Remember that post I made about stuff I was excited about getting in February? Well, it's March now, and I've purchased all the animated tie-in material I wanted, one week at a time, and here's my thoughts on each of them.
PLANET HULK (2-Disc)
MARVEL has recently upped their game in terms of media tie-ins, but still have a ways to go before they catch up with DC's animated tie-ins in terms of overall quality and nerd-satisfaction. WOLVERINE/HULK/THOR was definately much closer to achieving that than PLANET HULK was.
PLANET HULK is a 90 minute long adaptation of the recent, popular (and quite excellent), HULK story-arc wherein the Green Goliath is exiled by a cabal of Earth's into deep space, as he's become to dangerously unstable and violent to be allowed on Earth anymore. While in transit, the Hulk, predictably, loses his shit, and wrecks up the joint, inadvertently sending himself hurtling out of control into a weird wormhole which dumps him headlong into Gladitorial adventure on the savage alien planet of Sakaar, in a far distant galaxy.
This story-arc is actually some great fodder for a stand-alone animation project, as it's nicely self-contained and seperated from any other licensed properties, as well as being a nice departure from your usual 'Hulk wanders into town, gets mad, fights big monster' story. It's Hulk out of context and in a new and exotic setting; a weird alien planet filled with cool looking monsters, robots, and aliens, political turmoil, and moral and ethical conundrums. It's a planet where Hulk can thrive; here he's not just a monster, because there are things worse than he is. Here is anger is righteous, and his strength revered. This is Hulk as a hero.
PLANET HULK is for the most part a successful adaptation, hitting all the beats of the source material, while streamlining the plot to fit more smoothly into a 90-minute format. There's lots of action and characterization, as well as few cameo's from some obscure MARVEL characters if you know who you're looking for; but still somehow just doesn't quite make it.
That animation is good, coming from MADHOUSE (yes, the anime MADHOUSE of VAMPIRE HUNTER D: BLOODLUST fame, among others), but somehow doesn't seems nearly as good as it should be coming from a Japanese studio; especially when compared with how good their work on WOLVERINE vs HULK was. There are spots of truly excellent animation, and other spots where it just looks... lacking in some way. Overall art direction is great; it has a good pallete and some great background designs, and the character designs are slick looking, but sometimes seem flat or awkward (Korg and the other Stone Men of Saturn especially), and while Hulk looks like Hulk at the beginning of the movie, I'm not sure how I feel about a 'pretty' Hulk... mostly because of the lost of mass. He's less... hulking by the end of the movie (this was a conscious choice by the director and the designer, and their reasoning is sound, but it doesn't quite work).
There's also something insincere about the story as adapted; one of the elements that really played well with me while reading PLANET HULK was element of mythology; there was a sort of poetic and grandious feel to the story that's lacking in it's adaptation. Here Hulk is just a hero; in the comic he was a savior, myth come to life. I feel like this still could have been achieved, even in this steamlined format, but wasn't in favor of 'playing it safe.' A little more daring and this could have been really great.
Overall, it's hard to criticize PLANET HULK; it was well animated, looked good, and entertained me; but given that it was adapting a specific source material, I can't help but compare the two and find the animated version wanting. PLANET HULK was good but not great, and it could have been.
In terms of extra's in the 2-Disc special edition, it's loaded; two informative, if somewhat self congratulatory, commentaries, a fairly comprehensive 'Making Of', which gives everyone their fair share of credit (even the opening credits designers, which I found the most interesting part, because I never really knew that they outsourced those kinds of things to outside sources, nor the work that goes into making them), and a nice little feature about the source material, highlighting the work of Greg Pak and Aaron Lopesti, and exploring the themes of the story. As an added bonus, there was also, like, five minutes of MARVEL's next animated project, THOR: TALES OF ASGARD, which is about a young, wreckless, teenage Thor and Loki on their first adventure, which looks like it could be a pretty good original story (though I can't say the animation or designs grabbed me... they look like the same sort of crappy North American animation they've done in the past...). Overall, the 2-DISC is definitely worth it.
I didn't actually know anything about this when I saw it; I don't have a PS3 or an X-BOX 360, so I don't really follow games to closely, but the trailer looked good and I've always been interested in Dante Alighieri's DIVINE COMEDY, though this doesn't really have much to do with the poems except in name and theme.
DANTE'S INFERNO is based on the game of the same name, which is about Dante Alighieri (named for the poem's writer) returning home from the Crusade's only to find his family horribly murdered, and his finance, Beatrice, slain. Cradling her cold corpse, he spirit rises before him, and asks if he has kept his promise of fidelity, to which Dante responds, "Yes." A black shade rises from the ground and proclaims Dante a liar, claiming Beatrice as his own, and dragging her pure spirit into the depths of Hell. Dante pursues the shade to the very gates of Hell, breaking the doors down while proclaiming his innocence, only to be marked as a sinner, the tapestry of his sins sown into his chest as he gives chase, determined to free Beatrice from the horrible fate he's condemned her pure spirit too.
