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I'll be the first one to admit that I've never been interested in cartoons not as a kid and certainly not now. During my younger years I preferred "Sesame Street" and "Mr Rogers Neighborhood" to anything animated and now I prefer movies and TV dramas to cartoons like "The Simpsons", though I still watch it from time to time. That's not to say that I don't enjoy watching cartoons but they never really appealed to me as much as other people I know. I did enjoy "The Smurfs" and "The Care bears", but aside from those and a couple other shows I was never a cartoon type of guy.  I was on the other hand a big fan of Batman and Superman. As soon as I learned to read I was buying comic books. I saw all the Batman films and enjoyed the 1960's life action TV show through repeats that seemed to be everywhere during my childhood.

In 1992 the Fox network began to air "Batman : The Animated Series" and I remember catching a couple episodes of the show and being pretty impressed. I then saw the animated film that followed "Mask of the Phantasm", but that came along as I was outgrowing comic books. Now Warner Home Video gives another generation of kids the chance to see where it all began. "The Legend Begins" is a five episode collection from the 1992 series.

Batman : The Animated Series : The Legend Begins
Series
"On Leather Wings" is the first episode included on this disc and the second episode that actually aired on the Fox television network. Batman (Kevin Conroy), the protector of Gotham City is under watch from the city's police department when a winged creature is seen breaking into labs and stealing chemicals. Detective Bullock (Robert Costanzo) urges Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) to allow him to setup a special task force to aide in the takedown of Batman. Gordon refuses as he can't believe Batman would ever do such a thing but his decision is quickly overthrown by the mayor. Meanwhile Batman continues to investigate the crime to try and clear his name and in doing so comes across a hair sample from the culprit. His suspicions are that the creature is a hybrid between a man and a bat like himself, but with something gone terribly awry. As his alter ego Bruce Wayne he takes this sample to the Gotham City Zoo where he has some pull due to his recent large donation to the department.  The sample analysis comes back in conclusive leading Batman and Wayne to believe that someone at the Zoo is responsible for these crimes.

"Christmas with the Joker" is the second episode and the only one on the disc to feature Batman's comic book sidekick Robin. It's Christmas time in Gotham City and after a couple of sweeps of the city Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Robin (Loren Lester) retire to Wayne Manor in hopes of having a lovely crime free night. Robin aka Dick Grayson pressures Batman aka Bruce Wayne to watch the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life" on TV but before long they learn that the Joker (Mark Hamill) has escaped from Arkham Asylum and has taken control of airwaves with his "It's a Joker Christmas" special. The broadcast is aimed at Batman as the joker has kidnapped Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings), Detective Bullock (Robert Costanzo) and Summer Gleason (Mari Devon) and are holding them hostage. The trick is the Joker plans to kill them all if Batman can't get to them by the stroke of midnight.  Believing that he has located the origin point of the broadcast Batman and Robin set out to foil the Joker. Determined not to make it easy for them the Joker plans all sorts of chaos in hopes of throwing the Bat off his trail.

"Nothing to Fear" is the third episode included on the disc and this time features the Scarecrow as the villain Batman has to thwart.  All is not well on the campus of Gotham University after a number of break ins they find themselves on the brink of shutting down. Batman begins his investigation and discovers that the culprit is a super villain by the name of the Scarecrow (Henry Polic II) who is using some sort of chemical spray that enables his victims to be have their own fears unleashed upon them. Batman nearly stops him but before he can finish the job he is sprayed causing his greatest fear to become a reality. It seems as though Batman is haunted by the fact that he feels that he might be letting his father down in the way he is running Wayne Corp. The investigation continues but with the gas having lingering effects will Batman be able to stop the evil Scarecrow and what exactly is the University's connection to all this?.

