Category Archives: Film Reviews

Aladdin (1992) Dir. John Musker and Ron Clements

Aladdin1  One of my all time, joyfully favorite animated films is ALADDIN, brought to us during the high point of the Disney Golden Age.  It’s a toss up for me between BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN as to which is my all time favorite.  I suppose I would consider them equally superior films, but ALADDIN I saw at least 5 times when it was out in the theaters.  One of the great things about this film is that it energized the comedy aspect of what Disney films could be, having been influenced by a lot of Warner Bros style humor.  It also contains one of the great Disney Villains, Jafar, who instantly became a classic when this film first came out.  It’s a good story well told, and thankfully this is one of the few films where they didn’t let Robin Williams write the film with his fast talking dialogue as the Genie.  There are some animated films featuring Williams that let him go a little to far with the improvisation, forgetting about the rest of the story.  It takes about 30 minutes before the Genie is actually introduced into the film, but thankfully the energy of the film is high and it keeps its sense of humor at an equal level to Williams performance.

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I have always admired this film for many reasons.  Its one of the few Disney films that really tries to break out of the tired doldrum Disney humor, which often in the past has been considered cute and charming, but not exactly funny.  ALADDIN as a film is a standout among all those films, as the comedy is full charged and well executed.  It’s got a unique style, and is one of the first films in awhile to break away from the 80’s Disney style and allow other styles to influence it.  In this case, it was Al Hirschfeld’s quality line drawing, full of pleasing round shapes that add to the Arabic style.  In an interesting twist, the villain Jafar is played opposite the rest of the cast, full of sharp angles to make him more threatening.

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Jafar has always been one of my favorite villains, and one of the reasons I like him so much is that, while he’s a dangerous threat, he also has an understated sense of humor.  By the end of the film when he goes power crazy, he hilariously starts going into puns.  “Things are unraveling fast now, boy!” (unravels the magic carpet) “Don’t toy with me!” (turns Abu into a Monkey Toy) “I’m just getting warmed up!” (breathes fire) etc. etc.  It’s great that he can be funny as well as equally threatening.  While he brings a serious tone to the film, he’s never too serious that you can’t relate to him.

But of course, one the greatest animation performances in this film is the Genie, masterfully animated by the great Eric Goldberg.  I was watching a documentary on the film, and one of the funny aspects they brought to the character was that the Genie was made Jewish, and the joyful underlying concept of the film is that it’s actually a buddy comedy between a Jew and an Arab.  Animation has never been more manic than with the character of the genie, whose constant transformations are hit with perfect timing.  I remember the first time I saw animation of the Genie in a trailer for Aladdin.  I knew the film was going to be amazing because I had never seen Disney animation go to the level of energy as they did with the Genie.  He’s a great classic character, and an all time great comic performance, both by Williams and Eric Goldberg’s animation team.

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The other thing I want to mention about this film is the music.  Not just the great songs by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, but the great score by Alan Menken, which is one of my favorite of the newer Disney films.  It’s funny how the same score is played as a lighter playful theme for Aladdin, as well as being made ominous for the villain, Jafar.  It’s definitely a classic Disney score.

I imagine the film ALADDIN is probably responsible for a lot of the more comedic animated films we have today, although these later films seem to lack something when it comes to storytelling.  ALADDIN in itself is a blessing in disguise when it comes to how joyously fun it is as a film.  This film did a lot for putting pop culture references, but it does so in a way that makes sense, because the Genie can travel through time.  He can do anything.  So a lot of the jokes he makes, Aladdin kind of shrugs off because he doesn’t get it.  but the rest of the film remains true to itself and it’s comedy and shows it can handle its own even without the aid of Robin Williams.

ALADDIN is a remarkable achievement in animation and story.  Up there with THE EMPERORS NEW GROOVE, it is probably one of the most fun out of the Disney line up of films.  It’s a definite classic and truly one of the great animated films of all time.

