‘JLA Adventures: Trapped In Time’ Is Exactly What DC’s Animated Movies Should Be [Review]
If you weren't paying close attention to Warner Bros. Home Video's release schedule -- or if, like me, you just skim over it waiting for Scooby-Doo: The WrestleMania Mystery -- then there's a pretty good chance you missed a pretty interesting release this week. JLA Adventures: Trapped In Time hit shelves at Target stores, seemingly without a whole lot of fanfare, even for a direct-to-video release. I mean, really, you can't swing a cat without hearing about Justice League War, the animated adaptation of the forgettable first arc of the New 52's Justice League, but if it wasn't for stumbling across a Tumblr post, I wouldn't have known Trapped In Time was out this week.
And that's a shame. Trapped In Time might not have the pedigree of being inspired by a best-selling comic, but it's exactly the kind of project DC's animated movies should be focusing on.
Don't get me wrong, it's not exactly perfect in every way, and I don't think it's going to change any lives or examine these characters in a fascinating new way that changes how we think about them. It is, however, an incredibly solid animated adventure that feels like a great episode of the Justice League, something that very few of the animated movies have even been able to come close to. There's a different feel to Trapped In Time that sets it apart from their recent offerings, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that it's an original story instead of an animated adaptation.
That's the thing I've never really understood about DC's DTV adaptations. It's easy to ignore stuff like Flashpoint because I couldn't care less about the source material, but as much as I love All Star Superman or Batman and Son, I have zero desire to see them cut down to 80 minutes with Deathstroke the Terminator added in. I might be in the minority on that point -- and they're certainly doing well enough with the animated movies that they're putting out three or four every year -- but when you look at what made the DC cartoons so popular in the first place, it wasn't the adaptations. "Legends of the Dark Knight" and "For The Man Who Has Everything" were fun to see in motion, but what made those shows great were stories like "Heart of Ice" or "Destroyer" that presented those familiar elements in interesting new ways.
That's what Trapped In Time does, although to be fair, it leans pretty hard on those familiar elements. At its heart, it's really an updated SuperFriends story.
Not in the way that Justice League did some visual nods to SuperFriends by having Lex Luthor show up with his purple high-collar and chill out in a swamp, either, although those elements are certainly present. It's worth noting that in addition to the standard roster of SuperFriends nods that you usually get in this sort of thing, like the roster of the Legion of Doom and cameo appearance by Marvin and Wendy, there's a more subtle nod in the designs for Dawnstar and Karate Kid, both of whom are visiting from the 31st Century. True to form, they're designed to echo the costumes of Apache Chief and Samurai, although to be honest, Dawnstar sure as hell gets the raw end of that deal.
The designs for the rest of the cast are pretty interesting, too:
They're a strange blend of the classic looks and the New 52 designs, particularly Batman, who's clearly a combination of the Brave and the Bold design (right down to being voiced by Diedrich Bader) with a bunch of weird seams and a chinstrap. Superman's worth noting, too, with a classic-style shield paired with the New 52 costume, while Bizarro still has trunks. I'm actually really fond of the design they gave to Wonder Woman for this one -- it's far and away the best of the lot, and the cape and that Xena-style skirt are always fun to see.
The visuals are only a small part of it, though. The rest of it is all about tone, and that's where Trapped In Time really shines. It's seems like it's built around a more "all-ages" idea of these characters than the usual fare, which skews slightly more towards PG-13, something that manifests itself as a very straightforward, honest story about good guys being good guys, even turning into a great bit of slapstick comedy right in the middle.
The plot is focused on Lex Luthor who, after a monumentally over the top (even for him) plan to take over the world by expanding the polar ice caps, is lost and presumed dead. He's found a thousand years later and put into the Legion of Superheroes' museum, where Karate Kid accidentally lets him out. Since the museum contains both the knowledge of Superman's secret identity and a working time machine in the form of the mysterious, chained Time Trapper, Luthor sets out to just erase Superman from the timestream once and for all.
Like I said, it's pretty straightforward. That's actually one of the big flaws of the story, in that it brings up the idea of causality and paradoxes (without Superman, the Justice League as a concept ceases to exist as well), but doesn't really go all that far with them, raising the question of why the planet hasn't been destroyed by any of the other stuff that Superman presented. Still, that's a pretty minor quibble, and what it does with its premise is well worth seeing.
The animation here, spearheaded by director Giancarlo Volpe, is fantastic. The fight scenes are actually really phenomenal, and reminded me a lot of Avatar: The Last Airbender, although I'm willing to accept that it might just be because Karate Kid was voiced by Dante Basco, who was also Prince Zuko. Still, even with no dialogue, watching him uppercut Robin or jump-kick Gorilla Grodd was pretty great.
The single best fight, though, and an early contender for my favorite thing to happen in animation this year, was the slapstick fight scene when the Legion of Doom and the Justice League went back in time and pretty much played super-powered football with Baby Superman.
Oh Aquaman. You can't do anything right. Seriously though, it is legitimately hilarious and beautifully staged, and worth the price of admission all on its own.
The one weird thing about the plot is that it all feels very episodic, in that there's a lot left unresolved by the end. Everything eventually goes back to the status quo, but we close on a future that's in danger and the promise of more adventures from this group. If that's where they're springing off with this, I'd be completely into it -- a series of JLA Adventures movies that each told a self-contained story while building on the last would be a fun idea -- but doing it as a Target exclusive direct-to-DVD series seems both unlikely and more than a little little weird.
That's the strangest thing about Trapped In Time and its very quiet release: It's only available at Target. It seems like it'll eventually have a wider release -- my copy had a sticker proclaiming that it was an exclusive for a limited time -- but it also meant that I had to go 40 miles out of my way to pick it up today.
Still, it's good stuff, and worth checking out. Even with the chinstraps, even with Marvin and Wendy and jokes about their cell phones, it had a super-strong invulnerable baby being thrown like a football, and that alone makes it the first DTV DC movie that I've wanted to watch again as soon as it was over.