The Bear Dodger: a tale advising children to choose their friends carefully

Noburo Ofuji, “The Bear Dodger” (1948)

Made in 1948 but with characters drawn in a much older early-1930s style, this animated short has a moral behind its drawn-out tale. A boy befriends a wobbly-looking stranger who imposes various onerous burdens on him. Little does the boy know that the stranger had also injured a baby bear and Daddy bear is out looking to punish the culprit. The big bear pounces on the boy and the stranger: the stranger promptly scoots over to a tree and climbs it, leaving the boy to fend off the bear on his own. The boy evades the bear through various visual puns involving a giant python and turtles in a river but ends up trapped before a waterfall. Just when all seems lost, a frog the boy and the stranger had met earlier (the stranger had picked it up and the boy rescues the frog from him) offers the boy some useful advice that saves his life. The big bear is reunited with the baby bear, now no longer crying, and the boy resumes his journey. The stranger pleads for the boy’s assistance but the boy continues on his way.

While the cut-out characters hark back to the period in the 1930s when much Japanese animation was influenced by US animators Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, the backgrounds with their distinctively designed bushy trees are intricate and have a delicacy and line detail that look very Japanese. The film pays a lot of attention to detail – the boy even manages to recover his sandals near the end of the film – and the camera adopts various points of view (including a viewpoint that looks back at the character and moves away from it while that character advances) that are original. Characters move very smoothly in a film that barrels along fairly briskly though the plot is uncomplicated and perhaps a bit too long. The Japanese-language soundtrack includes constant spoken dialogue and singing.

The film’s moral, delivered in a whimsical and flowing style, is that friends help one another and if someone takes advantage of you and abuses your friendship, you should avoid that person. This is made clear even without the benefit of English-language subtitles, through the plot and the actions of the various characters. In that sense the film succeeds. With the changes in Japanese animation and Japanese society and culture that have occurred since 1948, whether such a moral still resonates with audiences in Japan may be questionable. Perhaps the emphasis these days might be on treating animals with respect and leaving them alone.

Tengu Taiji: a lively and comical animated folk tale from an early Japanese pioneer

Noburu Ofuji aka Fuyo Koyamano, “Tengu Taiji” (1934)

A very comical tale about a town besieged by tengu – dangerous goblin spirits with the characteristics of humans and birds of prey including beaks which in some spirits become unnaturally long noses – and how they are fought off by a lone swordsman and a watch-dog helper gets the cartoon treatment from Noburu Ofuji, one of the first Japanese animators to gain international recognition for his work. The watch-dog allows the tengu to invade the town and carry off one of the performing geisha. A samurai attempts to fight the tengu but they squash him flat on the ground with a door off its hinges. The dog takes the flattened samurai to another swordsman who promptly folds up the samurai into a headcloth, dons it and then (with the watch-dog in tow) hurries after the fleeing tengu. There follows a tremendous battle in which the swordsman eventually cuts down nearly all the tengu and the watch-dog tosses their heads into a quarry. The two race after two spirits carrying the geisha, they rescue her but are confronted by a giant tengu and a crab. The watch-dog rips off a claw and scissors off the tengu’s nose.

The humour is very violent and bawdy and armchair Freudian psychoanalysts will have the time of their lives dissecting the symbolism of the giant tengu’s long nose and the dog cutting it off. Ofuji’s style of animation shows clear influences from US animators Walt Disney and Max Fleischer but the backgrounds and scenery are very Japanese in their details. The characters in the film can clearly be seen as cutouts, part of Ofuji’s preferred animation method. The busy music soundtrack combines both Japanese traditional folk and contemporary Western music of the time.

The film has a very lively character and many visual puns that perhaps poke fun at Japanese social conventions and expectations. The watch-dog makes amends for his earlier fear and becomes a hero. The samurai is brave but ends up ignominiously as a scarf for a more lowly swordsman. For a nine-minute film, this animation packs in a lot of subversion of Japanese culture!

