Batman: Year One is a DC Universe animated feature based on the classic Frank Miller comics that re-imagined Batman’s origins in a darker, grittier fashion, and would go on to become the seminal tale of who Batman is, and how he came to be.

The “Year One” story has spawned some classic Batman comics set in Miller’s universe (see: “The Long Halloween,” “Dark Victory,” and “Prey”) and is also one of the seeds that Chris Nolan harvested to create Batman Begins. So, the question is: Does DCU successfully translate one of the most famous Batman stories of all time into an exciting animated feature?

Answer: While there are certainly some good things about it, the Year One animated feature isn’t that impressive, overall.

The legend has penetrated deep into the cultural zeitgeist at this point: After years on the road learning crime fighting tactics, Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City, which has become a cesspool of crime and corruption, run by mobster Carmine Falcone. At the same time that Wayne returns, a noble policeman named Jim Gordon moves to the city with his pregnant wife, hoping to make a difference where it’s most needed. On their own, each man takes steps (and missteps) forward in their respective battles to save Gotham’s soul, ultimately setting a new precedence wherein criminals have something the fear, the citizens of Gotham can hope again, and a prostitute named Selina Kyle is inspired to change her life by donning a slinky cat suit.

What worked so well for the “Year One” comic book is exactly what DOESN’T work for the Year One animated feature. Miller’s series brought together the worlds of Batman comics and hard-boiled Noir detective stories in a way that hadn’t been seen before – a marriage that essentially put the “dark” in “Dark Knight.” Like many Frank Miller noir tales, the “Year One” comic featured brooding narration from its two protagonists (Wayne and Gordon) and a dark, gritty urban world created through the dreary visuals of artist David Mazzucchelli.

The Year One animated feature is loyal to its source material to a fault. First-person narration is a great tool in literature, as it helps to bring the reader deeper into the mind of the character(s) they are following. This was the entire point of Miller’s comic: bringing readers into the minds of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon to show the thoughts and motivations that led each man down the path to becoming the character we know today.

In movie form, however, first-person narration goes by a different moniker: voice-over narration, and it often comes across as a cheap storytelling tactic (little action or symbolism in favor of big exposition dumps). The plot of the Year One movie unfolds as a semi-interesting series of ‘stuff that happens’ within a calendar year, but misses out on truly immersing viewers in the minds of the principal characters. Beyond the intense character study, there’s actually very little meat (read: action) in Miller’s “Year One” storyline; this animated version offers about 1.5 action sequences –  the biggest of which has actually been showcased before (in bigger, better fashion) in Batman Begins. The animators respectfully try to emulate David Mazzucchelli’s unique visual style, but their visuals are also crisp, clean and modern, which totally contradicts the washed-out palette of bleak colors and rough sketches that made Mazzucchelli’s Gotham City such a gritty Babylon.

Generally speaking, Batman: Year One also has some of the worst voice casting in DCU history. Southland star Ben McKenzie gets handed the big job of voicing a younger Bruce Wayne; his delivery sounds like an imitation of Kevin Conroy’s iconic Batman voice, but isn’t nearly as good as the real thing. To put it bluntly: he’s just wrong for the role. Gordon, on the other hand, is voiced by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, who manages to actually add gravitas and subtlety to his delivery, and is therefore able to keep Frank Miller’s heavy-handed dialogue from sounding too dramatic or cheesy. Actresses Eliza Dushku and Katee Sackhoff  voice Catwoman and Gordon’s mistress Detective Sarah Essen, respectively, but the star power is wasted, since both characters only have a peripheral presence in the story, and very little dialogue, to boot.

In the end, this film will be a bit of nostalgia for those who have read and loved the “Year One” comic. For those who aren’t yet familiar with Miller’s version of how Batman got his start, do yourself a favor: read the comic or watch Christopher Nolan’s re-working of Batman’s origin story. In either case, you’ll get a better experience than you would watching this underwhelming animated adaptation.

DC Showcase: Catwoman

Included with the Year One DVD/Blu-ray is an animated short from the “DC Showcase” line, this time featuring Catwoman (who is once again voiced by Eliza Dushku). The story of the animated short carries over from the “Year One” animated feature, focusing on Catwoman’s hunt for a notorious Gotham City gangster whose smuggling ring has branched into some not-so-savory areas. Catwoman catches up with the gangster at a seedy Gotham strip club (where else?) and soon after, all hell breaks loose.

The Catwoman animated short is fairly risque (definitely NOT for kids) given that a good portion of it takes place in a strip club, and that it features an overly-extended sequence of Catwoman doing a very PG-13 striptease on stage. That sexually-suggestive sequence aside, the rest of the animated short is pretty exciting and features the best Catwoman action I’ve personally ever seen. Watching Catwoman leap, punch, kick, flip and sling her bullwhip, you’ll come away knowing why she’s often considered Batman’s equal. I would definitely watch a full-length Catwoman animated feature after seeing this.

Special Features

The following special features are available on the Batman: Year One Blu-ray:

  • Sneak Peek at Justice League: Doom, the next DC Universe Animated Original Movie
  • DC Showcase Animated Original Short – “Catwoman”: This all-new entry to the growing canon of DC Universe animated shorts features the first first solo tale centered around Catwoman. The felonious feline’s adventure takes her through the seedy streets of Gotham City.
  • Featurette –”Heart of Vengeance: Returning Batman to His Roots”: The Dark Knight Returns provided the denouement of Batman’s life. Frank Miller’s next seminal work would provide his near-mythic origin in Batman: Year One. This documentary uncovers the contemporary genius of Miller and the audience that was poised to appreciate the depths of his work.
  • Featurette –”Conversations with DC Comics”: The Batman creative team at DC Entertainment discusses the personal influence of Batman: Year One on their careers. Batman producer Michael Uslan leads the chat amongst well-known writers, editors and artists of the Batman lore, focusing their dialogue on the darker, realistic interpretation of Batman’s origins by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
  • Audio Commentary with Alan Burnett, Sam Liu, Mike Carlin and Andrea Romano
  • Batman: Year One, Chapter 1 Digital Comic Book
  • Two bonus episodes from Batman: The Animated Series hand-picked by Bruce Timm
  • Digital copy on disc of the feature film compatible with iTunes and Windows

Batman: Year One will be available on DVD/Blu-ray on October 18, 2011.