In classical mythology, the Amazons were a race of female warriors said to dwell somewhere around the area of the Black Sea. In WB's 2009, full-length animated "Wonder Woman," we get the original back story of the famous superheroine, which explains to us that according to the comic books in which the character's history first appears, she came from this venerable lineage.
Psychologist William Moulton Marston created the character of Wonder Woman in 1941, wanting to make a superhero who would use his brains and his love (as well as, presumably, his superpowers) to defeat evil. When Marston's wife heard the idea, she suggested he make the character a woman. It was only fair: Males had their superheros; females needed one, too. Wonder Woman has continued to be popular among both sexes ever since, although I have a feeling it's for different reasons.
Anyway, this direct-to-video adventure begins sometime in antiquity, before ancient Greece, where a battle is raging between the Amazons, lead by their Queen, Hippolyta (voiced by Virginal Madsen), and the army of Ares (Alfred Molina), the god of war. It appears that men have enslaved women long enough, and the women are fighting back. Ares is the villain of the piece, dedicated to battle, fear, hatred, bloodshed, destruction, and chaos. You know, a typical man.
The head gods, Zeus and Hera (David McCallum and Marg Helgenberger), intervene as Hippolyta is about to slay Ares, who, incidentally, was an old lover of hers. In return for sparing Ares, Hera gives Hippolyta and her female followers their own mystical island paradise, Themyscira, invisible to the outside world, and Hera gives Hippolyta a child, Princess Diana (Keri Russell). Meanwhile, Zeus and Hera shackle Ares and leave him for Hippolyta to guard. She throws him in a dungeon, where he bides his time, plotting his revenge.
Years go by. Like thousands of years to the present day, during which time the Amazons have been living contentedly on their island without men (don't ask) but never, apparently, growing old. Well, most of them are contented; Artemis (Rosario Dawson), never seems too happy. In addition to their being ageless, they are all gorgeous and curvacious. Life is good. Diana grows to womanhood and learns the warrior creed of her people, becoming the toughest and most talented among them in terms of her martial-arts prowess.
Then a jet fighter pilot, Col. Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion), downs his plane on the island, which was hitherto unseen by mortal men but made visible by Hippolyta for the good of the plot. Coincidentally, at this time, Ares persuades an Amazon guard, Persephone (Vicki Lewis), to help him escape. When Ares leaves the island, it is with the intent of creating havoc among Mankind, so Hippolyta needs somebody to go after him. And, what the heck, to return Col. Trevor home, too.
The task of finding and defeating Ares and returning Trevor home falls to Diana, who, when she reaches Trevor's hometown, New York City, becomes the superheroine we all know as Wonder Woman. She must defeat Ares (who finds a whole cult army waiting for him to lead), save the world, and carry on an annoying romance with the lunkheaded Trevor. But first she must kick a little ass, starting with some would-be muggers.
Lauren Montgomery directed "Wonder Woman," which is billed as the first-ever full-length animated version of the comics. Ms. Montgomery's previous directorial experience was in doing the animated "Legion of Super Heroes" and "Superman: Doomsday," both video productions like this one, so I guess she's qualified. However, that doesn't mean "Wonder Woman" is all that much of a movie. The filmmakers appear to have intended it for hard-core "Wonder Woman" fans only, because there isn't much for anyone else. Mostly, what we get is a rather hard-line feminist diatribe, with women strong and clearheaded, and men, including the U.S. President, stupid and chauvinistic. It gets old pretty fast.
The 2-D art work shows up nicely detailed in the background scenery, but the character drawings are rather limited. Like most other made-for-video or made-for-television animated productions that try to save money, this one displays limited character movement, usually just the lips working and the figures remaining stationary, with persons walking in awkward, jerky motions. In other words, it has the look of a television cartoon.
Also, I was not particularly bowled over by the voice characterizations. Obviously, the movie has a big-name cast with people like Keri Russell, Virginia Madsen, Alfred Molina, Rosario Dawson, and others doing the vocal work. Yet I was never aware of any of the voices being particularly recognizable or memorable. Russell, for instance, doesn't sound authoritative enough as the superheroine, and Molina, as fine a character actor as he is, doesn't sound menacing enough for a super-villain or commanding enough for a god. I'd say that a good part of the movie's budget went for these voice talents. Oh, well....
