Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wonder Woman - a review of the animated feature

Wonder Woman (2009)
Directed by Lauren Montgomery
Story by Gail Simone and Michael Jelenic
Screenplay by Michael Jelenic
Featuring the voice talents of Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Virginia Madsen, Alfred Molina, Rosario Dawson, and Vicki Lewis
Synopsis: On the mystical island of Themyscira, a proud, strong warrior race of Amazon women lives in a utopian civilization shielded from the corrupt world of man. After Army fighter pilot, Steve Trevor, crash-lands on the island, a betrayal within the Amazon sisterhood leads to the escape of Ares, God of War, and Amazon Princess Diana must capture him before he unleashes global chaos and destruction. With Steve Trevor’s aid, Diana tracks down Ares for a battle unlike any humankind has ever faced.

The more distance I put between myself and when I first watched this film, the better I feel about it. I must admit to not liking it as much as I had hoped on first impression. There were a number of things (which I will get into) that aggravated me as I watched the film. The more I think about the film as a whole, the less bothersome I find those things, and I think it has allowed my appreciation for the final product to grow beyond them.

This wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t talk about those things that lessened my viewing pleasure at the onset however. So I will discuss those items as well as things that I particularly liked about the film.

First, the ‘negatives’. Maybe these aren’t really that big of an issue in the grand scheme, but they were enough to pull me out of being fully immersed and entertained by the film as I was watching it. I’ll try to go in semblance of order (as they occurred in the film), but chances are I won’t adhere to that. I’ll begin with character design. I thought most of the characters actually looked really good. I wasn’t overly enamored with Diana’s design, mostly that was due to her hair (minor nitpick on my part). I thought Artemis looked great. I also liked what they did with Persephone. As far as the voices, I was mostly pleased with those performances. The one voice that really did not work for me however was Keri Russell. I just did not hear her voice and think ‘that is Wonder Woman’ at any point during the film.

Getting to the actual events in the film, there were a lot of places I felt opportunities were missed. When Steve Trevor crashed on Themyscira, there was never at any point sorrow expressed by him for his fallen comrades. I realize he didn’t have a whole lot of time to think because it wasn’t too long before he was running for his life from the Amazons, but there should have been a few moments where he voiced regret over the fate of his fellow pilots. I felt like Michael Jelenic dropped the ball there. A little later, after Steve has been captured, he utters the word ‘crap’ and Hippolyta responds that they don’t recognize that particular term. Then a few moments later (under the influence of the golden lasso) he tells Hippolyta that her daughter has a great rack and all of the Amazons in the room seem to understand that expression without any difficulty. So they don’t know what crap is, but rack is a term they are familiar with? Now, it is possible that they didn’t actually know the word but were crystal clear on his intended meaning, so one could choose to explain it away like that. It was just annoying to me because if you’re going to go to the trouble of establishing a simple word like crap as being outside of the basic jargon, you can’t come in with a term that would be even more unfamiliar and act like it is a part of the regular vernacular.

Another opportunity I felt was missed was with Hipplyta and Ares’ son Thrax. I don’t know if Thrax (as the son of Ares and Hippolyta) is part of the common Wonder Woman mythos or if his origin and appearance was specific to this movie, but it really seemed like they could have used the character more. Hippolyta beheads him at the beginning of the film when the Amazons are fighting against Ares and his army. Ares is greatly angered by this and you would think that would be used as motive for him to target and kill Diana later in the film as revenge. Yet that doesn’t happen at all. He doesn’t go after Diana at any point. Thrax is basically just a throwaway character in this film. He does appear later when Ares goes to Hades for help, and it turns out Thrax is Hades’ slave in the underworld. Again, Ares is clearly not happy about that situation, but he doesn’t take that anger and direct it toward Diana. That was a wasted opportunity to make Thrax’s inclusion in this film meaningful.

My next gripe is about something that is canon, but I felt as though this was the opportunity to actually give a good explanation for its existence. The invisible jet. I haven’t read the original Wonder Woman stories so I don’t know when the invisible jet was first introduced and how it may have been explained. I know the target audience for this movie is essentially existing fans of the character, so there is an expectation of those viewers being aware of the jet. That said, I still felt like this movie could provide the opportunity to explain the how and why behind the invisible jet. Instead, it was suddenly just there, no explanation as to why it exists or where it came from. When Diana had to take Steve back to the United States, the invisible jet was unveiled. One can only assume that was a gift from the gods as well. But why? Why a jet? Why an invisible jet? And how long had they been in possession of it? Given Diana’s earlier comments that she had explored virtually every inch of the island and there was nothing new for her to find there, it seemed to me that she had never been off the island at any point to see what was beyond their shores. To wit, she had never been in the invisible jet before, and if that is indeed the case, how did she know how to fly it? But really … why do the Amazons need an invisible jet? They have flying horses (or at least they did in this movie). I really would have liked for Michael Jelenic to take a few seconds in the movie to explain the wheres and whys of the invisible jet. It was another opportunity lost.