DANTE'S INFERNO is done in an ANIMATRIX style, utilizing five different directors, but unlike the ANIMATRIX, which allowed the directors free license within self contained stories, DANTE'S INFERNO is a single narrative; which is actually the biggest problem with the film. There are 9 circles in the Inferno (five for self indulgent sins, two for violent sins, and two for malicious sins) and five directors... so there's no real logic to how the animation chores were broken up, and each director is given free reign with how they portray the design and look of their part, so while part of a single story, the change of style from each director is jarring, and the models never the same. I would find this acceptable if there had been 9 directors, one for each circle of Hell Dante conquers, with each circle having it's own distinct look, and Dante changing to match that between circles (sort of like the IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASIS), but that's not the case.
Still, despite that, each director brings their A-game, and the movie overall looks great; some parts stand out more than others (the opening, done by Film Roman, is the weakest of the entire movie... I have no idea why North American animators are just not good at this kind of extreme and adult content), but the highlight for me, personally, was the final part done by one of my favorite Japanese animation directors, Yasuomi Umetsu (CASSHERN, KITE, MEZZO FORTE, HURRICANE POLYMAR, GOTCHAMAN, etc). There's a wide range of styles, and a high level of polish to the animation.
The story is actually pretty compelling and explicitly adult; no punches here pulled here. It's violent, and bloody, and has some pretty explicit sex. I think this actually takes a lot of influence from BERSERK, either directly or indirectly, as it is uncompromising in it's vision of horrible violence and emotional trauma, as Dante tries to murder his way to redemption, and is forced to confront his sins, and the sins of others. His life is a tapestry of abuse, trauma, and mistakes, and by confronting his past, he is forced to reconsider his faith and the meaning of faith and the will of God; Dante is a deeply flawed person, and hardly a noble character; the more that is revealed about his actions during the Crusades, all done under the belief that he has been exempted from sin by the Church; the more he comes to understand his own evil nature, and that sins committed in the name of God are sins against God. This is all handled in a way so as not to come across as preachy; Dante's fight for redemption is a harsh critique of the hypocrisy of organized religion, and a a more personal examination of the nature of good and evil, which is some pretty deep territory for an animated, monster killing, tit filled bloodbath. ^_^
Overall, while the choice to divide the film randomly between five different directors with vastly different styles of design and direction may be... confounding... the overall product is polished, entertaining, and surprisingly engaging. There are certain elements brought in from the game that seems out of place (such as Dante's ability to absolve the sins of those trapped in hell, which serves no real purpose, and sort of comes out of nowhere...), but overall it's fairly intelligent and has surprising depth, once you get past all the super awesome decapitations and tits.
There are no extras to speak of, which is disappointing, but overall worth watching, at least, if not worth owning.
HALO LEGENDS (2-Disc)
I've only ever played HALO once, and while it was fun, I didn't really see the point in playing it single player; the fun of the game seemed to be the co-op aspect, and driving around in cool vehicles, DUKES OF HAZARD style, while shooting the fuck out of goofy looking aliens. I didn't even realize that there was any more to the HALO mythology than 'Guys in Armor kill aliens on Weird Ring shaped things.' Guess I was wrong...
HALO LEGENDS is another ANIMATRIX style tie-in project, giving seven directors a chance to play around in the HALO mythology. That's not to say they have free reign though; the studio behind the games has a very tight hold on the franchise, and supervised the project very closely, and wrote all the stories; eight in all.
There's the typical ORIGINS story, done in two parts, and actually done by the same director as the ANIMATRIX SECOND RENAISSANCE, which was very similar in theme. It's a basic, chronological rundown of the HALO mythos from beginning to end, narrated by the AI unit Cortana, to a cryogenically frozen Master Chief. Visually, it takes a lot of influence from Moebius, and is gorgeous, if a little dry.
Next up is THE DUEL, which is directed by Mamoru Oshii (of GHOST IN THE SHELL fame), and is the most visually... confusing of the shorts. It's a weird blend of 3D animation with a filter on it to make it look like a moving watercolor painting that just doesn't quite work; it's over done and the colors are all too close together to tell what's going on; in the end it seems like failed experiment with a new technology that just wasn't far enough along. The story is also a little bizarre, as it's basically Oshii trying to do Musashi Miyamoto with aliens. It's an interest experiment overall, but I don't think it quite works; you can skip this.
Following that is HOMECOMING, about the secret horrors behind the training and creation of the Spartans, as a female Spartan reminisces about her past, and her encounter with 'herself', when she tries to return home. The animation is nice, but the designs are out of place, and while the premise is pretty dark and engaging, it's all plays out pretty dry. Not bad, but not one of my favorites.
What follows IS my favorite, though, and I sort of wish they'd done more stuff like this... hell, I'd rather just see a whole movie about this; ODD MAN OUT is the only short on the DVD that really has any sort of fun with the HALO mythos, taking it out of context for a moment, and basically asking, "What if HALO was DRAGONBALL?" It probably helps that it has the same animation director and character designer, united again for the first time in 15 to 20 years. I think this is the only short where they were given free license to do whatever they wanted with it, and they made it count in spades! Just great, goofy, fun, some great designs and animation, and some awesome action; my favorite on the DVD. I'd love to see more of Spartan 1337 (heh... Leet...), but probably won't.
