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New Bat in the Belfry

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To coincide with the upcoming release of “Batman Begins,” the latest animated incarnation of the Caped Crusader will soon be making its debut on DVD. “The Batman: Training For Power” is a collection of episodes from the Kids’ WB series that will be available May 24. I was lucky enough to get a preview copy, thanks to the fine folks at Warner Home Video and Dan Klores Communications.

I must confess that, having grown up with the stylish “Batman: The Animated Series” of the mid-90s, I’m a bit biased when it comes to the Dark Knight in animation. Due to the complexity and film noir visuals of that earlier show, to me, any animated Batman is in that series’ shadow. That said this new series - called simply “The Batman” - is still a fun reinterpretation of the character’s world. The target audience seems to be slightly younger than that of the previous series but I’m all for the Batman legend passing from one generation to the next. One of the character’s strengths is his adaptability, as the many versions of Batman over the years prove.

For those unfamiliar with “The Batman,” the series focuses on a young Bruce Wayne still finding his sea legs as a superhero. While honing his skills and facing a developing new breed of super-criminals, Batman must also contend with a distrustful police force, one which includes his childhood friend, Ethan Bennett. The “Training For Power” DVD contains three episodes. In “The Bat in the Belfry,” our neophyte crime-fighter first meets his eternal foe, the Joker. “Traction” pits the Batman against the super-strong mercenary Bane. And finally, “Call of the Cobblepot” introduces the Penguin and his surprising connection to Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler, Alfred.

On viewing the DVD, I was instantly struck by the design of the series. While not the stylized noir look I’m accustomed to, the characters all have an appealing roundness to them and move with a graceful flow. The imposing buildings of Gotham City are contrasted against a stark and dramatic sky, usually a solid and almost unnatural color like dark red or green. The animators have come up with interesting new spins on the cast of characters. Batman himself has a sleek and aerodynamic costume design with creepy almond-shaped eyes and claw-like gloves. The Joker gallivants about with a wild mane of green hair and a broken straight jacket. Other villains (glimpsed in the title sequence) are noteworthy as well, such as Mr. Freeze’s spiky dome of ice and Catwoman’s adoption of the leather-and-goggles look of the recent comics.

In addition to the younger inexperienced Batman, the series uses several techniques to keep things fresh and up to date for today’s kids. The simple electric guitar riff of the theme song is incredibly catchy. Batman’s gadgets and vehicles have gotten a makeover and a new pocket computer/pager gizmo called the BatWave assists in Bruce’s war on crime. The new characters Ethan Bennett and Ellen Yin (hey, it’s Ming-Na! Watch out Gotham, Mulan is on the hunt!) provide a different perspective on Batman’s activities as we see their rivalry and grudging respect for the vigilante. Bennett’s friendship with Bruce adds a nice bit of tension to the stories and humanizes the lead character, as in the scene where the two play a game of hoops. The series also throws in some nice Easter eggs for the comics fans like an appearance by crime lord Rupert Thorne and street names that honor Batman writers and artists.

As fun as all this is, at times I felt the show might be trying too hard to be hip. The basketball scene and the slang in Bruce’s dialogue, for instance, seem a bit odd from such a grim avenger of the night. Still, I tried to keep in mind that this is a much younger Batman and that the hero wasn’t always the anti-social figure of the modern comics.

“Training For Power” was not without its flaws however. Three episodes seem like a somewhat small number for a $14.97 DVD. Warner Bros.’ animation releases seem to be erratic in this way, varying from three, four, or five episode collections to full seasons. I guess the rationale is smaller collections for the kids, seasons for the hardcore fans. But I would warn the buyer not to be suckered into purchasing the same material twice if “The Batman: Season One” is put together later on. Also, the special features on the disc leave a bit to be desired. One features Ellen Yin wandering the halls of Mattel searching for clues and getting mainly a commercial for the nifty new Batman toys. Another is a non-interactive trivia quiz that flies by so fast, one barely has time to read the questions.

Overall, however, “The Batman: Training For Power” is an entertaining spin on Gotham’s guardian. If you’re a longtime fan reared on the comics or “Batman: The Animated Series,” this may not be the Dark Knight as you know him. But if you’re new to the character or looking to get a child hooked on the adventure and imagination of Gotham City, this DVD is a nice primer.

- Eric Lindberg

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