What’s not to love in this film? It’s got my favorite hussy-hacker, Jack the Ripper, it takes place in my favorite historical period featuring Batman in a sorta pseudo-Victorian getup, and Gotham’s grand fairgrounds are ripped straight from the the Chicago’s World Fair Columbian Exposition–including “Chekov’s” Ferris Wheel (above). Seriously: is there anyone who won’t bet that it doesn’t go up in spectacular flames by the end of this film?

So what’s not to love? The fact that Sam Liu’s romp is kind of a snoozer….

The original comic  book Gotham by Gaslight was written by Brian Augustyn with art by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell. It was a 52-page one-shot that was published in February of 1989 and (trivia tip of the day), it retroactively became the first “official” Elseworlds story. And while the animated feature takes some inspiration from similar source material (a Victorian-era setting, and a “Jack the Ripper” lady-killer), writer James Krieg’s adaptation uses only a few plot points from the original to turn out this Dickensian adventure.

The major plot point is that Batman, working undercover (of course) to solve the mystery of the killing of various women, is, himself suspected of the crime–as Bruce Wayne. It’s a not-unexpected twist that comes about midway through the tale and even though it’s the piece that most strongly ties this story to its Elseworlds origins, it feels oddly like a bit of digression here. Especially since the mysterious Batman is already suspected of the crimes.

The problem is that Gotham by Gaslight is just kind of flat and expositional for the first half of the film. The palette is grimdark-dingy during all but one heavily information-doling scene that establishes too many characters in too short a time period while simultaneously trying to fill in pertinent period details about the setting and events. It also obfuscates the drama by handing us a passel of characters who, frankly, all look too similar. I enjoyed seeing Harvey Bullock here, but his physique is too much like Gordon’s in certain ways. And Harvey Dent not only feels shoehorned into the plot, but there’s nothing whatsoever remarkable about his appearance. Aside from a moustache, he might as well be Bruce Wayne.

The larger problem is just the overall design of the characters, their costumes, and the scenery. Being that this is the late 19th century and men’s suits were pretty uniform in those days, the art directors did little to make distinguishable costumes to help differentiate the characters and enliven the action. Batman’s design is interesting, though the weird high collar is distinctly not of this period. Selina’s purple gown is fun, particularly how she’s got her whip wrapped around her leg under her skirts, but I feel like they missed an opportunity to go a little steam-punk and give her an actual Catwoman costume that might even be a little more practical. I mean why not? They gave us a Batcycle and other gadgets, why not go whole-hog?  It’s not as if the costumes as-is are actually period appropriate anyway.

I really loved the translation of the Robins as a sort of Baker Street Irregular gang working for Batman, but they didn’t get to explore it much. Here’s a case too where they distinctly made all the Robins look different so it was obvious which was which. The red hair for Jason was a nice touch since they’re all just wearing street clothes otherwise. I also liked how they were characterized: Dick as the calm, thoughtful one, Jason the hothead, and little Tim being the brains. I’d love a whole series of Victorian Bats and Robins like this!

But one major problem is the willy-nilly use of character names in roles that fall right on their nose. Poison Ivy as a diva seems appropriate at first until we learn within the first few moments of the film that she’s got no botanical superpowers and isn’t actually going to matter in the long-run of the story. Bullock and Leslie Thompkins are similarly used. Dent has a larger role in the action (by a smidge), but don’t be expecting to see Two-Face except perhaps in the spirit of the idea.

And don’t expect, really, any major villains.

Krieg took a big risk tossing out the original storyline which made use of a rather obvious and expected foe and I do think it pays off to a certain extent in this film, but your mileage may vary. And it’s difficult to say much more without getting into major spoilers, so for those of you who have seen this or just want to know, follow me beyond the cut:

Spoiler
No Joker and no Harley Quinn feels like a mercy at this point, doesn’t it? I think the writers were trying to set up a mystery in which we would suspect Harvey Dent and then play a switcheroo shocker on us. Were we shocked? Did we care?

My problem was that I didn’t actually care. I liked some of the details of the reveal: that Gordon was suffering PTSD from his experience as a surgeon during the Civil War, that Barbara knew about his murdering but had lost her own marbles to his fiendishness–and that made me wonder if the “children” even existed in this world, which was nicely creepy.

So it worked, I think, but it also seems a strange tale to tell: Batman in a rather gothic setting in which there is nothing of the supernatural, no major crazy villains, and a downer of a resolution as we see Gordon reduced to a fiend. Again: bold choices, which I applaud, but they also feel a bit: take it or leave it.

The relationship between Batman and Catwoman is the highlight of the piece: they work really well together, and one action sequence in which they are fighting against Jack the Ripper in a pork slaughterhouse, both of them shine. I wish the background had been less static in this scene, but we do finally get some obligatory flying pig action, so I won’t complain too much about that.

Jennifer Carpenter and Bruce Greenwood sound great together and help sell a quick enemies-to-lovers story. And the sexy bits are overblown or crass in any way, so despite some of the usual language and a brief bedroom scene, this is fairly safe for the pre-teen and up crowd. Not entirely sure it would hold the interest of kids under 12, though, to be honest.

Some may feel like Tara Strong is kind of wasted in this, though she does get to play Tim, which is lovely. And Bruce Timm makes a cameo as a radio announcer at Arkham. Otherwise, not a whole lot of standout voice work here, I thought, but again, the script is rather talky in an explaining sort of way, and the characters just aren’t that bright and interesting. Even a cameo from Hugo Strange (William Salyers), is mostly just forgettable.

Overall

Watchable mostly for the Bat-and-Cat dynamic, and definitely picks up steam (no pun intended) heading toward the literally explosive climax,Gotham by Gaslight feels like it struggles to focus too large an alternate world within the time frame provided, does so at too slow a pace, and really doesn’t take as much advantage of its setting and characters as it could. But it is an interesting world and director Krieg tried to do some different things with it. I just wish these movies were a little less lazy. The wholesale ripping (as it were) from familiar sources (everything from the Columbian exposition to Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs), always has my eyes rolling and burps me right out of the story.  For those of you less familiar with 19th century history, of course, you won’t be the least bit perturbed on this count. But even so, I feel like the overall art direction really could still have used a good deal more oomph on this one.

SCORE: 7/10