Merry Little Batman (Amazon MGM Studios, TV-Y7)

It’s been a banner year for inventive and energetic animation for all ages, and I’ve been particularly pleased to see two-dimensional animation be a big part of that. From the various styles and inspirations incorporated throughout Nimona, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, to the totally hand-drawn visual splendor of Hayao Miyazaki’s long-awaited The Boy and the Heron, the medium seems to be making a bit of a comeback in 2023. Merry Little Batman, while imperfect, shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an afterthought to all these other titles.

Directed by animation veteran Mike Roth, Merry Little Batman is kind of like Home Alone, but set in Gotham City. When Bruce Wayne (voice of Luke Wilson) leaves Wayne Manor to tackle a villain elsewhere, his six-year-old son Damian (voice of Yonas Kibreab) is left to sulk about not being included as his father’s sidekick just yet. When a couple of baddies steal Damian’s child-proofed utility belt given to him by his father as a Christmas present, Damian uncovers a deeper web of villainy than he could have ever imagined, and in many ways, ends up playing right into the hands of The Joker (voice of David Hornsby).

The setup is pretty much perfect for the coming-of-age arc Damian takes as the film goes along. It’s all done with winks and nods to the comics, and with its own fresh sense of humor, a balance between innocent hot-cocoa antics with Alfred (voice of James Cromwell) and genuine physical stakes, not always played entirely for laughs. Prior to Damian’s Christmas Eve misadventures, Gotham has experienced a lengthy (for them) period of low crime. The lightness and humor in that premise eventually elevates the film beyond just a flimsy, forgettable kind of energy because it reiterates that Damian’s well-intentioned follies are making the citizens of Gotham scared again. The mass panic parts are certainly played for laughs, and very effectively, but the impact it all has on Damian, coupled with the length of time that Bruce is not in the main plot of the film at all, makes us really feel for the young do-gooder. Roth and screenwriters Jase Ricci and Morgan Evans do a nifty job of balancing out all these tonal elements in a way that feels quite satisfying, even if the film isn’t quite a masterpiece.

Where Merry Little Batman falls short is in its overall predictability. The enjoyably eclectic mix of tones (and art styles) only sometimes hides the fact that the general arc of the story doesn’t go anywhere particularly surprising, but that’s okay in the grand scheme of things. Not everything can be as comedically memorable as Mutant Mayhem or as visually breathtaking as Across the Spider-Verse, and it’s clear that the same levels of money and time were not thrown at this concept. However, it does dishearten me a bit that very few people will have an opportunity to see this in a theater. Although kids will likely enjoy it regardless, I think parents watching it with their kids at home might take it as a sort of mindless Saturday morning cartoon, which it isn’t at all. It’s got heart, humor, style, and even some fantastic needle drops — it consistently uses oft-forgotten Christmas songs such as The Kinks’ Father Christmas and Augie Rios’ Dónde Está Santa Claus? to rousing and energetic effect. | George Napper

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