Monday, April 16, 2012

"Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub Zero" (Boyd Kirkland, 1998)


Directed by Boyd Kirkland
Written by Randy Rogel and Boyd Kirkland
Based on the DC Comics Characters Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Executive Produced by Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan
Produced by Boyd Kirkland, Haven Alexander and Randy Rogel
Art Direction by Steward Lee, Butch Lukic, Phillip Norwood and Daniel Veesenmeyer
Casting and Voice Direction by Andrea Romano
Editing by Al Breitenbach
Original Motion Picture Score Composed by Michael McCuistion

Kevin Conroy ... Bruce Wayne/Batman (voice)
Michael Ansara ... Dr. Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze (voice)
Loren Lester ... Richard 'Dick' Grayson/Robin (voice)
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. ... Alfred Pennyworth (voice)
George Dzundza ... Dr. Gregory Belson (voice)
Robert Costanzo ... Police Detective Harvey Bullock (voice)
Bob Hastings ... Police Commissioner James Gordon (voice)
Mary Kay Bergman ... Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (voice)
Rahi Azizi ... Koonak (voice)
Marilu Henner ... Veronica Vreeland (voice)
Dean Jones ... Dean Arbagast (voice)
Lauren Tom ... Dr. Mariko (voice)
Mari Devon ... WGBS Reporter Summer Gleeson (voice)
Liane Schirmer ... Lieutenant Renee Montoya (voice)

When Mr. Freeze kidnaps Barbara Gordon for a mysterious medical procedure to save his cryogenically frozen wife Nora, Batman and Robin embark on a rescue mission to save her.


If "Mask of the Phantasm" compliments the first 70 episodes of "Batman: The Animated Series," then 1998’s "Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero" compliments the 15 episodes that compose "The Adventures of Batman and Robin."

When it comes to the development of a hero or villain's origin, a key ingredient for me is that no matter how fantastic the circumstances, there should be a heartfelt resonance or connection to the material. And in my opinion, as far as comic book character origins as they were presented and/or altered in the 1990s, no origin struck such an emotional chord with fans and audiences as the one created by Paul Dini for the now tragic Batman foe, Mr. Freeze. The origin is as follows:

After his beloved wife is struck down by terminal illness, Dr. Victor Fries (still pronounced 'Freeze') has her cryogenically frozen in a machine of his own design until he himself can find the cure. However GothCorp, the Gotham City based corporation that funded Victor's research, deems the act a misuse of equipment and decides to pull the plug, which will surely kill his wife (the process of cryogenics can't be reversed).

Driven by rage, Victor holds the CEO at gunpoint to keep him back from the machine, only to be tackled by the CEO himself into a table of cryogenic chemicals. As the CEO and the security team depart, Victor's body is mutated; his blood turns to liquid coolant, his skin is turned a pale snowy blue and his heart and emotions are frozen solid. Somehow surviving the accident, Victor becomes "Mr. Freeze" in order to have his vengeance on GothCorp while continuing his research to save Nora through illegal means.

Seriously, it's like a comic book Shakespeare, or Greek tragedy; truly compelling material.

I wanted you to read it once more prior to this review.

"Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub Zero" is an animated film released in line with the original television series, meaning all of the great actors return (Kevin Conroy, Michael Ansara, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Bob Hastings).

To be perfectly honest, with Robin, Batgirl and Mr. Freeze's involvement "Sub Zero" is, for me, perhaps an answer to how Joel Schumacher's "Batman & Robin" should've been least on the surface. The film was meant to be a tie-in with the live action movie as a joint release, but when "Batman & Robin" failed at the box office producers and the studio held "Sub Zero" back a year before releasing it to disaccosiate it with their bomb.
In retrospect, this piece can at least surpass the live action depction of Freeze. Between the absence of Poison Ivy (leading to focus more on the far more interesting Freeze) and its darker material and plot line, "Sub Zero" is something "Batman & Robin" should've aspired to. Oh well; live and learn.


The film is absolutely beautiful in its art direction and overall aesthetic, with the art deco approach to the architecture and vehicles; an aspect I ALWAYS loved about "Batman: The Animated Series." I especially loved the design for the jazz club Dick and Barbara have their date on and other sets such as Gothcorp's cryogenics lab and Gregory Belson's mansion.

Overall, compared to the live action Batman films of the time it's arguably Oscar worthy in overall broad quality but it does fall a bit short of the mark compared to "Mask of the Phantasm" or even "The Batman/Superman Movie." It's just not as ambitious; the storytelling is dynamic for what it’s worth but the issue is that there's not much story to tell to begin with. It has solid peril as Batman and Robin try to solve the mystery of Batgirl's kidnapping before embarking on a blazing rescue mission to save her, but not much else. Although I have to say that the sub-plot concerning Gregory Belson and his financial troubles brought a sense of humanity and realistic edge to the story.

I mean seriously, what cartoon character do you know that has a hired stockbroker?

It's also charming that the film takes a scene to explore the idea of Bruce Wayne utilizing his corporate reputation as a means to an end for Batman when he and Dick visit Gothcorp's cyrogenics division and discuss with Dr. Mariko the conditions of medical procedures for the cryogenically forzen.

