I didn't like it. In fact, I kind of hated it and I'm going to be ranting a bit.
A few things before I start. I'm not bashing the original 1987 Miller-Mazzucchelli comic books, but merely this 2011 adaptation of them. The comic's great. I'd have to be crazy to hate that. It's a set text and effectively the companion piece to Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, from a time when Frank Miller was still enormous and rightly so.
No, what I'm complaining about is this 2011 straight-to-DVD version, released as the twelfth of DC's Universe Animated Original Movies. It was probably inevitable that they'd do it sooner or later and I have no problem with the principle. I've liked some of these straight-to-DVD animated movies. Unfortunately Batman: Year One is a terrible fit for the budget, technology and talent they have available, for reasons that are specific to the material.
You see, it's film noir.
This is normal for Miller. He's all about noir. That's what he brought to comics when he started on Daredevil in 1979 and it's where he eventually went full-on with Sin City. Batman: Year One is a mood piece in which Batman is hardly seen and our attention is usually on Gordon trying to do the right thing in a dirty city. He has his own moral lapses (Essen). He's got to fight against his own police department, whose members are liable to be corrupt, psychotic or just plain evil. He gets hurt. There's a ton of internal first-person narration, with relatively little actual dialogue. It's all about moral ambiguity, darkness, shadows and all those things we associate with film noir. This is underlined by Mazzucchelli's blunt, iconic art, which is just about the opposite of "pretty".
What it's not is roller-coaster action with idiots in tights. Thus the animators and voice actors don't know what to do. This is a genre that depends on factors like mood, atmosphere and emotional resonance, but unfortunately these are quite difficult to evoke.
The acting is horrible. Ironically they have quite a starry cast, e.g. Eliza Dushku as Catwoman, Katee Sackhoff as Essen, but I defy anyone not to cringe at, for instance, Bryan Cranston's delivery of "Batman hasn't attacked anyone. There's no need for Brandon. I've got the situation in hand. Oh no." Unbelievable. How is this considered acceptable? It's as bad as Big Finish, in almost exactly the same way. This is why I hate English dubs of anime. I don't care how many Emmys Cranston's won and how many other voiceover jobs he's done... that line delivery is an atrocity and it's hard to believe, listening to it, that anyone in the studio even cared. That's obviously untrue, but it's how it made me feel. I'm reacting strongly, yes, but... bloody hell.
The women are less bad than the men, but Dushku's charmless and Essen struggles to come alive as a human being. Don't know if I'd blame Sackhoff for that, though. That said, everyone usually sounds superficially competent and it appears to have escaped most viewers' attention that, for instance, Fred Tatasciore's Flass is a disappointment.
It's not even all the actors' fault. Some of it's the animation. They've prettified Mazzucchelli and turned his work into something blander and less atmospheric. I felt no menace. I'm not saying that the visuals excuse the voice work, but they certainly didn't help. I also don't see the need, since any art style can be animated and personally I'd say that Mazzucchelli's work is far less stylised than, say, the Dark Deco of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995).
The film works best when Batman's on-screen. The artwork drifts nearer to Mazzucchelli and the story beats have more of the exciting visual spectacle that plays well in this medium. Batman vs. Brandon is obviously the highlight. It's not as awesome as it is in the comic, but it's still fun.
It's impressively faithful, though. No one could accuse them of taking liberties. They've put the original on screen exactly as written, with the bare minimum of edits. Clearly they have massive respect for the source material and if anything I'd say they've been overly literal, since there's a lot of fun one could have with film noir's genre conventions if one allowed oneself to loosen up a bit. There's a moment of harmless fanwank (Vicki Vale), but the only real change is that they've reduced the voice-over narration and pruned the word count. This is understandable, of course. It's a different medium. Keeping every word would have turned this into an illustrated talking book. Nevertheless I regretted their choices. They've removed flavour. Every so often I'd miss Miller's voice, or a particular turn of phrase. No one here mentions a wrecking ball, for example. Besides, there's a long tradition of brooding first-person narration in film noir.
Also, the "bat through the window" scene looks stupid in motion, although I realise that they probably had no choice. Bats don't do that.
Overall... no. No, no, no. It's a terrible adaptation, although that said the source material is often strong enough to carry it anyway. Essen is an interesting story beat and the point where Miller's going deepest into noir's moral ambiguity. Gotham is appropriately vile. The gangsters are bland, but that's because this is Year One. The story does its job and it's easy to see why lots of fans have loved it. Me, though, I thought this was a stiff. They don't rethink and reinvent. They simply do the original as literally as possible, with no thought given to whether what they're doing works in this new medium.
Apparently we'd been going to get a live-action adaptation by Darren Aronofsky until Warner Bros went instead with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins
. Coming soon from DC: an animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, split into two movies. That might work. For now I'm staying optimistic.
Maybe I should have listened to this film in Japanese? Maybe I'd have had a completely different reaction? I was it on a plane, I had the option available...