Friday, April 20, 2012

"Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme" (2007)

Starring Bryce Johnson, Paul Nakauchi and Michael Yama
Written by Greg Johnson
Directed by Frank D. Paur
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 76 Minutes

Doctor Stephen Strange (Bryce Johnson) is one of the world's best neurosurgeons.  He only takes the most high-profile cases that will bring him prestige and money to the hospital that employs him. One night, while driving to work, he witnesses a group of mystics battling a strange monster, despite a spell that was supposed to hide the fight from the eyes of mere mortals.  Later, he does a consult in the coma ward to help treat a young girl who has fallen into a coma.  When he touches her, he sees a vision of a massive, burning demonic face.  He learns that the ward is full of other children all having the same nightmares.  When driving home afterward, he sees the spirits of the children in the street, and swerves to avoid them, wrecking his car... and ruining his hands.

Strange spends the next few months seeking out every possible treatment for his hands, spending his entire fortune and eventually losing his job.  Down to his last time, he decides to commit suicide but is saved by a man named Wong (Paul Nakauchi), who tells him to travel to Tibet to find the cure he seeks.  Strange scrounges one last favor from Dr. Gina Atwater (Susan Spano) for airfare to Tibet, and treks through the mountains to a hidden monastery.  There, the Ancient One (Michael Yama), Mordo (Kevin Michael Richardson) and Wong help train Strange in the ways of sorcery.

At first, Strange doesn't understand.  But he eventually comes to know the power that lies within him, that  the regrets of his past and his unwillingness to perceive things in more than one way are what kept him from fixing his hands.

But while Strange's power grows, Mordo and the others at the monastery fight a dangerous and secret war against the forces of Dormammu (Jonathan Adams), a powerful and immortal creature imprisoned eons ago by the Ancient One.  Dormammu has found a way to influence the Earth realm, and will soon have enough power to break free of his prison.  As the protectors' numbers dwindle against Dormammu's evil minions, Wong and the Ancient One realize that the unique, but untested, power within Strange may be the world's only hope against true evil.

"Doctor Strange" is easily the best of the Marvel animated features I've watched so far.  It has, by far, the most mature and well-rounded script of the bunch.  While it follows all the beats you'll pretty much expect it to, it still feels like a very well-made animated film.

The script's only real failure is that at some point it realizes that it's only supposed to be 76 minutes, and begins to rush things.  At some point, it just feels like it skips over much of Strange's training and he emerges pretty much fully-powered like he's just come out of some kind of sorcerer's cocoon.  Still, despite this snag, the film feels quite well paced.  The early sections, with Strange suffering from depression and learning to let go of his past are highlights.

Sprinkled throughout to keep things moving and to give us the requisite action percentage, Mordo and his warriors take on a variety of dark creatures.  One fun scene has them fighting some kind of shadow dogs in Central Park.  The script shows its darker roots in these segments, as each time Mordo takes out a team to combat the rising evil, some of them don't come back.  More surprising is the scene in which Strange actually attempts suicide, which is not something I ever expected to see in an animated superhero feature, even one rated PG-13.  But that's the tone that "Doctor Strange" strikes well, and sticks to throughout.

The animation is also superior to the earlier "Ultimate Avengers" movies, which I thought were ugly and sluggish.  Here, the character designs have been streamlined without all the extraneous detail and computer shading that hampered "Ultimate Avengers."  The shots are a bit more artfully composed, lots of close-ups of Strange's green eyes, low, off-putting angles.  The film is dark, visually, but rather interesting in its design and execution.

The cast is mostly just okay, however.  Bryce Johnson does a decent job for Strange while he's depressed, but struggles with parts later on when Strange is supposed to be getting over his problems.  The rest of the voices are just kind of there, none of them are particularly noteworthy, without being bad, either.  Everyone just kind of does their job, which is fine.  The script rarely gives them an opportunity, either.  Most of the heavy lifting is put on Strange, anyway.

But in general, "Doctor Strange" was a surprisingly impressive turn for the Marvel animated features.  I'm hoping some of the others live up to it.