Farmer Brown unleashes giant animals on Gotham.
Story by Steve Gerber
Written by Joe R. Lansdale
Directed by Dan Riba
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation by Koko/Dong Yang
Kevin Conroy as Batman
Mathew Valencia as Robin
Tara Charendoff as Batgirl
Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon
Robert Constanzo as Bullock
Peter Breck as Farmer Brown
Dorian Harewood as Judge
Phil Hayes as Sergeant
Dina Sherman as Emmylou
Jane Singer as Old Woman
"Critters" is one of those episodes that no one will give a second glance to, so universally is it despised. And its not hard to see why. A goofy premise, a truly bizarre pair of villains, some unfunny "comic" dialogue: The thing looks like an Adam Weststyle escapade without the charm or a B-movie without the conviction.
Even a second look will probably fail to impress; its too easy to leave in place the prejudices aroused by a first viewing. But search it receptively, actively, watchfully, and something else begins to come into focus.
You might start by turning down the sound, or at least plugging your ears whenever a character opens his or her mouth. Then you might notice that, visually, this is one of the darkest TNBA episodes, full of apocalyptic reds and blacks. And not just in the skyline. The same color scheme dominates the mutant animals: a bull the color of a dried scab and carnivorous "chickens" whose feathers hang like black funeral crepe. (Everyone remembers the "bugs" without remembering that they barely have any screentime.) Darkness frames many of the scenes.
As I say, watch the episode without listening to the charactersthough you should let the dissonant, wailing score wash over youand it would hardly occur that it is meant to be a bit of pop kitsch. Well then, if it's not "Adam West," is it supposed to be a "monster" movie? It has none of the scale of one. Some big animals get loose and do some damage, at the instigation of a criminal who just wants a truck full of money. Then there are the jokes and punsboth visual and verbalthat undercut the sense of serious danger. Of course, there is a sense that people could get hurt, but it's only the danger that comes from facing a wild animal, not a malevolent intelligence.
The result is an odd sense of displaced but undispelled menace. Something is wrong or out of control, and yet nothing specifically stands out as a locus of danger. The threats are both familiar and unfamiliar, so that the viewer is unsure whether to take it seriously or not. The same indecision afflicts the characters, who react with a kind of wary incredulity; they can neither believe nor disbelieve what they are seeing. (That is also why they make uneasy jokes; what else are you going to say when you've just been run over by a cow except "We've just been run over by a cow"?) Its the horror of watching the world, while still looking exactly as it did before, begin to behave in very strange ways. The situation is, to use a special word, "uncanny."
It is uncanny in the way that dreams are uncanny, in the way they mimic the look of the real world while abandoning its substance. And "Critters," it slowly dawns on you, has the feel of a lucid nightmare, a vision from which one struggles unsuccessfully to awake. It mimics the kind of dream that terrifies by merging the real world with the dream world and which, except for a certain hellish gleam to the landscape, might as easily inspire laughter as terror. The dream-like mix of incongruities and incredulities reach their apotheosis when Farmer Brown's "messenger" arrives at police headquarters. The sight of a monster might shock everyone back into consciousness. But the sight of a billygoat, of a billygoat that talks, of a billygoat that demands millions in ransom while standing quietly in the middle of a dark officethis is a nightmare that stands with one foot planted firmly in reality while still vomiting forth unexpected horror.
So too with the villains. The inane Farmer Brown and his hormone-stuffed daughter have no glint of the daemonic, as do Dr. Cuvier or his minions in the similar, genetically-inclined "Splicers." And yet the very banality of their motives (loot and revenge) and personality ("Always check your shoes and count the money") make them the more unnerving villains. The banal is by definition more common than the outre. This man could be your neighbor, which should not be a comforting thought. Your neighbor might not be in the business of manufacturing giant animals. Still, what might he be in the business of manufacturing?
(It's only a cartoon. Still, we're talking about a grudge-nursing lunatic who causes high-tech havoc in a major metropolis: The frightening disparity between the savage but puerile mind and the awesome destruction it can unleash should have more resonance post-9/11 than it did in 1998.)
"Critters" does to the viewer what its critters do to the charactersit purposefully confounds expectations and defies easy categorization. It worksif you will accept my late and belated claim that it does workby deploying those clashing tones and inconsistent styles that its detractors complain about, and it does so with the aim of unsettling the mind and spirit. After all, in aesthetics and entertainment as in life, we like the world to come in nice, neat, dependable, predictable packages, and it upsets us when our expectations are thwarted. In doing so, the episode takes a daring line and challenges us to accept the uncomfortable premise that the world, both in fact and art, has no duty to conform to our prejudices.
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