Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) / Animation-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence
Running Time: 75 min.
Cast (voices): Kyle MacLachlan, David Boreanaz, Lucy Lawless, Jeremy Sisto, Miguel Ferrer, Neil Patrick Harris, Keith David, John Heard, Kyra Sedgwick, Brooke shields, Corey Burton, Joe Mantegna
Director: Dave Bullock
Screenplay: Stan Berkowitz, Darwyn Cooke (based on his comic)
Review published March 27, 2008
Darwyn Cooke's Eisner Award-winning mini-series, "DC: The New Frontier", gets the direct-to-DVD animated movie treatment, which will likely please fans of DC comics in general, even though its revisionist nature may irk some "Justice League" fans, while those who love the comic might feel like too much was left out to call this a truly successful adaptation (400+ densely presented comic book pages squeezed into a mere 75 minutes). If you don't mind that it's not in continuity with the "Justice League" TV show, or even the comics (though it does set itself up to be a prequel to the first issue of the Justice League in "The Brave and the Bold" #28), this is an example of the superlative quality comic book inspired material that DC and Marvel have been putting out of late. It's a good time to be a comic book movie buff.
The film starts with a powerful space entity called "The Center" (voiced by Keith David, ATL) determining that the human race has become too destructive, especially of themselves, and therefore, must be eradicated. The timeline is the 1950s, with DC's emerging Silver Age characters are set against the political backdrop of the U.S., the Korean war, and many other major events of the day. The DC heroes, many of whom would end up comprising the Justice League as we know them, get a brief origin and common causes, putting aside their own petty differences to try to save humanity from an ultimate fate. Interestingly, stalwarts like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman take a supporting role, while Cooke concentrates more on what are normally secondary characters like Hal Jordan (Boreanaz, Mr. Fix It), who would become the Green Lantern, J'onn J'onzz the Martian Manhunter (Ferrer, The Man), and Barry Allen (Harris, Harold & Kumar), the man known as The Flash. Given that these characters rarely get to shine outside of the Justice League series, their spotlight is refreshing.
The animation is reminiscent of the style of the comic books, which were very retro to the appearances of these characters in "Justice League of America" and those that were released around the era in which they are set. While the character models are appropriately simplistic, the backgrounds and animation techniques most certainly are not, combining robust 2D with 3D tweaks to give a very visually alluring aesthetic. The voice work is solid, although some characters sound a bit out of place, such as Jeremy Sisto's (Waitress, A Lot Like Love) gravelly delivery of the normally baritone Batman. Also, parents should be warned that the film does feature stronger violence than the TV shows featuring these same characters.
The story covers a great deal of ground, and if there is a downside to this, it's that The New Frontier ends up feeling like a bunch of events that never coalesce into a unified whole. Any one of the stories might merit its own film, and yet, this feels like one of those recaps played in the first minute of an episodic TV series, except that it goes on for over an hour. In many ways, its structure is akin to the 1983 movie, The Right Stuff, except that film was given three hours to tell its tale. Here is a prime case where the producers of direct-to-video superhero fare continuously have their heads up their rear ends by forcing a run time of 75 minutes, which has become the standard length for nearly all animated DTV superhero flicks released today. In some cases, this time is too long for the script, and in this case, far too short. A half hour extra to tie all of the multiple themes together could have turned one of the better animated superhero flicks into one of the best superhero films ever, animated or not.
The New Frontier is primarily recommended to comic book fans and those who enjoy the recent Warner Bros. animated releases. To truly love it, it is probably essential to be familiar with the Justice League and the DC Universe, and perhaps of US history, as Cooke's telling pulls some very nostalgic strings for the times and events of the 1950s. Sadly, most baby boomers will consider themselves too mature to ever sit for a cartoon, much less one featuring a bunch of superheroes, while younger viewers who readily eat up such features will not quite be in tune with the many old-school styles in the art or political implications of the back story. When the final few minutes play out over the voice-over clip of John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" speech, I would hope your typical viewer will have goose bumps, rather than wonder, "Who's the guy with the funny accent and what is he blabbering on about?"
©2008 Vince Leo