenes, though not gratuitously outside from a very intense battle with a vampirized Joker in a blood bank. The fight scenes have very good cinematography, especially the aforementioned Joker battle and the physical encounters Batman has with Dracula, culminating in the vampire lord’s cathartic defeat.

The voice actors from the show return here, and their talents are put to great use here. Though I hadn’t heard these versions of the characters speak in quite some time, their performances sounded familiar enough to me that I was able to easily readjust to them. While the cast is fairly minimal, of note is SpongeBob SquarePants alum Tom Kenny’s take on The Penguin, as this was, and still is, a more no-nonsense villainous role for him amidst the number of joke villains he is known for. While Kevin Michael Richardson’s voice is perfectly suited for strong, yet soft-spoken characters such as Bulkhead in Transformers: Prime and Roadblock in G.I. Joe: Renegades, his more deranged take on Joker can serve as a good reminder of how much range he actually has as a voice actor. Though Mark Hamill comparisons are inevitable, Richardson’s performance works well for the more manic interpretation of the character.

While similar comparisons with Kevin Conroy are also inevitable, like Conroy, Rino Romano is effectively able to play a more grounded take on Bruce Wayne and Batman while still playing up the detective aspect of the character, allowing the viewer to connect with Bruce and empathize with his having to balance two identities. Lastly, Peter Stormare has a commanding presence as Dracula, a soft-spoken yet calculating villain with clear motivations and a sense of unease whenever he appears.

Peter Stormare is perfect for the role of Dracula.

While it is based on a Kids’ WB show, The Batman vs. Dracula is a surprisingly well-made Batman movie in its own right that even someone who hasn’t seen the The Batman cartoon can enjoy. That said, some of the more intense scenes may require parental advisory for a younger audience, as its content goes a step above what is acceptable for a TV-Y7 rating. For those who are interested in watching the series itself, a Complete Series box set has more recently been released on Blu-ray in time for the unconnected 2022 film and the entire thing can be streamed (at least for now) on HBO Max. As for this movie, while it can also be streamed on HBO Max, it is unfortunately not included in the aforementioned Blu-ray box set, though fortunately for physical collectors, the original DVD release and various DVD combo pack re-releases are not too difficult to find for a reasonable price secondhand.

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