"The Last Laugh" is the second episode on the disc to feature Batman's most famous adversary "The Joker".  It's April fools day in Gotham City and Alfred is the spirit of the event but Bruce Wayne is his usual unfunny and serious self. He just wants to carry on his normal day of crime fighting and then retire to his manor for a relaxing evening. However the Joker (Mark Hamill)  has other plans for him as he floats in a giant barge full of garbage that has been sprayed with some sort of laugh serum. As the barge floats down the river the gas is released leaving all of Gotham City in hysterical laughter. With the city off it's guard the Joker goes on a crime spree stealing televisions and other high priced goods from local retailers. Batman hears about this and flies into action. He obtains a sample from the barge and when the analysis comes back it shows that prolonged exposure can cause permanent damage. Destined to keep Gotham from total chaos the Bat attempts to locate the Joker and his minions.  Can Batman stop the Joker in time and restore order or will the city forever remain in stitches?

"Pretty Poison" introduces us to another villain from Batman's Rogue gallery. This time a female by the name of Poison Ivy. Harvey Dent (Richard Moll) has just been appointed as the new District Attorney of Gotham City. As part of his new job Dent has announced plans to develop a large plot of land that was previous considered unusable due to all the weed and plant vegetation that was growing there. Five years pass and the site is now the location of a state of the art prison where criminals go to serve their time. A prison break occurs by helicopter and Batman is called into action. Meanwhile at the Rose Cafe Harvey Dent and his date Pamela Isley (Diane Pershing), a luscious red-headed beauty are waiting for their companion Bruce Wayne to join them for dinner. Harvey explains that Bruce is probably just working late and that he will join them shortly. Eventually Bruce joins them and Pamela and Harvey share a lovely and passionate kiss. Before long Pamela explains that she must leave immediately as she has an early meeting in the morning. After her quick departure Harvey explains to Bruce that they are going to be married but before he can finish he becomes quite sick. At the hospital it is learned that he has been poisoned and the police and Batman begin separate investigations to find out by who or whom. The trail leads back to Ms Isley who was a vocal opposition five years prior during the building of the prison.

"Batman : The Animated Series : The Legend Begins" could be considered a 5 episode "best of" compilation though I wouldn't exactly consider these episodes the best the series has to offer. The episodes included range from the very strong "Christmas with the Joker" to the average "Pretty Poison" to the well below average "On Leather Wings". One thing that bothered me was that none of the episodes really fit together and though they were the first 5 produced episodes they did not air in that order. There are characters included in a number of the episodes that are recurring characters with back stories provided in episodes that aired earlier. Since those episodes are not included it's tough to really determine if they are an important characters or just some random people. One such case is the character of Summer Gleason who appears in 3 of the 5 episodes. In "Christmas with the Joker" she is never identified by name, instead she is just one of the Jokers victims. The other victims are well known supporting characters that have been setup in the prior episode but she is just there. It's not until a later episode that we learn that she's a journalist who is constantly included in the stories. There are other similar situations throughout that can be troublesome for viewers trying to understand just where and when these characters showed up. Another example is Harvey Dent who appears in the final episode on the disc and many others throughout the season which haven't been included.

The one thing that could have been done by Warner is to release this in Season sets like other studios have been doing with "The X-Files", "Sex and the City" and "Twin Peaks" amongst a number of others. By doing so the problem mentioned above would be mute as the characters would have been properly introduced and not just appear as if they came out of thin air. Another solution would be to release sets of similar themed episodes along the lines of the recent "Justice League" release. By doing that there would be far less confusion and the episodes would be more enjoyable to watch. Still in terms of preference the option of season sets makes the most sense as that seems to be what's popular amongst DVD fans.

"Batman TAS : The Legend Begins" is a decent starting block in terms of episode selection although some more care should have been exercised in selecting episodes that have recurring characters in them. This continuity problem is a big flaw for adults such as myself, but kids won't really mind as this sort of thing doesn't phase them at all. Here's hoping that Warner takes more care in the future either by putting out similarly themed episode collections, or the much preferred complete season sets. As an introduction to the series this DVD does it job, but it really doesn't do much to excel past that.