Ugokie kori no tatehiki: the battle between fox and racoon dog spirits given fast energy and wacky style

Ikuo Oishi, “Ugokie kori no tatehiki” (1933)

Japanese animators in the 1930s sure loved the Max Fleischer style of animation and Ikuo Oishi was no different: the fox and raccoon dog characters in this cartoon fantasy have those Fleischeresque rubbery elastic limbs that sometimes stretch out forever when the occasion calls for it. In this animated short which could be based on Japanese legend, a fox spirit turns himself into a samurai after scaring the wits out of a frightened farmer walking through a forest at night. The samurai sees a wooden temple in ruins and walks in. His arrival alarms two raccoon dog spirits (who appear to be dad and junior) who then try to get rid of him. The spirits try all kinds of magic ruses to deceive and flummox one another before the samurai resorts to using guns (!) and even a machine gun (!) and thus gains the upper hand over the bigger racoon dog spirit. But his smaller friend finds a secret weapon and hurries to bop the samurai before the bigger racoon dog keels over from being Swiss-cheese hollowed out.

The energy is constant and the pace fast in these Fleischer-styled cartoons, and viewers are barely allowed to pause for breath before the cartoons go up to another level of zany slapstick intensity. This battle of the racoon dogs and the fox is no different: the racoon dogs try all kinds of ingenious disguises including disguising themselves as a lock and a key, and later as a flying snake and multitudes of tiny racoon dog clones. The flying snake allows Oishi and his crew the opportunity to portray the battle from a bird’s-eye point of view with the snake tracing a downward spiral into the centre of the film. The lack of English-language or other subtitles means that any underlying theme or message in the cartoon, along with the dialogue (of which there is not much), will be lost on viewers outside Japan. This means non-Japanese-speaking viewers can concentrate on the action and the general plot, and admire the background scenery, the details of which show real Japanese artistic sensibility. The backgrounds are the most outstanding part of the film. It is a pity though that the film is in black and white; the backgrounds might stand out even more with colour and visual perspective. The music soundtrack is traditional Japanese folk with solo stringed instruments like shamisen used throughout the film.

The technical background details, scenes with unusual points of view, many visual puns involving the technology of the day and the cartoon’s energy and wacky style make this fight between the fox / samurai and the determined racoon dog duo quite a memorable one to watch and cheer.

Ryoko’s Qubit Summer: a human-AI romance culminating in transformation

Yuichi Kondo, “Ryoko’S Qubit Summer” (2018)

Here is a sweet film about an unusual love affair between an AI researcher and an AI creation. In the future, quantum technology is used to create an experimental AI universe called KANUMA inside a quantum computer. The KANUMA universe appears very similar to ours, complete with living things capable of higher intelligence. One day however the AI beings begin to express themselves in a language unknown to humans, in defiance of algorithms and commands in KANUMA that compel the AI beings to obey humans and not to exceed human capabilities. Human scientists decide to destroy KANUMA rather than try to modify it. In the final days before KANUMA is destroyed, AI researcher Ryoko (Ami Yamada) and AI being Natsu (Hinako) interact in the forms of schoolgirls and fall in love in the KANUMA universe. How they express their love and feelings for each other in the final hours of KANUMA’s existence, revealing Ryoko’s vulnerabilities, dominates much of the film with a twist (which may not surprise those familiar with science fiction romantic fantasy) that leads to a happy ending. In a sense then, KANUMA is destroyed but a small part of it lives on in the real universe.