City Slickers (1991) Dir. Ron Underwood

CITYSLICKERS CITY SLICKERS is one of those movies I saw when I was 10 years old.  I absolutely loved it for the adventure of three guys going on a cattle driving trip in the open plains of New Mexico and Colorado.  The film was a fun experience for me, although I was a little young to understand the more adult messages of what these guys were facing in their lives.  I’ve only seen the film occasionally on TV but last night I watched it for the first time in a long while.  What struck me is the connection I had with the three men as they face middle age head on and wondering if this is all there is going to be in their lives.  Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, is 39 years old in this film.  I’m almost 32.  While that’s not quite middle age yet, I found myself more connected to these characters, watching them each face their own personal struggles.

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Mitch wonders if his life is ever going to be more than what it is, and the one thing that injects some kind of adventure and craziness into his dole drum existence are the vacations he takes with his childhood buddies Phil and Ed.  After awhile Mitch finds these trips a desperate attempt to cling on to his youth, but he becomes so depressed that his wife insists he goes on a Cattle Drive adventure in New Mexico and find his passion for life again.  On the trip he gets that and then some, as he meets trail boss Curly (the awesomely brilliant Jack Palace), who is one of the last of the real cowboys, and a downright scary fella.  Curly of course winds up being a reflection of Mitch, a crusty, grizzled, no nonsense kind of guy.  But he also teaches Mitch the value of finding the secret of life and embracing it.  He calls it that “one thing”…the thing that’s presently most important to you and you let that be the guiding force of your life.

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The other characters Phil and Ed are terrific as well.  Phil especially as he deals with the divorce of his wife, not knowing where his life went from the past 12 years.  Phil has to find a new passion for life when at this point he really has nothing left except his lonliness.  One of my favorite scenes in the film is the three of them talking about the best and worst day of their lives.  Ed has the most powerful story of all, talking about his best day when he stood up to his father who beat his mother and told him to get out.  It’s a powerful, sad moment that Bruno Kirby plays to perfection.

The stakes of the film build as the group deals with the death of Curly and two unruly cowhands who almost kill one of the young calves Mitch affectionately named Norman.  Once the two guys run off after Phil threatens them with a gun, the group finds themselves on their own with no choice but to move the herd themselves across the river and into the Colorado ranch.  It’s one of the things I admire most about this film is that once all the people helping them leave or abandon them, the three main characters are put to the test to safely get the cattle moving.  In that challenge, the three men wind up finding themselves.  Ed puts it perfectly that there are no more rules, no one telling them what to do, and that getting the cattle safely across is something he has to do for himself.  His friends wind up feeling the same way and help him out.

The irony though is that once the cattle are brought to safety, they find out that they are being sold to the meat company.  It’s a sad twist for the main characters as they developed an attachment to these cattle, and a reminder of the end of an era in the days of the cowboy.  CITY SLICKERS is a story about embracing your middle age and finding a passion for life.  Mitch laments in the beginning that his face is the best its ever going to look before he slumps down into old age.  He is clinging on to whats left of his younger years as he fears facing the inevitable with old age.  But that changes by the end of the film when he’s a little wiser, and becomes okay with facing old age, as long as he can still embrace the things that are most important to him in life.

I don’t want to forget also the great score by Marc Shaiman, and the wild rousing cowboy theme he wrote for the film.  It also includes a solid cast of supporting characters who help make the journey with our heroes, especially the great Noble Willingham, a dentist with his son eager to get everyone in the spirit of the adventure, as well as the brothers playing a take off of Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream brothers.  CITY SLICKERS is a great, wonderful film with a sold message and story.  It’s and enduring classic that I hope to rewatch again the day I turn 39.

The World’s End (2013) Dir. Edgar Wright

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And so the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy continues, first with Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and now finally THE WORLDS END.  The story is about 5 men in the town of New Haven, who in their youths went on the Golden Mile:  12 pubs for a pint of beer each in one night, but they never made it to the final pub, The World’s End.  Now 23 years later, Gary King (Simon Pegg) the leader of the group, wants to band his buddies together again to redo their pub excursion and finally make it to THE WORLDS END.  Only once they return they find a lot has changed about New Haven, one of them being an invasion of alien robots that have taken over citizens of the town.

