Doctor Strange (2007) / Animation-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and some scary images
Running time: 77 min.
Cast (voices): Bryce Johnson, Michael Yama, Kevin Michael Richardson, Paul Nakauchi, Susan Spano, Jonathan Adams, Tara Strong
Director: Patrick Archibald, Jay Oliva, Richard Sebast
Screenplay: Greg Johnson
Review published August 9, 2007
I've never been much of a fan of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko-created comic book character, Doctor Strange, which is why I'm surprised to say that Marvel's fourth animated direct-to-video feature proves to be their best so far (after the disappointment of The Invincible Iron Man, that's a definite relief for future prospects). Essentially, this 77-minute feature serves mostly as the origin of how Dr. Stephen Strange would eventually become the Sorcerer Supreme, the master of mystic arts serving as humankind's best defense against evil and threatening supernatural forces.
This origin follows along similarly to that told in the comic book, with a few changes here and there to condense it for a short feature length. As a young man, Strange (voiced by Bryce Johnson, Bring It On Again) would become a surgeon, perhaps a bit cocky about his skills, thinking he might save his sister from an affliction the rest of the doctors seem to think too costly and futile to attempt to bother with. Strange decides to perform the operation himself once he is able to, but loses his sister nonetheless. After an unfortunate car crash sees Strange unable to use his hands, he becomes morose and unable to function, trying to find all manner of assistance in the world of modern science, but finding no answers. Running out of solutions, Strange treks to a little-known area of the Himalayas in order to find the Ancient One (Yama, All Babes Want to Kill Me), who is rumored to have the power to cure his hands.
Once there, he finds the Ancient One far from helpful, telling him that he can't cure himself physically until he cures his soul, breaking through the barriers created in his own mind that tell him he can only control that which he sees physically there. Without any place else to go for answers, Strange consents to the strange physical training that only seems to make his malady worse, but ultimately sees the light. Meanwhile, trouble begins to brew within the ailing Ancient One's entourage, as the ambitious Mordo (Richardson, Lilo & Stitch) wants to be the heir to the Sorcerer Supreme, seeing Strange as his rival. With the powerful evil spirit Dormammu threatening to enter Earth's realm once again from imprisonment, Mordo may need to find an enemy of his enemy to help his power-hungry cause, but will Doctor Strange be ready in time to stop it?
For those intimate with the life and times of Marvel's mystic warrior, perhaps Doctor Strange might seem only sporadically interesting, as it is little more than an origin story and scuffle with Stange's archnemesis, Dormammu. Although the conflict with Dormammu provides the climax, the film doesn't really take us there until the final 20 minutes or so, refreshingly more interested in building up Strange's journey from arrogant surgeon to master of the mystic arts.
The origin is handled well in a short amount of time, and a good sense of character helps keep the otherwise predictable story interesting. If there's one thing that might have been handled better, it would be in lengthening the sequence where Dormammu becomes a threat, as it feels more like a set-up to a cataclysmic confrontation that Strange is able to thwart with surprising ease once he figures out the Achilles heel. One of the complaints about the character of Doctor Stange in the comic book world is that he serves merely as a plot device to get superheroes out of painted-in corners (a deus ex machina, as it were), shifting time and space to reverse nearly any trend. In his own comic, there appear to be few, if any, boundaries on what he can do, and that trend also continues here, as we are never quite sure of the rules of magic that govern this mystic world these magicians inhabit.
The production specs are similar to the other Marvel films -- 2D animation mixed with CGI elements that give the film a more perspective and an interesting look. Marvel continues to present their animated characters with the semblance of a big-budget movie production, with rich music and room-shaking sound, plus opening and closing credits sequences that suggest a more cinematic vibe, though it's more understated than in previous releases. Although the animation itself is not breaking new ground, it is quite competently handled, and better than most straight-to-DVD releases in recent years.
Doctor Strange is primarily a jumping-on point for those unfamiliar with the character, and its success will probably dictate whether or not there is a market for Marvel's long-running character to make the jump to a live-action feature. Given the recent successes of magical fantasy stories, as well as comic book adaptations, at the box office of late, it's not hard to see why a popular (although never really dominant) comic book character like Doctor Strange would get a push before more traditional superhero characters. Witnessing the competence shown in this film, it would be nice to see more adventures for the Sorcerer Supreme, whether in a direct-to-video sequel or animated series, as it is merely just an origin story that only dabbles in presenting a great many adventures to follow. I guess it all depends on the audience's interest. Given that I had no love for Dr. Strange before this release and ended up impressed, I suspect that it will meet similarly well with fans and non-fans alike.
-- Dr. Stephen Strange previously appeared in the made-for-TV movie, Dr. Strange (1978)
©2007 Vince Leo