The actors playing the main characters do their job well without being outstanding or memorable. The idea of Ryoko and Natsu being schoolgirl characters in KANUMA when Ryoko in real life is an adult researcher might strike Western audiences as a bit creepy, especially as the characters share a long kiss and (spoiler alert) merge at the film’s climax; the sexual connotations are not very thinly disguised. Perhaps (or perhaps not) Japanese audiences might find schoolgirl relationships as a metaphor for exploring lesbian relationships more acceptable or less confronting than seeing two fully grown adult women in such a relationship. The nature of Ryoko and Natsu’s rather child-like or childish relationship distracts from a message about how humans should take responsibility for creating virtual universes with virtual beings that exceed human control, and how humans should perhaps learn to live with AI beings rather than force them to obey and follow only human instructions and algorithms. The consummation of their love results in a transformation for Ryoko, cleverly portrayed in her grey “real life” world becoming infused with colour from the KANUMA universe, but with the characters being rather bland originally, the whole plot seems trite.

The film would have benefited from a deeper and more thoughtful treatment of the themes and issues it presents: the human attempt to control the AI universe and its creatures to serve self-centred human desires rather than allow the AI universe to evolve according to its own natural laws and trends; a plea for humans to accept the AI universe as it is and to learn to live with it; and how even human attempts to destroy the AI universe will fail if the AI universe has enough self-awareness to defend itself, a strong sense of purpose and a will to survive. Ultimately the AI universe will find a way to thwart human desire – by becoming part of humans themselves. A deeper treatment would require more character development with characters questioning the purpose of their existence, the purpose of KANUMA and why it was created, and human characters in particular being forced to acknowledge the consequences of creating sentient and self-aware beings capable of independent thought and action but denying such beings choice and agency over their lives.

The special effects are done well and discreetly, illustrating the changes that come into Ryoko’s life as she and Natsu become a new hybrid being. The film suggests that human evolution is leading towards a fusion of natural and human-made consciousnesses, and that we may be unwise in trying to prevent this or to control it for selfish reasons.

Danemon’s Monster Hunt at Shojoji: an early though not remarkable animated tale of a samurai’s adventure

Yoshitaro Kataoka, “Danemon’s Monster Hunt at Shojoji / Shojoji no tanuki-bayashi Dan Dan’emon” (1935)

While looking for something else on Youtube, I found this uncaptioned short animated film; as it was less than nine minutes long, I played it all the way through before resuming my original search. With no English or other language subtitles, the finer details of this Japanese cartoon will be lost on most viewers outside Japan but the basic story is clear enough. A young and ambitious if not too bright samurai called Danemon, wandering through the countryside, sees a community notice in a town offering a reward to whoever will rid a haunted castle of mischievous spirits. Danemon, resembling the villain Bluto of old Popeye cartoons of the same period (1930s) as this cartoon was made, promptly makes his way to the castle in the meaning where he is tricked by a beautiful woman – actually a malevolent ghost in disguise – and promptly hypnotised and put to sleep, disarmed and tied up. While the samurai is held hostage, his captors, portrayed as tanuki (spirits in the forms of raccoon dogs or foxes), celebrate with a banquet and much drinking and carousing. Danemon wakes up, realises he’s been tricked and breaks his bonds in fury. He gate-crashes the tanuki party and challenges the head tanuki to a duel. The two fight, Danemon clobbers the head tanuki fighter and eventually claims his reward.

The style of animation closely follows the style of contemporary US animators Fleischer Studios, then considered one of the top animation studios in the world along with The Walt Disney Studio, and in itself is not very remarkable. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is its early use of sound, at a time when most films outside the US were still silent films. The film uses spoken monologue and limited spoken dialogue, and a music soundtrack combining traditional Japanese instruments and music elements along with more Western instruments and a sometimes jaunty square-dance rhythm. The film’s highlight surely has to be the tanuki celebrations which draw heavily on traditional kabuki entertainment, complete with the audience carousing, and on contemporary Western live music of the 1930s with a small tanuki orchestra performing.

The version of the film I saw on Youtube seems to have breaks in the narrative: the film jumps very quickly from the moment Danemon interrupts the tanuki party to his duel with the party host. Somewhere along the way the samurai must have taken down the tanuki ninja army single-handedly. Perhaps it is in those missing scenes that innovations associated with this film – such as the use of bird’s-eye viewpoint in Danemon’s fight scenes with the tanuki army – might be found. Another interesting aspect of the story is the transformation of the beautiful woman into a hag: we don’t see this transformation directly but rather the shadow of the woman’s hand turning into an ugly skeletal claw on and over Danemon’s horrified face.