PROTOTYPE takes you back to more serious ground, and is probably my second favorite of the shorts; a pretty dark and serious story that highlights the human infantry rather than the genetically engineered Spartans, and the horrors and inhumanity of war, and the numbness of Full Metal training, while still providing some extraordinarily cool action, and introducing powered armor to the Halo mythology. This is probably one of the more visually spectacular of the shorts, and really shows why the Japanese are the best at this kind of shit.
BABYSITTER is a nice piece of fluff... it's just a cool little story about a day in the life of the ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) HELLJUMPERS, as they are assigned to provide backup to a Spartan sniper on an important mission in hostile territory. Really nice animation and art direction, and an ok story, that I wish they'd had a little more time to tell; there's a great twist at the end which doesn't really get enough play to really hit home the message, but what can you do, when you've only really got 10-15 minutes?
The last short is directed by Legendary level player (that's right; his old ass is THAT GOOD AT HALO) Shinji Aramaki (MACROSS, APPLESEED, VEXILE, among other things), and done with his new signature style of 3D animation... and is probably my least favorite of the bunch. I don't like the look of the 3D, the mo-cap is stiff and awkward, and there's no story to speak of... just it's an over the top, and rather pointless, 10 minutes of inexplicable action; boring and hard to look at, it adds nothing to the DVD.
Overall, I think this was a pretty successful way to introduce people to the franchise (and I actually think this was more aimed at expanding the brand into the Japanese market, where HALO has yet to catch on, and we just got lucky to that there's a market for this DVD here), as I'm now more interested in HALO than I was before, and a cool little DVD. It's loaded with extras; a chronological recap of the games, narrated by the various writers, artists, and producers of the games, a comprehensive 'Making Of' for each short, as well as commentary on every short. A must have if you're already a fan of HALO, and worth having if you just like sci-fi and animation.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS (2-Disc)
The latest in DC's series of straight-to-DVD nerd oriented tie-ins, this showcases just how good have gotten at this over the course of almost 20 years. Seriously, you just can't beat WARNER BROS. at animated adaptations of their licensed properties.
I generally like all of these as a given (though SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY could have been better...), but CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS was probably one of the better ones. It borrows a LOT (almost everything) from Grant Morrison's EARTH 2 graphic novel, but writer Dwayne McDuffie puts his own spin on it, for better or worse (a straight adaptation would have been interesting to see, but definately would have flirted with a hard R rating, which I'm pretty sure is a place they're not ready to go), re-envisioning the Crime Syndicate as Super Mobsters, which is pretty fun and lends them some character beyond baseline 'super-evil.' He also manages to raise the stakes about as high as you can go by putting ALL REALITY, PARALLEL OR OTHERWISE IN DANGER. That's really saying something!
Basically, there's a parallel Earth where the roles of good and evil are reverse; heroes are villains, and villains are heroes. The Lex Luthor of this reality recruits the Justice League to help him free his Earth from the facistic grip of their evil counterparts, the Crime Syndicate; little knowing that Batman's doppleganger, Owl Man, is the ultimate nhilist; having meditated on the nature of Quantum Theory, that every decision every made creates a parallel reality in which the opposite decision plays out, free will is an illusion and life has no meaning... so there is only one choice that has any meaning; the choice to collapse all probability into one definite solution; the end of all existance, in all realities.
My only real problem with this, and in fact, most all of the DC animated stuff, is Andrea Romano's voice direction. She's just not a good voice director, and I don't know why people think she is... everything she works on sounds stiff, lifeless, and matter-of-factly unless the actor themselves brings something to the role; and when you chose to cast fucking Billy Baldwin as Batman, you know he's not bringing much to the role (WORST... BATMAN... EVER!!!), so you need something to poke and prod and performance out of him, while James Woods as Owl Man, just brings it, because he's a fucking amazing voice actor and gets who to bring that guy to life, while everyone else always sounds so fucking dry.
My other problem with the DVD is how lame the extra's are getting; no commentary, no making of; just a bunch of past promotional video's that I've seen before, and have been rehashed on other DVD's, a digital copy that no one uses, and random episodes of JUSTICE LEAGUE that I already own. The only worthwhile extra's on here are a promo for the next DVD, BATMAN: BEHIND THE RED HOOD (which doesn't actually show much... just a few rough layouts and storyboards), and a DC SHOWCASE: THE SPECTRE short.
THE SPECTRE short is written by Steve Niles (30 DAYS OF NIGHT fame), and while I'm not a fan, this was actually pretty fun, and a fresh take on a character I've always liked. It's the Spectre done as a short grindhouse movie about a ghostly vigilante who visits grisly, ironic, justice on Hollywoods sinners. The faked film grain and scratches are a nice touch that adds character to an otherwise pretty straightforward story. Some really slick animation and designs make this a pretty outstanding extra, and I hope to see more of these to help grow the brand with other obscure characters (Bwana Beast? Congrilla? Ragman? I can dream, can't I?).
Overall, another slick, high quality animated feature from DC, but not really worth the 2-Disc, except for the SPECTRE.