Batman has an extensive history of stories, stretching all the way back to the mid-'30s. Since then he’s gone through dozens of re-imaginings, hundreds of villains, and even several sidekicks. There have been at least three different people to call themselves Robin over the years, and that becomes the focus of Under the Red Hood, the first Batman animated movie that’s in no way attached to the animated series of the ‘90s which spawned several other animated features, although it’s still produced by Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett (two veterans of the cartoon). The story takes place five years after the brutal death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. He’s viciously beaten to death by the Joker before Batman can come to his rescue. In the present, Batman is dealing with a war between the crime lord known as Black Mask and a newcomer calling himself the Red Hood (the name is revealed to be an old alias of the Joker).
Under the Red Hood is adapted from the story arcs “A Death in the Family” and “Under the Hood”, but you don’t need to have read these comics or have an in-depth understanding of Batman history to appreciate the story and its context (anyway, I haven’t read them and I understood everything just fine). There are several brief flashbacks to fill in the back story and – with the exceptions of a few villains – explain who everyone is. Aside from the Red Hood, a few other characters from Batman’s colorful Rogue’s Gallery make appearances. There's Ra’s al Ghul (Jason Isaacs), Black Mask, and a useless group of fighters called the Fearsome Hand of Four (which is a stupid name). Given his screen time and role in the plot, Black Mask (Wade Williams) is kind of a disappointment. His head is a black skull, but all he does is smash things in his office and bark orders at his underlings. He spends most of the movie screaming and whining about how difficult the Red Hood is making things for him. Nothing is revealed about his origin or even his relationship to the heroes. As far as Batman villains go, he’s a bit underwhelming.
To further emphasize it’s non-canon with the animated series they’ve even gone so far as to re-cast all of the characters, the most obvious being Batman and the Joker. Batman is now played by Bruce Greenwood instead of Kevin Conroy, and it’s unfortunate to say that he’s the weakest voice actor in the film. He lacks the charisma and range of Kevin Conroy’s Batman, growling out all his dialogue and we never get to see any discernible difference between the Batman and Bruce Wayne persona, though he’s rarely seen outside his costume anyway. The rest of the cast is good, with Neil Patrick Harris playing Nightwing (the original Robin), Jensen Ackles as the Red Hood, and most surprisingly, John DiMaggio as the Joker. John DiMaggio is most known for voicing Bender on "Futurama". He’s definitely not the obvious choice to follow in the footsteps of Mark Hamill, but his own take on the character is actually really interesting. Unlike the over-the-top theatricality of the previous animated Joker, his is much more downplayed and sinister. In a way its better suited to the tone of the movie, which is geared towards an older audience. It’s dark, violent, and action packed.
|Batman and the Joker|
In fact, it’s too action packed. This is not a Batman movie for dialogue, since most of it’s only there to bridge together the next big action sequence. There’s never a quite moment and at its worst, the story feels rushed. One of the worst moments is when Batman literally spells out what he’s feeling about his guilt over Robin and the new villain. In animation, this kind of thing is meant to be shown but it’s reduced to a quick sentence as Batman rushes off to the next fight. There’s no attention given to establishing the atmosphere of
and the way the characters live there. Bruce Wayne is almost never seen without his costume and neither is the inside of Wayne Manor. This story is about Batman only, and any scene with him not fighting is kept inside the Gotham City . Bat Cave itself isn’t as visually stylized as it’s been seen before; it’s more modern and doesn’t draw much attention to itself. It pales in comparison to the Gothic noir look that made the animated series so memorable. Gotham City
Given the devotion to the action sequences, at least they’re well executed. The character animations are fluid and the fights scenes are carefully choreographed. Batman, Nightwing, and the Red Hood are all ridiculously agile and skilled fighters, though they take some hits that would kill most people. In one scene the Red Hood, without the protection of his helmet, gets his face smashed into a wall, a sink and a toilet (all of which break), and yet he doesn’t have a single scratch on him. Overall, the animation is consistent and pretty polished. There’s some use of CG for vehicles and, though leaps and bounds better than it looked in Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero, it still clashes with the 2D characters and backgrounds.
It’s difficult not to compare Under the Red Hood to the previous animated movies, and it doesn't quite meet the standard they reached in terms of unique visual style and tone. It doesn't have the same emotional core that they did, instead putting all its emphasis into the fights. It almost feels as though it’s trying too hard to be dark and violent, when that’s not always effective. At its core, the story is about whether or not Batman is right in his devotion to not killing his enemies. Wouldn't the world be a better place if he just finally killed the Joker? This is a great theme for a Batman story, but when it’s finally brought to the foreground, the movie’s nearly over. It deserved more time to develop instead of being the focus of the finale. In the end, you have to ask yourself what’s more important: a story about Batman fighting the bad guys or a story about Batman?