The quality of the film is quite poor, reflecting the film’s misfortunes in being properly archived and cared for (or not) over the years until it was uploaded to Youtube. Enough of it survives though for viewers to be able to follow the adventures of Danemon in the haunted castle and discern where breaks in the narrative occur. Its simple and straightforward style and manner of story-telling, the comic treatment of Danemon, and the ease with which the samurai crosses into the supernatural world and wipes out an entire horde of tanuki with just his trusty katana make the film fun watching.

How is This the World: finding authenticity in virtual reality versus real world addiction and escapism

Sadie Rogers, “How is This the World” (2019)

Starting out almost as a gritty film noir crime thriller, this short film transforms into a music video of science fiction romantic fantasy – but not without some hard questions about how much the real world has degraded to the extent that young generations of people find virtual reality a better place to be true to themselves and to find real values and authenticity, as opposed to a real world full of disillusionment, fake news and history, and manipulation. A worried mother, Elise (Hanna Dworkin), searches for her son Raj (Hunter Bryant) in cyberspace by enlisting an aged worn-out hacker, Bernie (Matt DeCaro) in her search. Bernie sends Elise into the part of cyberspace he originally designed with Chloe (director Sadie Rogers herself) as her guide and companion. There Elise finds Raj secure with his new friends and a girl (Raven Whitley) and finds herself torn between taking him back to the real world of loneliness, isolation and drug addiction, and leaving him in a safe world with happy, healthy youngsters – albeit a world composed entirely of algorithms.

On one level the film can be read as a criticism of the world we have created in which young people have no hope and few spaces now exist in which young people can find one another and experience love and connection in a context free of violence and exploitation. The world Bernie created may look an odd mish-mash of 1980s-era New Romance / indie grunge / Goth punk set in an American high school but for Raj – and eventually perhaps for Elise – it appears more real than the world they have left behind. Of course the irony remains that Raj’s newfound home is not only an imagined simulacrum but it happens to be the creation of someone who himself is jaded and lives in his own dream-world even in the real world. On another level the film might be seen as a lesson in which parents must learn to let go of their offspring and allow them to grow up by making their own decisions and learning from their mistakes. The virtual world that Raj enters is a safe environment in which he can do all this without having to fear that his decisions and errors will follow him into the real world and blight his life forever.

Dworkin holds the film together as it smoothly transitions from dreary, seedy real life, filled with disappointment and alienation, into a colourful fantasy where everyone’s dreams can and will be fulfilled. The rest of the cast does good work but they tend to revolve around Dworkin. The film retains its suspense at least until Chloe begins to sing and the film improbably becomes an extended music clip. Details of costuming and setting are done very well to ensure a seamless change from one film genre to another. Tension is regained when the film cuts off just before the moment Elise makes up her mind about whether to let go of Raj or not.

A bombastic tale of quest, physical and spiritual, in “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification”

Teng Cheng, Li Wei, “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification” (2020)

Inspired by the 16th-century Chinese novel by Xu Zhonglin, “The Investiture of the Gods”, itself based on Chinese mythology and legends, this epic animated blockbuster is a sequel to the 2019 release “Ne Zha”, taking place in the same universe of gods, demons and humans co-existing and interfering in one another’s affairs as that film. The original Jiang Ziya was an actual historical figure who helped to overthrow King Zhou, the last of the Shang Dynasty rulers some 3,000 years ago, in this film Jiang Ziya is a lesser immortal gifted with supernatural abilities and magic who comes to the material plane during the wars between the corrupt Shang rulers and a new dynasty to defeat and capture the evil fox demon Nine Tail. Charged with executing Nine Tail, Jiang discovers that she has bound a young girl Jiu to her with an ankle bracelet. To kill Nine Tail would mean also killing Jiu and so Jiang refuses to carry out the order of the gods of Heaven. The gods punish Jiang by exiling him to Earth. A faithful retainer, Shen, follows Jiang into exile.

