Saturday, September 11, 2010

"Batman: Sub-Zero" (1998)

Starring Kevin Conroy, Michael Ansara and Loren Lester
Written by Boyd Kirkland and Randy Rogel
Directed by Randy Rogel

Released a year after another Batman feature focusing on Mr. Freeze, "Sub-Zero" has the voice cast and animation style of the original 1990s "Batman: The Animated Series" before the style was adapted to fit the Superman series that followed it.

Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara), real name Victor Fries, lives a quiet, solitary life in the arctic.  His wife, Nora, remains in stasis until a cure can be found for a fatal disease she carries.  One day, a submarine surfaces right under his home, shattering Nora's stasis chamber, and her condition begins to worsen.  Freeze returns to Gotham, kidnapping and old associate of his, Dr. Gregory Belson (George Dzundza), to help him.  Belson tells Freeze that the only thing that will save Nora is an organ transplant, but there's no way to get a legal donor in time.  Freeze decides he will abduct a live donor for his needs, and settles on a choice at random: Barbara Gordon (Mary Kay Bergman).

Unfortunately for Freeze, Barbara Gordon has some powerful friends and relatives: she is, in fact, the daughter of Gotham City's police commissioner, James Gordon (Bob Hastings).  She also happens to be the girlfriend of Dick Grayson (Loren Lester) and friends with Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy).  Grayson and Wayne, of course, also go by other names: Batman and Robin.  Worse, Barbara is no slouch - in her spare time, she dons the identity of Batgirl to fight crime.

Taking her, therefore, proves to be Freeze's undoing as Gordon, Batman and Robin all join in the chase to get her back before Freeze and Belson can perform the dangerous surgery which will end her life, even if it saves Nora's.

"Sub-Zero" isn't as good as the previous animated film, "Mask of the Phantasm," but it easily bests "Mystery of the Batwoman."  It's extremely short, however, clocking in at just five or six minutes over an hour, so the whole thing moves pretty briskly.  The animation is pretty impressive, though the computer-generated footage meshes poorly with the traditional cel animation.

The voice cast is excellent.  I've extolled their virtues before, of course.  I never get tired of hearing Kevin Conroy as Batman.  Loren Lester is fun as Robin/Dick Grayson, as he was in the series.  He gets to have some good exchanges with Barbara, since the script furthers their dating relationship which was only hinted at in the series.  Mary Kay Bergman is also good as Barbara, though I have to be honest that I preferred Tara Strong, who took over the character after the animation change.  Michael Ansara is also excellent as Mr. Freeze, far, far, far, far, far better than a certain governor of California.

In fact, the characterization of Mr. Freeze is one of the shining moments of an already excellent animated series.  These writers took a C-list character and gave him a fascinating tragic background, and the casting of Ansara just cements it all.  If you ever have the chance to watch the episode "Heart of Ice," it's one of the best episodes the series ever produced, and probably the finest story about Mr. Freeze ever told. 

Hell, just thinking about it is making me want to go back through the entire series.

Still "Sub-Zero" is worth your time if you're a fan of this series, or of Batman in general.  It does sort of rely heavily on familiarity with the series, so non-fans will probably not really care about what's going on.  But the script does work well enough, characterization is spot-on and the animation is impressive.  It's short runtime works against it a bit, since it seems a little rushed, but overall this is a fine Batman adventure.  But you'd be best served watching "Heart of Ice" first.