Tuesday, June 23, 2009

4 Color Cinema: Wonder Woman

On of the major advantages of DC Comics' corporate connection with Warner Brothers is Warner Animation, which has been helping keep the DC Long-Underwear Pantheon in cartoon form since the early 90s.  The latest front, direct-to-DVD animated films, has yielded successes for DC, including the superlative Justice League: The New Frontier and the anime-centric Batman: Gotham Knight (which although I didn't care for it apparently sold like proverbial hotcakes).  The next release from the series is the film we are looking at today, Wonder Woman.  (This review will contain some spoilers.)

Our story opens in the time of hallowed antiquity, as a battle rages between Hippolyta's Amazons and the forces of Ares, god of war.  In the end, Hippolyta is able to overcome her foe, but is ordered to spare Ares' life by Zeus, his father.  Demanding retribution for all that Ares has taken from her people, Hippolyta is instead rewarded by Hera, given an island paradise, Themyscira, away from Man's World where she and her sisters may live in peace and prosper -- and where Ares will be their prisoner for all eternity.  Further, Hera answers Hippolyta prayers for a daughter, molded from the sandy clay of the island's beaches.  Her name: Diana, Princess of the Amazons.

Diana longs to reconnect with the outside world, but Hippolyta knows the evil which rests in men's hearts, and wants nothing to do with it.  So the Princess must content herself with sparring against Artemis, captain of the guard, or studying with bookish Alexa.  But this is thrown in the air when US Air Force fighter pilot Steve Trevor accidentaly splashes down on Themyscira, the first man to step foot on the island.  Trevor is easily captured, and Hippolyta decrees that he must be returned to his own land.  A contest is held, and Diana (through sneaking her way in) wins the right to escort Trevor home, earning the gifts of the gods which become her costume -- the Golden Girdle of Gaea, Amazonian Bracelts, the Lasso of Truth, Invisible Jet, the whole nine.  

Back in Man's World, Diana finds the aculturization of women offensive -- raised from birth to think they are weaker than men, and then using their own feminity to get what they want as adults.  But while Diana becomes disillusioned with Man's World, devious events are unfolding back in Themyscira, as Ares is able to escape his prison cell and make for the Underworld, where he seeks his uncle Hades' assistance in returning him to his full power.  Diana jets off to stop the god of war, but is unable to do so.  Now, facing a god with the power to drive every living being on the planet into a frenzied battle rage, Diana must use all of her strength, courage, and skill to save both Man's World and Themyscira.

Wonder Woman is a character whom I have only recently (read: the last several years) begun developing an interest in.  I blame her appearances on Justice League, followed by my getting harder into the DCU in the build-up to Infinite Crisis.  I'm not a huge fan by any means but I do like her and will check out her title from time to time.  This film does a lot to foster than appreciation, as it is a very easy story to get into and doesn't bog down the proceedings with too much history or continuity.  As an introduction for non-fans to the world of Wonder Woman, this is a great job.

Keri Russell voices Diana with a mix of intelligence and naivete which works well for the character once she is in Man's World.  Her tone hardens shortly thereafter, keeping with her character's mindset.  Her performance is strong but not over-the-top.  On the other hand, Nathan Fillion, as Steve Trevor, comes really close, but stops just shy.  The rest of the cast all turn in solid perfomances, including Alfred Molina (Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2) as a slick Ares, Rosasrio Dawsom as tough-gal Artemis, and Virginia Madsen as the wise but still butt-kicking Hippolyta.

About the only complaint I have with the film is the very strong "battle of the sexes" theme which covers most of the second act.  Between Steve acting like a horn-dog and Diana's speechification, it comes very close to stumbling into corn-fed preachiness.  Luckily, there's a fight with a demon in there to break things up and otherwise clear the air.  The animation is fluid and the characters designed nicely.  My wife made a comment about the Amazon's not finding a lot of material with which to make Diana's garments, but that's her costume so you work with it.

Overall, this is a very strong, entertaining little film which will keep viewers satisfied, even if they are novice Wonder Woman fans like me.  

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