Batman : The Animated Series : The Legend Begins
Video
Warner Brothers presents "Batman : The Animated Series" with a full-frame 4:3 transfer that accurately recreates the original television presentation. The series is now over 10 years old and the animation isn't as tight or stylized as one would see on modern television, but it's a far cry from the  animation of the 60s and 70s. The presentation of the five episodes varies a bit from episode to episode but for the most part is average.  The prints used are in acceptable shape, but do contain some dust and dirt that must have accumulated over the past ten years. The series as a whole comes off very dark and colors are a mixed bag with a number of blue tones appearing lush and well defined, while other colors like red and brown seem a tad off. The browns in the "On Leather Wings" episode are particularly problematic as they suffer from quite bit of color bleed. The reds and greens of "Pretty Poison" are about the best the disc has to offer in terms of color, though the prologue to that episode also suffers from an overly brownish tint which bleeds in spots. Other problems that pop up include the occasional soft focus shot and there are one or two shots that appear entirely out of focus. All in all considering the age of the episodes it's a bit disappointing that they don't look better. Hopefully Warner will either do some more restoration work or locate better source elements before releasing more episodes on DVD.

Audio
The disc comes with a Dolby 2.0 audio track, which despite the labelling on the back of the package to the contrary is encoded for Dolby Prologic playback. In my recent review of the "Justice League" animated release I commented on how disappointed I was with the audio. Those feelings of disappointment continue with "The Legend Begins". "Batman : TAS". It sounds exactly like it must have on television and makes little effort to do anything creative with the audio experience. This is a front heavy mix with the musical score dominating the front speakers with very little if any reinforcement from the rear speakers. Dialogue is placed firmly in the center channel and for most the part is easily understood. Surround usage is limited to the occasional musical cue and the odd bit of ambience, but there really isn't much happening from the back. The sub woofer does get a bit of a workout though it's nowhere near as boomy as it could be. To be honest with you I didn't really expect much out of this mix, but I was hoping for just a little more of anything. Warner has just slapped on the television mixes which is more then just a little disappointing. Technically speaking there's nothing wrong with the audio other then the fact that no creativity was used in the creation of this mix.

Extras
In terms of extra features "Batman TAS : The Legend Begins" looks pretty sparse.

"Conversations with Director Bruce Timm" which in reality is are short 1 to 3 minute video introductions to the episodes. These make up the majority of the bonus materials on the disc. Timm offers some interesting discussion about the different character design and the approach they took to the series. He also talks about how he felt they never really nailed the design of "The Joker or "The Scarecrow" until later on in the series, and how both designs changed from episode to episode. In general these introductions are pretty simplistic in nature although Timm does offer some minor insight into the development of the series.

"Life on the Edge" is an interactive game where players select an option from Bruce Wayne's daily calender. Depending on their selection the game moves in different directions. Some options lead to fights with Supervillians and others lead to more routine daily activities. Once an option is selected a brief video clip plays depicting that action. It's a pretty simple game and not really all that interesting, although I'm sure it'll play better with kids.

Rounding of the bonus materials section is a feature called "Get the Picture : How to draw Batman", which runs for about a minute and is essentially a quick glance at how to draw the Batman character from the cartoon series. The piece is pretty basic and not really a great help for people like myself that can't draw a stick figure to save their lifes. No narration or explanation of the on-screen action is given, instead it features an annoying musical background. In what also seems to be a creative feature sharing move this exact same featurette has been included on "Batman and Mr Freeze : Sub Zero" release.

Batman : The Animated Series : The Legend Begins
Overall
"Batman : The Animated Series : The Legend Begins" is a good attempt from Warner Brothers to see if there is a market for the remaining episodes of the series on DVD. However Warner fails to recognize that a number of people shy away from "Best Of" collections in favor of complete seasons. The episodes contained on the disc can stand on their own pretty well, but when you put them together as a whole problems begin to come to the surface including issues involving the sudden appearance of characters who come from out of nowhere. There is no common problem within the episodes, and that is ultimately the disc's biggest fault. That coupled with disappointing audio/video quality and a handful of rather boring extras makes it really hard for me to recommend this disc. Priced at an affordable $19.99 this might make for a nice gift for a Batman crazed child, but others should probably just hold off until Warner does the series right.  


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