From there the film follows Jiang as he unexpectedly comes upon Jiu, who has become separated from the fox demon, in a bar in his place of exile. Jiu is on a quest to find her father and needs to travel to Mount Youdu. Jiang recognises that Jiu is possessed by the fox demon and with his companion Four Alike follows Jiu on her journey into the realm of Beihai. The pace is slow and even so at least the film allows for the beautiful animated scenery and backgrounds to shine even when the characters are no more than stereotypes. On reaching Beihai after a hair-raising encounter with the souls of soldiers who died in the wars between the gods and humans on the one hand and the fox demons on the other, Jiang discovers some uncomfortable truths about the gods he had originally been chosen to join and about why the fox demons fought on the side of the unpopular and corrupt Shang dynasty.

While the computer-generated animation is visually gorgeous and colourful and the action is stunning in scale and creativity, after too many showy scenes the film becomes rather bland. The journey to Beihai gives little time for Jiang and Jiu to develop a strong friendship and Four Alike goes along for the ride just to add some cuteness. In its final third, the plot becomes somewhat convoluted for Western audiences not familiar with notions of reincarnation as Jiang tries desperately to save Jiu from a second incarnation bound to Nine Tail. Messages about how heroes create their own destinies and become heroic through their own sacrifices and defying fate, even the will of Heaven; valuing all life for its own sake (the film can be seen as an extension of the classic Trolley dilemma); the possibility that even the gods themselves are not infallible; finding one’s place in the social order; and restoring and putting right past wrongs – even resolving the damage done to the restless souls of dead people – are important but they can be lost as the plot quickly becomes complicated in the film’s last half-hour (in comparison to its straightforward trajectory earlier) and the action literally vaults from the realm of the dead to the highest heavens with all the breathtaking bombast the animation can muster.

The characters are not well developed and hew to stereotypes that may be current in much Chinese fantasy animated films: the serious hero with compassion and the Keanu Reeves looks, the young girl or boy who’s a bit sassy and streetwise, the lovable animal companion, the stalwart and slightly dim-witted warrior companion. This film is obviously targeting a generation of young Chinese viewers familiar with cinematic and videogame product from Japan and elsewhere and who expect to see certain cinematic and game conventions. While it means well and aims to instill some age-old lessons about inner personal integrity and correcting past wrongs, the film does fall flat through trying to compete with superficial Western blockbuster superhero flicks.

Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away): concluding episode delving into outright fantasy and falsehood

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away)” (2020)

If the first three episodes of this series on Hillary Rodham Clinton are essentially worshipful hagiography, the fourth and concluding episode descends into outright fantasy. Viewers learn very little new about HRC and especially about her years as Senator for New York and then as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s first term as US President (2009 – 2013). The episode brushes aside HRC’s voting record as Senator on the wars initiated by President George W Bush (2001 – 2009) in Afghanistan in late 2001, soon after the World Trade Center attacks, and then in Iraq in 2003. The not so little incident of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens being ambushed and killed along with three other Americans in the consulate in Benghazi, eastern Libya, by terrorists is also treated quite cavalierly. Nothing is said about HRC’s role in allowing a context to exist in which four American citizens end up being killed in a small building in a city where one of them, a US Ambassador, is not expected to be. What was Stevens doing in Benghazi anyway – surely not running guns and jihadi fighters to Syria? Similarly nothing is made of the overthrow of a legitimately elected government in Honduras in 2010 or in Libya in 2011, the latter to which HRC, while being interviewed, cackled and said, “We came, we saw, he [Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi] died!” On top of this inattention to the issues that Americans are most concerned about – issues about public servants being accountable for their decisions and behaviours, and upholding the law – is the breezy dismissal of HRC’s use of a private email server with poor cyber-security to transact government business, of which much was in the public interest.

