Fans of classical animation are hereby warned to steer clear of "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm," for it will put them in instant vapor-lock and there aren't enough ambulances available this time of year.
The movie, released by Warner Bros., is achingly primitive. Don't think of the current generation of Disney sophistication or even earlier Disney efforts. Don't think Bugs and Porky. Don't even think Steamboat Willie or Oswald Rabbit. Think . . . cave paintings of Lascaux.
Batman is an accumulation of vertically oriented trapezoids with the face of a smile button porked up on steroids. The Joker is mild. The Phantasm is a child's simplification of Darth Vader. Gotham City is '40s New York reduced to a few vague shapes, and the potentially interesting backdrop of the 1939 World's Fair looks like a rusted-out kiddieland.
Worse, nothing really moves in this film. To call it "animated" is to risk indictment for false advertising. When the characters actually traverse the frame from one side to another, their upper bodies remain as still as the under-articulated line drawings they are, while the legs pump with mechanical awkwardness.
Everyone seems to be doing a John Wayne impression!
A plot has been dreamed up by four screenwriters that's part film noir, part "Star Wars" and part comic book. The straight-ahead motion of the story, however, is so riddled with flashbacks that one soon loses contact with where one is in the complex time structure. If someone could say of Oakland, Calif., "there's no there there," someone else could say of "Batman etc.," "there's no now now."
The key figures are Andrea Beaumont, the beautiful daughter of a vanished business tycoon once hunted by the mob, and "The Phantasm," the Darth Vader look-alike who is knocking off mob figures, acts for which the big Bat Beefcake is blamed.
Dana Delany reads Andrea and manages to give her some spunk and pizazz; Kevin Conroy mouths Bat's lines and he sounds like every FM radio announcer in America.
If "Batman etc." has one virtue, it's the editing, proving once again that montage, not mise en scene, is the essence of filmmaking. For you non-auteurists, that means the relationship of the scenes is more important than the scenes themselves. Directors Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm staple together some surprisingly dynamic action sequences, given the crudeness of the product. In one, the police force goes machine-gunning for the Bat Guy, and in another, Joker turns the old fairgrounds into ground zero with a series of detonations. I know, I know: he was just clearing the way for Shea Stadium. It's urban renewal, not low-intensity warfare.
"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm"
Starring Kevin Conroy and Dana Delany
Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm
Released by Warner Bros