Worse, the movie has the plot and characters reminiscent of any ordinary television cartoon. Although there is a good deal of hack-and-slash bloodletting, particularly at the beginning and end of the film, that is about the only time the story comes to life. Yet simple action and violence aren't enough to develop a good narrative. Then, despite a few feeble gestures in trying to place men and women on an equal standing, the film leaves no doubt that women are the superior sex. While the emphasis on women's rights and empowerment is noble and well-placed, it's so unrelenting that it might grate on some male viewers.
Beyond the origin story, there is not a lot more to "Wonder Woman" than that and the fighting I've mentioned. Certainly, the authors meant for the story's heroine to impress young women as a strong female role model. I mean, fair is fair: If books and movies can tell young men that might makes right, then why not make the same point for young women, too. Still, I found Marston's original idea of brains and love missing from this Wonder Woman, the movie alternately grim and boring. But I'm a male and not a fan of television or video cartoons, so I am clearly not the viewer for whom the moviemakers made this film.
The video engineers do a good job reproducing the movie's imagery and its 1.78:1 aspect ratio in anamorphic widescreen. The colors are gleaming, yet they are never overbright or overpowering, just nicely pleasing to the eye. The screen is as clean as we might expect from a newly made cartoon, with objects well delineated and only some minor edge enhancement in evidence.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is OK but nothing special. It is quite front-heavy, putting only the occasional random noise into the surrounds, such as in the big battle scenes, along with the merest hint of musical ambience reinforcement. I thought I'd hear a greater dynamic thrust and a deeper bass than we get, especially in the aforementioned battle scenes, but it's only a chariot race that produces much of an impact. Otherwise, the soundtrack does its job satisfactorily by reproducing dialogue and special effects smoothly and effortlessly.
Warner Bros. snugly fill up each of the two discs in this DVD set. Disc one contains the feature film, which, admittedly, isn't very long, plus an assortment of extras. They begin with an audio commentary by Gregory Noveck, Senior Vice President of Creative Affairs at DC Comics; Bruce Timm, the film's producer; Lauren Montgomery, the director; and Michael Jelenic, who wrote the screenplay. They seem to take all of this more seriously than I did. Next, we get ten-minute glimpses at four DC Première animated video movies: "The Green Lantern," "The Justice League: The New Frontier," "Batman: Gotham Knight," and the present "Wonder Woman." Things on disc one finish up with English as the only spoken language, French subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired. There is no scene-selection list in the disc's menu, but you can access ten chapters by using your remote.
Disc two contains a pair of twenty-five-minute documentaries of some worth, and a few other items. The first documentary, "Wonder Woman: A Subversive Dream," presents a history of superheroes in cartoons, with an emphasis on the Wonder Woman character and her place in our culture. The second documentary, "Wonder Woman: Daughter of Myth," presents a history of the origins of Wonder Woman and her evolution into the character we know today. Then there is a segment called "Bruce Timm Presents," which includes two twenty-minute bonus cartoons, "To Another Shore" and "Hawk and Dove," from television's "Justice League Unlimited." Things on disc two conclude with a digital copy of the movie, compatible with iTunes and Windows Media devices. A handsomely embossed cardboard slipcover encloses the DVD case.
The more I think about it, the harder it is for me to tell for whom the filmmakers intended this "Wonder Woman" cartoon. Adventure stories and superheroes are usually the domain of young males, and this story takes such a strong feminist stance, it may alienate a lot of guys. On the other hand, its violence may not appeal to all young women, either. It's also a very brief cartoon at only seventy-four minutes, which would appear to indicate that its creators designed it for the short attention spans of children, yet they filled the movie with so much bloody carnage and sexual references, it seems too mature for most youngsters. Curious.
In any case, "Wonder Woman" is a perfectly acceptable cartoon movie of its kind. If you like its kind. However, this adult finds most direct-to-video and television cartoons pretty run-of-the-mill, and "Wonder Woman" is no exception. The movie isn't trying to compete with a Pixar product, after all. It uses cardboard characters and routine action, with only some of the background art and the main character's origin story of any serious interest.