The film is at times hysterically funny, and it’s interesting to watch as these guys aren’t exactly in the prime of their youth anymore.  It becomes more of a quest to succeed for Gary King, as that night 23 years ago was the greatest night of his life, and somehow he doesn’t think his life will ever be complete without being able to relive that night and reach the holy grail of bars.  His friends of course have all grown up, but, as Gary points out, they have become slaves to their adult lives, which is not to dissimilar to the robots that have taken over the town.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie was a fight in a bathroom at one of the pubs between Gary’s friends and 5 robots that looked like teenagers.  In terms of really great storytelling, the scene has a lot to say, considering these men are fighting with versions of themselves, the forms of blank empty teenagers.  Thankfully the sci-fi portion of the story is well woven into the grand scheme of the movie, and the men are forced to continue their journey to not alert any other robots, and pretend to be going about their business.

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My problem with the movie however was that I did find the robot story started to become long and extraneous after awhile, especially in the final moments where there is a tiresome amount of exposition trying to explain the purpose of the robots, why they had come and are doing what they’re doing.  And yet because of that, I felt more and more that I was starting to lose my investment in what started as a great hysterical ride between these five guys on their journey of the Golden Mile.  The robots add a lot of the extra fun to the movie, but the problem too was that once all the explanations started, the film stopped being funny.  It’s a hard thing as well, because my favorite of the three Edgar Wright films, HOT FUZZ, keeps the laughs brilliantly going, and not only is it funny, it gets even funnier and more outrageous as the movie goes along.  There is exposition in that film leading to the next step of what the characters are going to do to solve their problem, but that’s the thing:  it actually goes somewhere that makes the characters active and leads us into the brilliant final act.  THE WORLDS END actually ends the film on exposition, and it sucks the film dry by the time its over.  There’s no final note for it to land on to have everybody cheering.  It’s frustrating because the first and second act work so well, that by the time we get to the end the whole thing just kinda slumps.

That’s not to say THE WORLDS END is a bad movie at all.  Far from it.  It’s funny, and at times charming with its own human touch that made SHAUN and FUZZ work so well, it continues here with END.  It’s a little gutsy for them to do this, but I like the role reversal between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, making Frost the more serious minded one this time around and Pegg being the total jack-off.  Pegg is quite funny as Gary King, and it’s funny to watch Frost once he starts to lose himself into alcohol, having no choice because of the robot invasion.  For a good portion of the movie, the story holds itself together, with themes about getting older and breaking out of the servitude of society and finding your own freedom as an adult.  It plays on both extremes with Gary King who has no rules, and the rest of the pack who have been bogged down by the rules of society.  That all changes by the films end, and the surviving characters have their slates wiped clean, a new mission in life and a place to start over.  Of course, like I said, the ending would have worked better had the filmmakers continued our investment into the characters and allowed us to watch them find their way instead of having it just be explained to us.  It’s not the greatest way to tell a story.

THE WORLD’S END overall is a good time, and should be seen because it does carry the charm of the previous Edgar Wright films.  For such a crappy 2013 summer, this is one of the better films and a nice way to cap off the summer.

Turbo (2013) Dir. David Soren

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As I said with my Croods review, I’ve been more and more impressed with the quality of films coming out of Dreamworks for the last few years.  They’re not all hits, but few of them have been downright terrible.  In my mind, they have been doing far superior work than Pixar, which has been a continuous decline in terms of creating engaging characters and storytelling.  Turbo is a cute, charming story, with some great visuals, and an exciting third act race.  It’s not always as hilarious as it could be, but the characters are enjoyable to watch and overall it’s just a really fun time.

