Review: Kidvid Roundup with "JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time" and "Chuck & Friends: Trucks Vs. Wild"
James Tucker has famously described Batman: The Brave and the Bold as “the show I thought I was seeing when I was a little kid,” and I find that description fits the new direct-to-video animated movie JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time, currently a Target exclusive DVD. Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends gets scorn and derision from modern audiences that accept without question that superheroes not only can be taken seriously, but should or must be taken seriously. However, even though I find that the Super Friends could produce some truly, stunningly awful cartoons, I have a healthy respect for the way that they won’t let anything — plot coherence, continuity, consistency, logic, characterization, or laws of physics — get in the way of their particular breathless storytelling style. JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time takes that single-minded “and THEN what happened?” propulsive force and anything goes attitude, and mates it to much better writing and animation. As a result, Trapped in Time is oodles of fun that planted a gigantic smile on my face pretty much from beginning to end.
At the start of Trapped in Time, the dastardly Legion of Doom’s latest villanious plot is swiftly foiled by the combined might of the Justice League. Legion of Doom leader Lex Luthor is lost and presumed dead, while the Legion itself scatters. Flash forward 2,000 years to the 31st Century, where Superman’s example has inspired the Legion of Superheroes to maintain a perfect peace. Two would-be Legionairres, Karate Kid and Dawnstar, find Lex Luthor in suspended animation in a gigantic block of ice tucked away in the Legion’s halls of history. An accident frees Luthor, who wastes no time in finding a way back to his own era with revenge on his mind. Luthor aims to achieve both courtesy of the Time Trapper, a strange being also found imprisoned in a museum case. With the Time Trapper under his thrall, Luthor hatches his most dastardly plan yet: to travel back in time to prevent Superman from ever existing on Earth, eliminating his arch enemy and, by extension, eliminating the Justice League completely.
One thing I appreciate is that Trapped in Time doesn’t assume a viewer knows anything about the many characters in its cast, but still manages to deliver everything you need to know on the fly and almost always organically with the story. There may be a few obviously expository dialogue choices, where someone uses another character’s name a bit too deliberately, but these sins are minor and easily forgiven. This same trick was one that Super Friends achieved day after day for years, although admittedly the show also cheated a bit by ensuring that virtually all the superheroes were interchangeable personality-wise. This makes Trapped in Time‘s achievements even more impressive, since it aligns pretty closely to how DC’s iconic superheroes are characterized in the modern era. For longtime fans, there are quite a few nods and winks in the variations on familiar faces, like the African accent added to the Legion of Doom’s Cheetah, the sensible sprinkling of football metaphors in Cyborg’s dialogue, and and the re-visioning that takes the Toyman’s name much more literally.
I presume that Trapped in Time had a smaller budget and a compressed production schedule to work with, which makes the excellent animation work that much more impressive. It’s a definite step up from the average TV action cartoon, running about par with the cream of the crop like Young Justice or The Legend of Korra. There are several big action scenes that are beautifully animated, with two real highlights being the duel that pits Robin vs. Karate Kid and Dawnstar, followed by Karate Kid’s showdown with three members of the Legion of Doom afterwards. It’s worth stepping through several of these scenes to fully appreciate how much is really happening in the span of eye-blinks. I also love an oddball sequence in the middle of the movie, where a subset of the Legion of Doom and the Justice League travel back in time and end up in a slapstick football game with baby Superman as the ball. It’s a pretty gutsy scene that I’m sure will have some fans gnashing their teeth at the in-DIG-nity of it all, but which I found screamingly hilarious. The movie also seems to go out of its way to make sure that all the heroes in the surprisingly large cast get a Crowning Moment of Awesome. I think many modern adaptations of comic book superheroes take their appeal for granted; Trapped in Time makes sure to give us reasons to love these characters (although, to be fair, I am also rather disappointed that the one Leaguer who doesn’t seem to get her due is Wonder Woman).
Trapped in Time also benefits from a very strong voice cast. Laura Bailey and Dante Basco have to do the most heavy lifting as Dawnstar and Karate Kid, respectively, since they’re new to most of the audience and, despite the title, are really the main characters of the movie. They handle this with aplomb, thanks to a smart script and excellent performances; Dawnstar’s tentativeness and Karate Kid’s brash bravado make them easily accessible archetypes at first, but the performances shine when both have to introduce nuances and shadings to their characters as they grow and change in the short running time of the film. The rest of the cast is a nice mix of the familiar and the new. Diedrich Bader returns from Brave and the Bold as a slightly more serious Batman, and Jason Spisak graduates from his role as Kid Flash in Young Justice to the Flash in this one. If I’m disappointed by Jack DeSena as Robin, it’s only because I thought it was an absolutely brilliant casting choice somewhat undermined by not giving Robin enough to do; the same goes true for Grey Delisle’s take on Wonder Woman. I’m also quite enamored with Peter Jessop’s performance as Superman, who succeeds exactly because it’s played completely, totally straight and with 100% commitment.
The DVD has an anamorphic widescreen impressive enough that I wish it was available in high-definition somewhere. I do have to ding the DVD for a terrible set of English subtitles, since there are a surprising number of errors in them (especially one moment when the subtitles turn “Pa” Kent into “Paul”). Extras are limited to a set of trailers and two Super Friends episodes: “The Mysterious Time Creatures” (which nicely encapsulates the many things that are wrong with Super Friends) and “Elevator to Nowhere” (which nicely encapsulates the many things that are right about it). I must admit some disappointment that the Challenge of the Superfriends episode “Secret Origins of the Super Friends” was not included, since that episode’s plot was an inspiration to Trapped in Time.
While JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time has a greater-than-average number of plot holes or inconsistencies, the total package is enough fun that I found myself consciously ignoring them. It’s definitely one of the better DTV movies to come out of DC Animation lately, and I really hope the experiment is successful enough to launch a second line of DTVs in the same vein.
It’s reaching a point where I find myself running out of things to say about Chuck and Friends each time a new DVD comes out. I’m still impressed at the consistent quality of the show, and am more than happy to sit down with my son to watch it. The latest DVD, Chuck and Friends: Trucks Versus Wild yields up another 10 episodes of the show, mostly of recent vintage. Of greatest value are probably “The Checkup,” addressing familiar anxieties about visiting the doctor, and “Beach Blanket Uh-Oh” for the creativity Chuck and his friends demonstrate in making a beach and learning a lesson in perserverance and patience. As always, Shout! Factory gives us an excellent anamorphic widescreen video, stereo soundtrack, and a good number of chapter stops in each episode. The only bonus feature is a karaoke-style sing along music video.