Justice League: The New Frontier
based on the graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke; written by Stan Berkowitz; directed by David Bullock
There must be crazier things to do than trying to adapt a critically acclaimed — as well as beloved — 400+ page graphic novel into a 75-minute animated film, but I can’t think of any. But that’s exactly what has been done with Justice League: The New Frontier, the seminal work by artist and writer (and occasional animation creator) Darwyn Cooke, which will be released in a myriad of DVD formats next Tuesday, February 26.
And the crazy thing is that it works! It’s “different,” but …
Due to budget and production limitations, the animated version of Justice League: The New Frontier is missing several elements from the graphic novel, including the opening sequence with the Losers on Dinosaur Island, the sequences with John Wilson (aka John Henry), all of the scenes featuring the Challengers of the Unknown and the Suicide Squad, and the interlude with the supernatural characters on the moon. But despite this, this film still works as a powerful document on heroism and as a reflection of how things were in a long-ago time where every adventure was still new. You don’t really miss these scenes — most are given a reference or two in the new narrative — and the movie has been carefully structured to include dozens of heroes in non-speaking supporting roles as part of the final battle.
The stunning opening sequence features graphic elements from the 1950s emulating the great movie title designer Saul Bass and featuring many of Cooke’s cover images from the individual issues of the series. And the filmmakers take advantage of their PG-13 rating right up front. There is a suicide (off-camera) and a brutal heat-of-the-battle killing (in silhouette, but still shocking) within the first five minutes. (Parents should check out the movie before letting younger children watch.)
The entire film is a visual treat, and it’s obvious that everyone involved with the animation and design worked far beyond their usual fine standards. If you can tear yourself away from the astounding character design and animation, check out the background elements — every one true to the letter of their 1950s origins — and the color palette used to the fullest to evoke mood and atmosphere. (I think the Las Vegas sequence is the brightest, most colorful sequence I’ve ever seen in a DC/Warner production.) The animators really tore it up in the three major sequences of period jets in flight. The opening Korean War battle sequence takes your breath away. And then they top it. Twice!
I always cringe at the attempt to “stunt cast” the vocal parts in these movies, as the voice actors used in the original Justice League series were, for the most part, excellent as well as familiar to regular fans. But — again — here it works. There’s a certain “warmth” to Kyle MacLachlan’s voice as Superman that sets him apart from the guttural Jeremy Sisto (Batman) and the craggy Miguel Ferrer (Martian Manhunter). Neil Patrick Harris is spot-on as a slightly overwhelmed, but determined to step up, Flash, as is Lucy Lawless as the lusty warrior Wonder Woman. But the standout actors of the film are David Boreanaz, as the cocky (but not overconfident) swingin’ flyboy Hal Jordan, and Brooke Shields, who manages to make Carol Ferris a strong, multifaceted woman in very few lines of dialog.
If you only have time for one commentary, choose creator Darwyn Cooke’s solo track. He really gets down to the nuts and bolts of how his work was transferred from one medium to another, and he details the work that he did to help ease the transition. With a reputation of being a harsh critic, Cooke does point out a couple of scenes that just “don’t work” for him, but he is full of praise and gratitude for most of the people involved in getting his story to the screen. (He indicates his “special thanks” to at least 40 individuals while the end credits roll.) And in places he sounds absolutely giddy — “Wow! Look at that!” he exclaims at a key Green Lantern shot during the film’s climax.
The other commentary, featuring six of the key filmmakers, had about three too many voices in the mix. There was a lot of good material there, including Bruce Timm informing us that besides arguing with Cooke over story and character points, he didn’t have that much “hands on” to do with the film; director David Bullock was the go-to guy. Also, screenwriter Stan Berkowitz talked about the struggles to get as much material from the original book into the film.
Voice director Andrea Romano (who should have gotten her own mini-doc with the stellar voice talent she lined up, a missed opportunity) told a wonderful anecdote about how she got the Vietnamese background voices in the Wonder Woman scene. I also got a kick out of Timm frequently exclaiming some variation of “you guys are crazy” when commenting on the amount of detail in the animation and background elements. The most interesting thing to come out of this commentary was the revelation that if enough people bought the DVD, an Extended Edition with extended and additional scenes might be a possibility.
Also on the the disc is an excellent documentary on the history of the Justice League in the comics, including comments from Denny O’Neil, Mark Waid, Paul Levitz, Dan Didio, Stan Lee (!), and many others. Plus, there’s a lengthy sneak peek for the next DC Warner Premiere project: Batman Gotham Knight, an anthology of six different Batman stories by different creators and directors that looks really wild.
Not available for review was the special feature “Comic Book Commentary: Homage to the New Frontier” in which Cooke explains in greater detail the changes between the source material and the animated film, including elements that either evolved or were truncated for the film. That sounds like essential viewing for the hard-core New Frontier fan. Buyers who want this particular feature should look for either the two-disc Special Edition or the Blu-ray format (which includes all of the special features).