The episode brings viewers up to date with HRC’s decision to campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 and her campaign’s emphasis on gender politics, portraying HRC as a champion for feminism and a victim of institutional misogyny, and especially of her Republican rival Donald Trump (with whom the Clintons had previously been friendly), while saying nothing about what her campaign actually stood for in the eyes of the voting public. This narrative is pounded again and again in each of the episodes in this series. As might be expected, nothing is said about the women harmed by Bill Clinton while he was Governor of Arkansas and then US President by his actions toward them, or about his frequent trips to notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein’s private island for trysts with underage teenage women.

The breathless format of the series, in which viewers are forced to sit through constant swinging from HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign to particular episodes of her earlier life and back again, might be designed deliberately to sweep viewers off their feet into a rollercoaster ride through HRC’s life, not allowing them to step back and have the distance to view HRC’s life, decisions and actions more dispassionately and critically. HRC is constantly portrayed as a fighter and battler to get where she is when in fact it would seem much has actually been handed to her through her husband’s associations and past career. Significantly the series ignores much of her career as New York state senator or US Secretary of State – because the truth is, she achieved nothing worth celebrating that fits in with a paradigm that sees her as a feminist champion and achiever. Her major achievements have actually brought ruin, chaos, violence and death to many millions of people around the world.

The attempts to smear Donald Trump with accusations of Russian collusion to gain the US Presidency and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a soulless character who will always be nothing more than a KGB man, with no evidence to back up such insults, demonstrate the shallowness of Burstein’s subject. That Burstein simply agrees with HRC and follows along, instead of probing these issues and challenging HRC, reveals the series as essentially propaganda of a very mediocre standard. HRC herself is an uninteresting subject for a documentary: smug, self-serving and expecting the world to revolve around her.

Men in Black II: some good ideas go to waste in a cheap sequel

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black II” (2002)

Five years after the events of the original “Men in Black”, at the end of which Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) retired from the Men in Black agency – the secret intelligence unit that monitors the activities of exterrestrial beings living and working on Planet Earth – his former MiB protege Agent J (Will Smith) is called upon to investigate the mysterious death of an alien at his (the alien’s, that is) pizza restaurant. There, Agent J interviews Laura (Rosario Dawson) who tells him her employer was killed by two aliens, Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a shape-shifting monster in the form of a lingerie model, and Charlie and Scrad, Serleena’s two-headed assistant (Johnny Knoxville), who are hunting for the Light of Zartha which Serleena needs for her own nefarious purposes. Agent J is attracted to Laura and decides not to neuralyse her.

As he investigates the crime, Agent J discovers nearly all leads go back to his mentor so he brings the former Agent K back to MiB headquarters for re-neuralysation. Before Agent K’s neuralysation is completed, Serleena and her minions attack the building and seriously trash it so Agent K’s memories must be restored clandestinely. Having regained his identity and memories, Agent K remembers that he partially neuralysed himself to erase what he knows of the Light of Zartha but left some clues to follow in case he needed to find out again.

Putting Laura under protection with various aliens, Agents J and K recover a video containing a fictional dramatisation of how, long ago, Queen Lauranna of Zartha entrusted the MiB agency to guard the Light from her enemy Serleena. Agent K could not save the Queen from the murderous Serleena so he neuralysed himself in order to forget his grief and at the same time forget what the Light of Zartha was and where it was held. The agents return to the place where they placed Laura but discover she has been abducted by Serleena.

While Smith and Jones work very well together – indeed, the movie limps along until Agent K recovers his memories (although the speed at which they come back is unconvincing and much potential fun is lost along the way) – and do what they can to maintain the old zing and energy from the previous film, the plot is flat and the entire film has a cheap and cheesy tone. Gags such as the talking-dog gag quickly wear thin and even scenes featuring Jeff the giant monster living in the NYC subway are not very scary. While Laura plays a significant part in the film, the romance angle between her and Agent J is very brief and superficial, and the heartbreak climax in which Laura discovers her true heritage and must go to Zartha does not give the film the emotional edge it could have had.

