Ra's al-Ghul wants Bruce Wayne to be his heir.
Written by Dennis O'Neil (I)
Story by Dennis O'Neil & Len Wein (II)
Teleplay by Len Wein (II)
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Music by Michael McCuistion (I)
& Harvey R. Cohen (II)
Animation by Tokyo Movie Shinsa
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Loren Lester as Dick Grayson
David Warner as Ra's al-Ghul
George Dicenzo as Ubu
Charles Howerton as Captor
Helen Slater as Talia
Frank Welker as Thug
One of the most satisfying aspects of BTAS is the way it combines the styles and conventions of film, comic book, and animated cartoon, balancing the strengths and weaknesses of each. Animation can get away with the absurd physical stunt more easily than can film, without losing the sense that such stunts are, somehow, "actually happening"; the animation lets the insane but necessary thrill slip right past the critical faculties. Comic books allow for (and require) more stylized characters and stories; revelation can be accomplished with a brush stroke, timeless, frozen, eternally available to contemplation. Film, in seeming to record the natural, can inquire into the human condition by pretending to reave into real people; under the right artistic control, it seems to carve nature at the moral joints.
Each of these art forms has its weaknesses, of course, which are only accentuated when each tries to be of a different kind. Film's great power derives from its illusion of naturalness; the very burden of flesh and blood and stone and water gives the people and their environment a moral gravity. When cartoons or comic books try the same thing they become wordy or melodramatic; two-dimensional surfaces are too fragile to support the same weight. As mediums of movement, neither cartoon nor film can indulge the magnificently artistic gesture of the comic book without becoming self-consciously static. And no matter how gifted he is, John Cleese will never move with the sublimity of Chuck Jones's Daffy Duck; nor, of course, will Frank Miller's Dark Knight.
The best episodes of BTAS respect the limits of each of these forms while partaking of their strengths as far as possible. So the series aspires to tell stories of characters with recognizable human powers and frailties, revealed through the control of action and plot, and issuing in a cathartic climax that allows us to make judgments about the events we have witnessed. But it must be quick and evocative in its approach: not only the demands of television but the flitting and illusory nature of the craft requires that each story be told before the audience realizes that the characters they are being asked to identify with will never achieve even the thin reality of a Bob Saget, let alone the thicker reality of a Hamlet. And they must resist the temptation to let the idea of an episode substitute for the hard work of drawing it out. With comic books the reader can and must supply the movement, development and depth that occurs between and within the inked panels. An animated story, however, needs to be more than a story-board that some in-betweeners have been at.
But occasionally the besetting temptation to ambition, to grandeur, to completeness, will triumph. It does so here and overpowers much that is good in "The Demon's Quest." No one, perhaps, since the passing of George Sanders can knit insolence and superiority together so well as David Warner, whose Ra's al-Ghul goads and gloats over Batman mercilessly. The vistas are beautiful, the score is glorious, and the pre-title abduction of Robin, in its controlled atmosphere of mystery and promise of more of the same, is unequalled by any other sequence in the series. But the episode aches for the epic, as though it wants to pull off a combination of David Lean and Orson Welles within its allotted forty minutes. The plot, even, is supposed to have a serious point, having to do with the right and wrong ways of saving the environment. But Ra's al-Ghul's histrionics and the device of the Lazarus pit would be too risible even for a Wild Wild West. And Talia, for all her considerable charms, is the worst offender and the most clearly drawn from and limited by a comic-book sensibility: She does little more than pose suggestively for the viewer's pleasure, sandwiched between a sunwashed horizon and a peek-a-boo haircut.
This is, in short, an episode in which the attributes of a good comic bookscope, stylish character design, allusiveness in place of discursivenessare indulged in with devastating results. Momentum substitutes for development, and scenery for setting. It's very pretty, but it is all too easy for the mind to wander. I would point to "Avatar" as an episode which has almost all the same virtuesvisual sweep, David Warner, Talia in a languid, windswept posebut which also possesses the vitality that comes from a cheerful refusal to take itself seriously. This latter characteristic, we might remember, is also supposed to be a virtue of the comic book form.
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