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One of the major aspects of the movie that works is the relationship between the pair of brothers in the film, the snails Theo (Turbo) and Chet, and Hispanic human brothers Tito and Angelo.  One of course is a dreamer while the other is a realist, trying to keep the other grounded in the reality of their situation.  One needs to get over their a snail, not a race car, and the other needs to live with the fact that they sell tacos, not enrolling snails in the Indy 500.  Which dreamer has the craziest dream?  Who knows, but it’s clear that Turbo and Tito are made for each other the moment they meet.  Turbo wants to be fast, despite his snail life, and dreams of racing all the time.  He especially admires his racing idol Guy Gang’e, the world champion racer at the Indy 500.  Turbo winds up getting his wish, when stuck on a car in a street race, he gets sucked into the engine, gets nitroed up in a special fluid, and gains the power of super speed.  In some aspects he gets literally turned into a racing car, with headlights (his eyes), backing lights, a car alarm, and blasting radio.  Gotta love it when someone’s not afraid to take some cartoon license.  Tito’s dream is to enter his new snail pal Turbo into the Indy 500, with the help of raising cash from other businesses in their outdoor mall plaza.

If I had any gripes with the film, it’s just one I have about animated films in general, in that  I sometimes wish these movies could be a lot funnier.  Not in a way that abandons kids with the humor, but I sometimes get the feeling that there could be so much more potential from the comedy, as opposed to characters just verbally cracking jokes.  It’s animation after all, and there should be the potential for far more physical comedy, especially for a movie about a speedy snail.  It’s the things we come to expect from animated films today…more talking and less action, and it’s something I hope to one day see change.

I suppose my only other complaint about the film was the need to make Guy Gang’e into a villain.  I’m not surprised they did this because there really isn’t anyone else playing as a main antagonist, but I think it’s worth pointing out that not all animated films need a villain.  In the race in the third act, Gang’e doesn’t really do anything “bad” to get in Turbo’s way…well, with the exception of trying to stomp on him to keep him from winning at the last minute.  But that’s also out of desperation.  The majority of the obstacles come from the race itself as Turbo has to keep from getting run over among other things.  Even though Gang’e is an antagonist because he’s racing against Turbo, it doesn’t mean he has to be a bad guy.  This is similar to the problem I had with “Rise of the Guardians” where the Boogyman was made evil and shown a lack of compassion for his situation by the heroes at the end of the movie.  I sometimes think it would be better and more constructive to show kids that antagonist characters aren’t inherently evil, but that they are people who are hurt or have problems like anyone else.  Making them one sided villains doesn’t give you anything to identify with, and it’s something most American animated films should change, giving us villains that have other sides to them and may not necessarily be bad.

Turbo is an entertaining ride, with some great enjoyable characters.  The visuals and racing sequences are fantastic and entertaining.  It’s not the greatest movie ever, but it’s a fun enjoyable ride that can be enjoyed by adults and kids of all ages.

The Great Escape (1963) Dir. John Sturges

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Well, now I can check off another great classic on my list of must see films.  The Great Escape is a pretty tremendous film, with three great stars in the lead roles: Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough.  I liked the epic feel of this story.  It’s a true story by the way, where supposedly every detail of the Escape is exactly as it happened.  I have to admit, when watching the film, the escape itself is an incredible undertaking as these POW men band together to dig an escape tunnel under the fence and out of the compound.

In a funny way, I saw the whole thing play out as sort of a game.  It’s the escape game if you will, and sometimes it’s funny to watch as the men have to come up with ways to make noise and distract the Nazi’s from the real noise their making in trying to dig through the tunnels.  There are secret codes and messages, giving the men enough warning when Nazi’s are coming while they’re in the middle of planning and executing their escape.  Then of course there’s Steve McQueen whose character becomes almost a running gag for all the time he has to spend in “The Cooler”, a solitary confinement room where he has nothing to do but chuck a baseball against the wall.

I also really enjoyed watching Richard Attenborough in this film.  Like most people of my generation, I know him best as Hammond from Jurassic Park, but it was great to finally see his earlier work and see what an incredible actor he was.  Already his clock is ticking and this major escape attempt is a risk to his life as the Nazi Commandant tells him if he tries to escape one more time he’ll be executed.  Of course, if he’s going to go out escaping, he’s going out with a bang, as it becomes his mission to get all 204 men out of the prison at the same time.    Attenborough gives a kind of understated performance, and a seriousness that seems to keep him driven to make sure everything goes to plan as leader of the escape.

