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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

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Now, Batman has really returned. A feature movie spun off from the Fox cartoon series, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is simply the closest any TV or movie incarnation has ever come to the spirit of the original Batman comic books.

How? The answer isn’t in the depiction of the Bruce Wayne character — stolidly voiced by Kevin Conroy, he’s basically portrayed as a big lug. It’s the vision of Batman himself (a descending silhouette is sometimes all that’s needed to summon up the requisite dread), of the shadowy spires of Gotham City (which is given a more convincingly noir look than in the live- action films, where the rococo stylings are laid on rather heavy-handedly), and of the unhealthy need for vengeance that motivates Batman’s vigilante crime-fighting.

Which isn’t to say Mask is perfect. A lot of the imagery looks like what it is: television animation. Fortunately, it works better on tape than in theaters, and the pull-out-the-stops finale, for which the producers clearly saved most of their animation budget, is genuinely impressive. While you could argue that Mask tells its story far more efficiently than either of director Tim Burton’s movie versions, the basic story — involving a mysterious villain killing off mobsters and the unexpected return of an old Wayne flame — is pretty routine.

Still, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm offers some substantial pleasures, including Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s (!) droll vocalization of butler Alfred, and Mark Hamill’s (!) maniacal impersonation of the Joker. It may seem like just a children’s film, but if you’ve ever been a fan of the Dark Knight, this is one tape you’ll be able to watch with your kids without flinching once.

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