Even out of the cape and cowl, Bruce knows how to play his hand in cracking the case, gathering the evidence and doing whatever it takes to rescue Barbara and stop Victor.


Some such attempts at realism and humanity fall a tad short, namely the inclusion of an orphaned Eskimo child named Kunak meant to add sympathy to Freeze as a buddy of his. One has to question such a gimmick since Freeze is already arguably the most sympathetic of Batman's rogues just based on his origin alone.

On the other hand, I find it charming that Freeze has chosen to side himself with a pair of polar bears for this go around; I always remembered that image disctintly.

One of the greatest appreciations about the film (and "Batman: The Animated Series" as a whole) IS the attention to realism, so to speak. The fact that despite being animated, the material is not dumbed down to an extent; quite the opposite, the creators and storytellers of the show treat it like sophisticated, feature film material. Even the camera angles and character nuances are things out of a classic noir or detective thriller.


I love the scene where Batman and Robin interrogate Belson's stockbroker; it's moody and well composed with its shots and the snappiness of the conversation, hinting at Batman's waining patience.

One piece of boneheaded logic, however, does manage to sneak its way into the film and unfortunately, upon closer examination, it tends to tear the entire piece apart when you consider it.

The crux of Barbara having the same blood type as Nora Fries is a very big contrivance in the movie. When it’s revealed that they share the type, they’re on a complete list of only 18 women.

So what, only 18 women in the world have AB- blood? Only 18 women in Gotham City? Why only women?

The kid in me would rather not think about such things, but it can't be helped the older you get.
It never specifies or makes any sense of this phenomenon and, again, it ultimately feels like a ploy to involve Barbara in the first place given the film being created around the time of “Batman & Robin” and its production.

The cast is just excellent, which pretty much goes without saying when the topic of discussion is the animated projects of DC Comics.


The stand out of the piece overall, for me, is of course Michael Ansara (who also played Kang during the course of three seperate "Star Trek" series). I was a fan of his incarnation of Mr. Freeze from day one and I'd argue that this is one of his finer performances of the character, right below "Heart of Ice" and probably in contention with the "Batman Beyond" episode "Meltdown." For some reason, I feel that he's playing the role a bit softer here than in his appearances throughout the series. Maybe it's just me but I think it stems from the fact that, unlike the beginning of "Heart of Ice" or "Cold Comfort," we now know where this guy is coming from emotionally.

Ansara plays on that foundation and it's the most human Freeze may have ever been in the original series prior to later years when it's revealed that a revived Nora despises what he's done and he falls into despair. Here, there's still some grasp of humanity buried in his arctic heart and we sense its true warmth during the finale when he and Batman set aside their differences to rescue Nora.

I also want to take a moment to point out two of the exclusive additions to the cast for this project; George Dzunda (Scarface and the Ventriloquist from "Batman: The Animated Series" and Perry White from "Superman: The Animated Series") is the voice of Dr. Gregory Belson and Dean Jones (Disney's Herbie from the 'Love Bug' movies) is the voice of Belson's Stockbroker.

These two men play off of one another so well and interact and blend perfectly with the established cast. George is particularly interesting in his vocal fluctuations and Jones does a terrific job of playing off both Batman and Robin when they confront him in his penthouse during the night.


The action of the film is well paced, including a breathtaking motorcycle chase as Dick Grayson desperately attempts to retrieved a kidnapped Barbara Gordon and, of course, the film's finale as Batman and Robin take flight in the Batwing (the original design from the Animated Series, now rendered in CGI which was a great choice, affording some killer and dynamic work.



I absolutely love the scene where Batman, feeling remorse for his foe, proactively chooses to go back into the inferno engulfing the barge as he attempts to rescue Freeze.

It's such a layer of dimension to have this not simply be a matter of hero and villain in combat. Batman DOES regard Freeze as a threat, but unlike the Joker or Ra's Al Ghul, he's someone whom Batman completely empathizes with and wants to help more than simply apprehend, right down to the point of having Wayne Enterprises fund Nora's surgery at the end of the film.

Some of the action falls flat particularly in the second act.


Personally, I think we spend way too much time on the Oil Derrick with Barbara trying to escape her captors. It shouldn't have taken Batman and Robin that long to find her and it her constant escapes not only drag the pacing of the movie, but it makes Freeze and Belson look like a pair of idiots for not being able to contain her. Sure, she's Batgirl and has resolve, but got a tad redundant after awhile.

On a side note, I loved Mike McCuistion’s score for the film. His 'Nora Fries' theme with the flute and the ‘Mr. Freeze’ and ‘Batman’ motifs are superb. While not the classic "Batman" theme of Shirley Walker's that we know, McCuistion delivers a fine addition to the pantheon of themes for the caped crusader.

Of all of Batman's foes, Mr. Freeze was certainly worthy of a feature-length piece.

While "Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub Zero" may not have the story resonance that "Mask of the Phantasm" has, it's still an exciting film concerning one of Batman's most heartbreaking adversaries, giving him a proper due since he only ever appeared in two episodes during the original "FOX" incarnation of the show.



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