The film plays out in three acts, each lasting almost an hour, with the first act introducing and setting up the plan for the escape.  The second act focuses on the execution and work the men put through to keep the Nazi’s unaware of their plans, leading up to the actual escape.  The third act focus on the 74 men that do get out as they attempt to flee Germany for Switzerland.  The final hour of the film is certainly engaging, although so many men end up getting caught, I was starting to wonder if anyone was going to actually get away at the end.

The part that confused me the most was the reasoning behind why Steve McQueen’s motorcycle hopping the fence was supposed to be such a famous scene.  When the scene was coming, I expected something far more dramatic and epic than what we got.  It turns out the motorcycle hop is filmed at a long shot, with McQueen hopping a four foot fence.  It’s an impressive trick, I guess, considering that McQueen did the stunt on his own.  But there’s no drama to it, no swelling music…it’s just…a motorcycle hop.  So why are people so blown away as to make this a famous scene in the film?  I’m not sure.  Maybe it’s just that it was more impressive for its time than the kind of stunt work I’m accustomed to seeing in movies today. But this just felt like a letdown because the stunt was fairly understated and didn’t seem like that big a deal.

Some of the other things I liked about the film was that it kept a fairly light sense of humor, although I am not sure how different the POW camps were from the concentration camps, and why the Nazi’s seemed to think the POW’s deserved better treatment (apart from religious persecution/ discrimination).  The prisoners are free to walk around the camp, garden, play sports, and surprisingly McQueen is allowed his baseball and mitt in the Cooler when I think that would defeat the purpose of solitary confinement for the Nazis.   Who knows.  I think some of the freedoms the prisoners had might have been played to give the film a lighter, not too serious tone.  After all, the movie plays itself with a sense of fun, and the excitement of the audience being in on the major escape.  Although, I think the darker third act makes up for the lighter beginning as we see some of the prisoners who aren’t so lucky.

Overall, I really liked The Great Escape.  I don’t think it’s a truly great movie, mainly because it plays up some romanticism/ “escapism” of the audience wanting to be part of the adventure in this prison escape movie.  The lightness the film portrays is obviously opposed to the much more serious things that were happening in Germany at the time.  But hey, it’s a movie.  I can enjoy the film for what it is, and if anything it’s enjoyable, well-acted, and a good time for all.

Westworld (1973) Dir. Michael Crichton

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Before Michael Crichton gave us Jurassic Park, his penultimate theme park terror, there was Westworld. Westworld is a science fiction adventure story set in the future where a resort theme park is created for people to live out their fantasies. They can be cowboys in a western town. They can be a knight in a Medieval fantasy. Or they can live the life of the Romans. For only $1000 a day, with the roles of the towns characters played by cybernetic robots. What could go wrong? Well if you remember what Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, this is what happens when The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down and the pirates start killing the tourists!

What’s funny is that when I first entered this film, I expected something far hokier and cheesy than it turned out to be. On occasion there are a few things I was trying to wrap my head around, such as in a staged bar fight, how do the guests tell their hitting a robot and not another tourist? But it’s a minor thing. What plays out in a sense is a take-off of Disneyland and its use of audio animatronics in theme parks to create life like human characters, and what if there was a resort where humans interacted with robots to live out their fantasies. What’s great about the movie is that the movie plays as satire, with its own sense of humor. There are even funny moments where the characters actually act out their sexual fantasies with the robots. It’s strange and silly with the lack of moral implications throughout, as the guests are allowed to not only have sex with robots, but break tables, smash windows and blow up parts of the town, while a crew comes in every night while the guests sleep to repair things and fix the robots.

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But the one major shining aspect of this film is the great Yul Brynner who plays the Man in Black robot. He gives the guests a playful amount of trouble until things turn serious and the robots start acting against their programming, killing off humans for real. What unfolds is a precursor to Terminator, as the Man in Black hunts down our main protagonist human in a thrilling chase through the different resort areas. Breyner being such a major actor playing a robot, he really brings something to the character. We don’t know how much sentience he’s achieved because of his malfunctioning program. Like James Cameron’s Terminator, I found myself invested in the character where sometimes you would get these little intricate moments of humanity, and you wonder despite their programming if the robot is actually enjoying what its doing! Whatever the reason, Yul Brener is one of those great inspired actors and it was a brilliant choice to cast him for all the believability he could bring to the role.