Speaking of the jet, there were a couple of instances around it that could have been better plotted. After Ares entered the underworld, Steve flew an injured Diana in a helicopter to the nearest medical facility. Yet Diana and Steve had taken the invisible jet to the compound where they faced off against Ares. That means that later, when Diana and Steve are again in the invisible jet to go after Ares, they first had to go retrieve the invisible jet from the compound (well, unless there is some sort of auto-flight capability where it could be brought to them). Why didn’t Steve just use it to transport Diana to the hospital in the first place? That actually leads into the second instance. Later in the film, Steve sees a missile launch while the Amazons are fighting Ares’ army and Diana is taking on Ares himself. He jumps in the invisible jet to chase the missile down. We already know he is a fighter pilot (since that is how he was introduced at the beginning of the film when he was shot down over Themyscira), so it is obvious he would know how to fly it. Which again begs the question as to why he didn’t fly Diana in the jet earlier and instead took the helicopter. Getting back to the missile, there were questions surrounding that as well. First, it is launched from Washington D.C. and targets Themyscira. I’m not sure what the location of Themyscira is in relation to Washington D.C., but I have to imagine that there was a more convenient site for a missile launch than Washington D.C. (such as from a submarine somewhere closer by the island for instance). And why did Steve chase it? He had no idea where it was heading when he jumped in the jet. There is no reason for him to have assumed it was targeting Themyscira unless he thought Ares was behind the launch and I don’t why he would be under that impression. Now, one can certainly attempt to explain Steve’s actions away by claiming that regardless where that missile was heading, it wasn’t a good thing for it to have been launched. Clearly it was going to hit someplace and do a lot of damage (possibly taking lives). So one could say he had good reason for chasing it down. But that is only if he honestly believed Ares was behind the launch, because otherwise he would have been flying in the face of the decision made by his government, for which he is a serving member in the military and could probably be court-martialed for interfering with an order given by a commanding officer (that being the commander in chief of the United States military).

My final gripe is with the end of the battle against Ares and his forces. After Ares has been vanquished and his army retreats, Steve comes rushing in (having returned from his adventure with the missile) and kisses Diana. And the rest of the Amazons raise their swords and cheer. Huh? After they just been in a costly battle (many of their sisters died) against their long standing male persecutor, they cheer Diana being kissed by a man who was completely transparent in his base desire of her as an object of lust when last they encountered him on the island (remember his comment about her rack). Really? That’s the reaction they would have? I’m thinking the more likely reaction would be to prod him with a spear to separate him from Diana (I could definitely see Artemis doing that).

So those are the negatives. Now for the praise. The battle scenes were outstanding. The battle between the Amazons and Ares and his forces at the beginning of the movie were really enjoyable. The swordplay between Hippolyta and Ares was great. Diana’s confrontation with the street thugs and then Deimos was very entertaining. Her clash against Ares was equally impressive. Diana’s strength and determination was very much visible. She traded blow for blow against every adversary and never faltered.

I enjoyed when Diana spoke to the little girl in the park who was sad because the boys wouldn’t let her play with them. It was fun to see her tell the little girl how to use a sword and then watch as the little girl put those tactics into play and took down one of the boys.

I liked the way Persephone was handled. It made perfect sense for her to be the one to betray the Amazons. She was the obvious choice to be Ares’ primary jail keeper and one could see how he might twist her over time because of what happened on the battlefield. It was only natural for her to slay Alexa the way she did since it was Alexa’s cowardice that almost cost Persephone her life and left her with a lasting reminder of that day.

I liked how Wonder Woman’s outfit was explained – the colors (and likely even some of the design, such as the stars) were selected to represent the country to which she was going to visit as an emissary. Why couldn’t Michael Jelenic have taken a moment to do the same thing with the invisible jet?

I very much liked the music. I thought it was outstanding (I wish there was some sort of a soundtrack available).

One other minor thing I liked at the end. When Diana leaves to fight the Cheetah, Steve tells her to call if she is going to be late because he doesn’t want dinner to be cold. So obviously he was going to be cooking dinner (though Diana was actually the one carrying the bag of groceries – which makes me wonder if perhaps she was going to be doing the cooking originally). Maybe Steve cooks when they meet at his apartment and Diana cooks if/when they meet at her apartment – that would certainly be the most balanced way to go about it.

Overall, it was a good movie. The animation was good. The performances were all good (though as I mentioned, Keri Russell just didn’t sell me as Diana). I won’t put it on the same level as the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series because those were really something special (though obviously a much different format), but this film definitely stands up well on its own. I certainly hope there will be future Wonder Woman animated features but I don’t know if that is in Warner Brothers’ plans. If we’re fortunate, this DVD will sell well enough for them to put another one into production.