Batman: Mask of The Phantasm

Batman: Maskof the Phantasm

Featuring the voices of Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Abe Vigoda, and Mark Hamill. Rated mature.

Now playing at the Capitol 6, Dunbar, Esplanade 6, Guildford, and others

They could have called this one Batman Gets Laid. That would have been a tip-off that this animated episode takes place in psychosexual territory, and that children–who left in a steady trickle during the show I went to–might be happier at Beethoven's 2nd.

A spin-off of the semi-hit animated TV series, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm goes even further into the roots of the bat-dude's particular pathologies, especially where Mom 'n' Dad are concerned. It's while visiting their monumental grave–in a somewhat complicated flashback structure–that Bruce Wayne (voiced by Kevin Conroy) meets Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), flips his cowl, and begins to wonder if he can keep up this crime-fighting thing. Is it a coincidence that Andrea and her mustachioed father (Stacy Keach, Jr.) are live ringers for his dead parents? Did Freud like a good cigar?

In this Oedipal feast, Bruce is also nurtured by an unthreatening father figure in the form of his faithful butler, Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), and dogged by a new enemy called the Phantasm, a Darth Vader?like entity wreaking Gotham-wide havoc that Batman is being blamed for. Hollywood incest enters the picture here, since Star Wars veteran Mark Hamill provides the (surprisingly spectacular) voice of the Joker, himself a force of unbridled chaos threatening the B-man's search for existential order–just as Andrea's sexual allure rocks his vocational raison d'?tre.

But, hey, you don't have to be Joseph Campbell to get into this Mask. Its chief appeal is actually nostalgia. The drawing, although it approaches Clutch Cargo stiffness at times, has the blocky appeal of prewar animation, with even the most high-tech gadgets blunted by heavy art deco geometry (Bruce's jaw is so square, you could play billiards on his face). To underscore this mood, a key set piece takes place in a mechanized amusement park that plainly mocks the naive futurism of the 1939 World's Fair in New York. And the gangsters have the grotesque simplicity of old Dick Tracy cartoons.

It also features a witty script (from producer Alan Burnett and others), action that steadily mounts in intensity, a zesty score by Shirley Walker, and a female colead who's far more than feisty. Tim Burton should study it carefully. Ironically, though, the biggest battle facing Warner Bros. (who managed to sneak the corporate logo into some Wagnerian scenery) will be trying to convince moviegoers to watch a Batman that's only a cartoon.