The rest of the cast playing the guests of the theme park are phenomenal as well, playing up much of the humor about how a real guest would interact in such a world. There’s a side story as well about a middle age husband and wife couple, where the husband wants to do the middle ages resort and fall in love with a princess, while the wife wants to live in Roman times. It may not be a realistic depiction of how such a theme park would exist, but it’s made believable because you’re so invested in the characters entering this world. Before the main characters even reached Westworld, I found myself hooked right away in the story just because I liked the characters so much. With the satirical news reporter in the beginning advertising the park and interviewing the guests, I knew afterward that this movie was going to be a good time, and it was fun all the way to the very end.

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Westworld is just a really fun ride, and for all its silliness and satire, it enables you to take the story seriously enough to go with it even if it always doesn’t make sense. It’s a great film, highly enjoyable especially from a master story teller like Michael Crichton. If you’re a fan of Jurassic Park, I highly recommend you check out this earlier work from Crichton. It’s a really well told story, and gives you a good idea why he’s embraced the idea of the theme park gone wrong.

Batman: The Movie (1966) Dir. Leslie H. Martinson

Batman1 There’s nothing like having a joyous revisit to the comic, tounge in cheek world of the 1960’s Batman.  I’ve always loved the original TV show, and the stellar cast of famous movie stars playing the caped crusaders most notorious villains.  The hokiness and cheeseball aspects add to the fun, and now here we have one of the great joys of silly cinema, Batman: The Movie!

It’s funny looking at this movie today because compared to TV shows that are blown up in budget for major theatrical releases, Batman: The Movie doesn’t feel nearly as big, but more like a more expensive episode of the TV series.  But I think that works in the movies favor, in a time when there was no concern to make a Batman movie epic, even for the cheesy 60’s TV series, but the amount of fun the show brings is the same as what’s brought to the big screen.  The big aspects of the film are the fact that Batman’s 4 major villains, The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, and The Riddler have joined forces to use a dehydrating machine to reduce U.N. officials to dust and take over the world!  Mwahahahaha.  Along with them are their henchmen, who shout “Yo-ho” after every command, while traveling in the Penguins supersized Penguin shaped submarine.  As silly as the film is, I actually found some of the model and effects work to be impressive, even though they were cartoonified to the max.  The villains, particularly the Penguin, steal the show, but what’s great about the old Batman series is that everyone is brimming to life with personality and character.  Even smaller supporting roles such as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred have their moment in the spotlight.  Batman is given some great comic material, downplaying everything with a “goofy seriousness”.  My favorite scene in the film is when Batman is trying to get rid of a lit bomb, and he runs through the public streets trying to get rid of it.  Everywhere he turns there’s nuns, school children playing, he tries to throw it in the pier and there’s a group of ducklings, until finally he turns to the camera and says “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”  Oh so true.

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One of my other favorite bits in the film were the times when the heroes were deducing the villains next move:  “But wait! It happened at sea. See? C for Catwoman.” “An exploding shark … was pulling my leg.” “The Joker! It all led to a sinister riddle. Riddle -er. Riddler?”  And you gotta hand it to Robin for his instantanious deductive reasoning and solving riddles.  There’s also a great gag where Batman is in the elevator and reads 7 different languages for the UP button.  Then of course the talked about gag with the porpoise that dives in front of an exploding missile saving their lives.  It’s all great stuff.

It’s funny to see how Batman plays on two different levels, one where kids can take it absolutely seriously, and adults who can enjoy it for the comedy.  Because part of the magic with Batman is how it takes itself completely seriously in the midst of it’s absolute silliness.  There may never be a show or a movie like it ever again, but Batman: The Movie is one of a kind, and it’s great fun for everybody.