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Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero (V)

(1998) ** 1/2 Unrated
67 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Janez Burger.

On the heels of Joel Schumacher's dismal Batman & Robin, Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero capitalized on the recent big-screen appearance of Mr. Freeze (as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger). Of course, Batman & Robin simply provided a convincing excuse for the talent behind Batman: The Animated Series to produce another direct-to-video feature crafted in the spirit of the Batman comics. Though Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero is one of the less-inspired animated Batman efforts (perhaps because Alan Burnett and Paul Dini are merely "script consultants"), the film is an enjoyable and generally kid-friendly adventure all the same.

Though Mr. Freeze is presumed dead, the villain formerly known as Dr. Victor Fries is actually chilling in the Arctic Circle with his cryogenically frozen wife Nora and an Eskimo lad named Koonak. He vants to be alone, but can't catch a break. A submarine blithely surfaces at Fries's homestead, disrupting his sleeping beauty and obligating a maddened Fries to urgently resume his criminal ways to save his now-desperately-ailing wife from extinction. Fries enlists Gregory Belson (George Dzundza), the unscrupulous doctor who preserved Nora, to perform a life-saving operation; racked with debt, Belson agrees to play along for a price. As luck would have it, the only matching organ-donor for Nora Fries is Barbara Gordon (Mary Kay Bergman), daughter of Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) and Batgirl by night.

Michael Ansara, familiar to Star Trek fans as Klingon warrior Kang, delivers another sharp performance as Freeze, established in the animated series as an essentially good man driven to criminal action only out of a strong protective instinct for his mate. Ansara's hard-bitten, resonant voice has a soulful subcurrent that betrays his hurt and desperation. Naturally, Kevin Conroy plays Batman/Bruce Wayne, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. plays Alfred, and since this feature emerges from the Adventures of Batman and Robin incarnation of the animated series, Loren Lester is on hand as Robin/Dick Grayson.

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero quickly establishes Grayson and Gordon as a couple, setting the stage for a strong sequence in which Freeze crashes the twosome's swing-club date (a good excuse to play up the series' vintage look). When polar bears attack (and there's a unique idea for henchmen), Grayson leaps into acrobatic action, but Freeze makes off with Gordon in a high-speed chase, one of three sequences that blends hand-drawn and computer-generated animation (the others: an underwater credit sequence and the flight of the Batwing to Freeze's base of operations, an abandoned offshore oil-rig).

Subzero lacks the crisp pace, high energy, and emotional involvement of the best animated films and, worst of all, is relatively stingy on costumed crime-fighting. As in the live-action features, Batman comes off as a supporting player, and Dick and Barbara spend much of their screen-time in their street clothes. Nevertheless, the longed-for high intensity kicks in for the multiple climaxes of the twelve-minute fire-and-ice finish. It's enough to excuse the poky stretch which precedes it. Subzero is essentially a three-part episode of the animated series stamped with Danny Elfman's theme and visually distinguished by the CGI passages, but it's infinitely preferable to Batman & Robin.

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