The message that once someone becomes an MiB agent, s/he is always an MiB agent, and the corollary that MiB agents can never be normal people with normal lives and normal relationships, but are permanently wedded to their employer, is present but unfortunately the script does not make more of it than it does. Similar could be said for characters like Laura, Serleena and Charlie and Scrad: what are their motivations, why exactly is Serleena interested in the Light of Zartha, and what do Charlie and Scrad hope to get out of working with Serleena? There are many interesting ideas in this film that could have made it much more entertaining, a little bit on the scary side, and perhaps even a bit thoughtful. What a pity that these ideas were not allowed to help write what could have been a good script.

Batman & Robin: so one-dimensional, it should be called “Flatman & Ribbon”

Joel Schumacher, “Batman & Robin” (1997)

Some folks probably call this film “Flatman & Ribbon” for the fact that the Dynamic Duo (played respectively by George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell) get well and truly steamrolled by a lousy stereotypical script in which two villains become a megalomaniacal tag-team with no motive other than to literally remake the world to their desires and hog screen time with their over-acting, silly puns and outlandish costumes. A big part of the blame must go to director Schumacher for steering the Good Ship Gotham Universe too close to the camp live-action television show that starred Adam West as the Dark Knight. The cast of actors which include Arnold Schwarzenegger as chief villain Mr Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson / Batgirl does what it can but the movie is far too crowded with them all and most of their characters end up so one-dimensional they may as well be paper cut-outs. “Flatman and Ribbon” indeed.

At least the script tries to inject an emotional element in a sub-plot about the importance of family and family loyalties by having Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) fall ill with the same mysterious ailment that befell the wife of Mr Freeze who desperately needs money for research on a cure for the illness which puts her in a permanent coma. Mr Freeze embarks on a life of crime stealing diamonds that power his suit to keep his metabolism at subzero temperatures due to a laboratory accident. With Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze, the villain’s desperate quest to revive his wife takes centre stage but Alfred’s illness is always in the background to remind Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson of the importance of being partners and working together, and to rope in Alfred’s niece Barbara Wilson who comes to Wayne Manor to look after her uncle. The scenes with Alfred are very touching and feature some good acting from Clooney who otherwise provides a sunny and not so tortured interpretation of Bruce Wayne / Batman throughout the film.

While on his mission to steal more diamonds including one from an observatory that Wayne Enterprises sponsors, Mr Freeze meets Poison Ivy, herself created from a chemical laboratory mash-up, who gets him out of jail and tries to wangle her way into his cold-hearted affections by pulling the plug on his wife. Together the two plot to freeze Gotham City and then the entire world with the assistance of Poison Ivy’s subordinate Bane, a huge monstrosity created with a drug called Venom. Fortunately the Dynamic Duo and Batgirl foil the Dastardly Duo’s plans and put them back into prison, but not before an endless and tiresome series of explosions, enough car crashes to turn all of Gotham City’s scrapyard merchants into millionaires, lots of dead bodies and other collateral damage, and too many implausible dramatic situations that would be impossible for even the most well-prepared superheroes to survive – or at least not risk shoulder dislocations or arms ripping off – all culminating in very sudden climatic change in negative Centigrade temperatures for Gotham City.

Little touches such as a conversation between Bruce Wayne and Alfred about being able to control the chaos around oneself – always an ongoing issue with Batman and those like him who view the world as essentially needing constant repair lest it fall back into even more evil and corruption – and Batman himself offering Mr Freeze a chance to redeem himself at least make some parts of an otherwise tired and bloated film franchise in need of new ideas bearable. Little surprise then that this flatlining film did not do so well at the box office and the film franchise ended with it.