Batman: The Animated Series – Episode 02 – Christmas With The Joker
Writer: Eddie Gorodetsky
Director: Kent Butterworth
Theme Score: Shirley Walker
Episode Score: Michael McCuiston and Lolita Ritmanis
Animation Studio: AKOM Production Company
Story Editors: Sean Catherine Derek and Paul Dini
The Joker has been an interesting villain ranging from the initial comics as a playful, if not more cerebral and sometimes dangerous villain from the 1940s through the 1960s to Cesar Romero’s classic hammed up performance in the 1960’s Batman television show to then very recent exploits by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman film. Later on, Heath Ledger would don the role for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight but this episode is largely our introduction to one of, if not the, most famed incarnations of the clowned prince of crime. On the heels of Frank Miller’s Joker in his Batman series in the comic realm, this Joker managed to balance the mirth and merriment of Dad’s Joker with the pathos and creepiness of the ‘modern day’ Joker of that time period.
In a curious bit of casting, Tim Curry had initially been granted the role of The Joker and even filmed several scenes (if not even entire episodes) but had to step down from the role with varying reasons as to why, although Paul Dini explains in his Batman Animated book that Curry was so intense, often resulting in coughing fits after voicing just a few lines, that he’d wear himself out. Other rumors range from Curry’s dropping out to film another movie while WB execs may have thought Curry was simply too terrifying. The great news that came out of that, of course, was the hiring of Mark Hamill. A longtime comic book fanatic, he proceeded to marry Cesar’s light, jolly attitude with the cold, psychopathic clarity of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. To say the voice work would become instantly iconic is like saying Gone With the Wind was merely a great film lauded with appropriate accolades.
Right from the title card we realize that this Joker is not even close to the 1960’s version nor is it the Nicholson style one either. This guy has a sharper nose, almost beak like, with a grin that almost comes off more Devilish than anything else all slapped in a Santa suit and hat with a sack on his back.
Kent Butterworth had come off directing Tiny Toon Adventures and The Ren & Stimpy Show so the slapstick aspect of the episode mostly works towards his favor. Eddie Gorodetsky was mostly known as a Saturday Night Live writer during the 1986 and 1987 seasons while contributing the character of news reporter Summer Gleeson to the BTAS continuity.
We get our first look at Arkham Asylum, made more impressive if not solitary and larger than life by the way it sits on a hill and overlooks a rather steep inclined drive from the front gates. Joker sets up a fairly elaborate if not convoluted escape climbing the Christmas Tree only to have it shoot out, since it’s really a rocket, directly out of the glass ceiling at Arkham presumably over to Gotham. Impressive distance traveled. Who needs airline flights anymore?
Also introduced in this episode is Robin (Loren Lester) aka Dick Grayson. It’s nice to see Robin as a teenager who’s initially seen as Batman’s partner and near equal. From the get go, it’s clear that Robin and Batman are teammates although we already see that Robin isn’t quite the pure crusader that Batman may be, offering a deal to Batman to see It’s A Wonderful Life if Joker cannot be found. In a rather depressing line, Batman remarks that he has never gotten past the title in terms of watching the film. On one hand, possibly alluding to the probability of the winter season being crime heavy, but also touching on the fact that Batman’s living as a reverse George Bailey by existing without his parents.
The plot itself is pretty un-engaging although the writing of Batman’s character both works as a counterpoint to Robin, including Batman remarking they should do one more sweep of the city, while also depicting Batman as a bit obsessive about his role as Gotham’s avenger and his inability to, “relax for just one night,” as Robin tells him. Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Bullock, and Summer Gleeson and threatens to kill them if Batman can’t find them by Midnight.
Eddie uses his SNL background to set up Joker with several skits and blows up the President’s Bridge just ahead of the 11:30 train. Eddie tries to pump up the stakes by mentioning Summer Gleeson’s mother is on the train but the plot just has too much telling and not enough showing. If the train subplot was completely cut out, there would be absolutely no effect on the actual episode itself.
As Batman and Robin show up to the Mount Gotham observatory where the signal’s coming from, a slew of weapons appear as Joker tries to take them both out. A lot of the weapons look cool, including the line of Jokers with machine guns in place of fingertips, but again there’s simply not much showing. We don’t even see Robin’s escape from the lone Joker that hadn’t fallen over and was actively shooting at him.
Batman quickly deduces Joker’s whereabouts from a random Betty Blooper Doll skit and the duo show up, eventually taking Joker down without even physically handling Joker himself, and saving everybody. The episode wraps up with Bruce and Dick having watched the movie courtesy of Commissioner Gordon lending them his VHS copy.
It’s a real shame that the plot was not tighter as there was some potential but Eddie Gorodetsky leaned too much on his SNL background as a way to give Joker some character screen time, including some pointless skit ‘comedy’ moments, which took away from the actual action of the people in peril and the development of any danger to them as a result. The inclusion of the train crash seemed solely there to try and offset the complete lack of real action otherwise and the necessity of two separate scenes involving weapons trying to gun down Batman and Robin seemed rather wasteful. With all that said, you can see hints of Paul Dini’s involvement specifically with the Bruce/Robin scenes.
AKOM generally varies quality wise throughout the series and the same can be said of this episode. The opening scene depicting Joker’s escape is pretty bland, especially the other Arkham inmates, but they bounce back with the artwork in the television’s showing off of Joker and his little home set as Bruce and Dick settle down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life. I also like that Joker would commandeer every single station in Gotham just for his own special. On the other hand, a lot of the models lack focused texture and likely would appear almost as undefined blobs in human form if not for the colors/display of clothing material.
Even the explosion featuring a Joker face made out of lights almost appears too busy and not quite as articulated as it probably should have been. In a pretty damning moment for the animation, the color of Bullock’s “Baby Lawful” outfit changes from light blue to match his bonnet to a light sea green after the camera pulls out of the close up.
With that said, a small highlight are the cardboard cutouts including: Detective Renee Montoya, Commissioner Gordon, Detective Harvey Bullock, and Mayor Hill. Another highlight was the train crash and red underside of train tracks from the heat. Unfortunately, they tend to miss a lot more such as the Batcape covering up a Teddy Bear that seems to morph into appearance prior to falling down on top of the two gunmen.
The score is mostly forgettable outside of a few Christmas related send ups, disappointing given how strong and engaging the score by Shirley Walker was in the debut episode I reviewed last week.
Finally, the voice acting is generally solid although it’s clear that Mark Hamill was having a lot of fun although he hadn’t quite nailed that breezy way of transitioning from lighthearted to cold and calculating (and back) consistently enough. Unfortunately, the “captives” receive little to no lines and Summer Gleeson in particular is treated as an afterthought, only there to provide incredibly pointless emotional stakes for the plot’s convenience. It’s a shame there is no reason to care about their fate at all, considering the importance of Gordon and Bullock to the police department and Batman himself.
Next Week: The debut of The Scarecrow in “Nothing to Fear”