Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/18/05 10:32:11

"Another great entry from the Batman animation team."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Back when “Batman & Robin” was busy stinking up the multiplexes, the good folks at the Warner Brothers animation department were putting the final touches on “SubZero,” a made-for-video feature meant to act as a merchandising tie-in to the Schumacher film and its lead villain, Mr. Freeze.

When the movie finally arrived in video stores in the spring of 1998 (following a production delay that, ironically enough, helped distance itself from the live action bomb), it proved what most fans already knew: that the folks behind the “Batman” animated series were the ones doing the real work. By presenting a rousing adventure, a gripping mystery, and a storyline that touched on the more tragic side of the archvillain, “SubZero” (aka “Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero”) was an effective slap in the face to the live action crew. Just as the animated Batman adventures that came before and after had proven, this was how the Caped Crusader should be done.

A sequel of sorts to the theatrical release “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” “SubZero” also served to bridge the gap between Fox’s “Batman: The Animated Series” and the revamped “The New Batman Adventures,” which was about to begin airing on the WB network. This would act as the final appearance of Dick Grayson (voiced by Loren Lester) as Robin; the character would soon be promoted to Nightwing. (Batman fans know what I’m talking about here. The rest of you, don’t worry. You don’t really need to know this stuff to enjoy the movie.) As a result, Robin would get more screen time here than he had during most of the early cartoon episodes.

In other words, we get to see Robin kick some serious ass, most notably in a sensational motorcycle chase that finds him pulling stunts to wow Evel Knievel. But despite the raise in plot importance, Robin/Dick isn’t the center of the film.

No, that distinction would belong to the notorious Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara), the wicked scientist who can only survive in arctic temperatures or, at least, a bulky “cold suit” designed to keep him alive and mobile. If you’re familiar with Freeze only through his Arnold Schwarzenegger incarnation, you’ve got the basics down - gun that shoots ice, dying wife cryogenically frozen - but you’re missing the deadly seriousness behind the character. Freeze, formerly Dr. Victor Fries, isn’t an evil man right out, but his quest to keep his wife alive has turned him to crime. Like the best members of Batman’s “rogues’ gallery,” there’s a sadness behind the villainy, and in both the “Batman” TV series and “SubZero,” the filmmakers never shun from this. The cartoon format is never used as an excuse to make the character, well, cartoonish. (Side note: the Freeze episodes of the cartoon series were perhaps its best, a favorite of critics and fans alike.)

In this adventure, Freeze’s wife is on the brink of death, and only an organ transplant will save her life. But with no deceased donor available, “we’ll have to use a live donor,” Freeze ominously decides. And how’s this for a problem: the only compatible donor available is none other than Barbara Gordon - better known to you as Batgirl.

“SubZero” isn’t as sharp as “Phantasm,” which set the standard for Batman animation, and it lacks the clever surprises of the direct-to-video features that followed (“The Batman/ Superman Movie” and “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker”). It’s the clunkiest of the cartoon features, with some dialogue that doesn’t quite flow, a story that feels a bit too rushed in places in order to keep the running time brief, and a forced blend of traditional and computer animation that occasionally doesn’t mesh.

And yet, it’s still miles ahead of anything Warners had to offer in their live action line, save Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.” The filmmakers here, led by director/co-writer Boyd Kirkland, give their characters life; these are people who never see their story as a “cartoon,” but as a heartfelt tale of love and loss, with a few ’splosions and sci-fi wizardy thrown in for good measure. There’s a depth to Freeze’s pain here, and his frozen heart (metaphor alert!) has shut off his emotions, turning him to villainy at the cost of his soul. The filmmakers present Freeze in such a way that you almost want to root for the poor guy. Watch, also, as Commissioner Gordon reacts to his daughter’s kidnapping; you never saw that kind of raw emotion in the live action pictures.

“SubZero” also takes more risks that you’d expect from such a mainstream animated feature. Michael McCuistion’s musical score layers jazz and swing on top of the traditional “action” orchestral themes you’d expect from a Batman flick. The script keeps its heroes out of costume and in their “secret identities” longer than you’d think, trusting its mystery-tinged plotline to carry the film. Sure, there’s tons of comic book action, but Kirkland and co-writer Randy Rogel go by the same idea used to make the animated series such a success: they place story first. The result is a movie that’s smarter, richer, and more involving than most direct-to-video cartoons.

The film’s video premiere came pretty much under the pop culture radar, and therefore the film’s spent the past five years living a life as the unknown cousin in the Batman franchise. Fans loved it, of course, but limited promotion kept its reputation among the general renting public as “just another cartoon.” That’s too bad. None of the “Batman” animated features are “just” cartoons; they’re prime examples of the best these characters have to offer.

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