Our kids deserve better than JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time.
Ok, I don’t have kids, but JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time is a frustratingly bad film. Running fifty-three minutes long, the film is an animated DTV effort from Warner Brothers Animation, though it is NOT associated with the fan-targeted DTV DC Universe Animated Original Movies line (those need a more succinct brand title). Nor is the film connected with any prior animated incarnation of the DC Universe, despite the presence of cast members from these earlier shows. The film has the quality of a cheap tie-in film used to promote a toy line or game, yet no toys or games seem to exist for the film to tie-in with. Indeed, the film simply seems to have come out of nowhere, being initially released as a Target store exclusive without even a trailer to promote it. It is almost as if Warner Brothers Animation were trying to bury it, though a much simpler route would have been not to release it in the first place.
Despite the title, JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time isn’t really about the Justice League of America. The film is focused on two fairly obscure members of the thirty-first century superhero team the Legion of Superheroes, Dawnstar (Laura Bailey) and the Karate Kid (Dante Basco), who in this film are Legion members-in-training. As the movie opens, the pair is touring a museum dedicated to the exploits of the Justice League, where they come across an exhibit featuring a frozen Lex Luthor (Fred Tatasciore), who has been stuck in ice for centuries after his last confrontation with the JLA (apparently, a simple burial was too decent of the Legion of Superheroes to consider). The Karate Kid accidentally breaks open the ice while showing off, and in accordance with the rules of animation, Lex turns out to still be alive and kicking instead suffering from hypothermia, frostbite, or the most likely option of all, death. Lex quickly takes hold of the Eternity Glass, a prison containing the all-powerful Time Trapper (Corey Burton), and heads back to the twenty-first century with a plan to prevent Superman from landing on Earth to be raised by the Kents. Dawnstar and Karate Kid follow Lex back however, and recruit the JLA to help stop Lex’s mad scheme.
I’ll hold off on any criticisms I have of the film for a moment to make one thing clear: I wanted to like JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time. Beyond simply wanting a good Justice League film after the God-awful immaturity of Justice League: War, I have been really frustrated at the lack of options available for those looking to share superhero fiction with young audiences. The earlier mentioned line of DC DTV animated films are often needlessly bloody and coarse, and most live-action cinematic offerings are just too intense in tone to be accessible to younger viewers. It is great to have programs such as 1960s Filmation Studios The Adventures of Batman and Robin to share with young kids, but many of these works simply don’t cut it with their period era attitudes towards gender and race. Though more recent programs such as Batman: The Animated Series, The Batman, and Batman: the Brave and the Bold (notice a trend there?) have made massive progress in these areas, these series still remain centered on white male characters.
The use of Dawnstar and Karate Kid as protagonists in JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time gave me some hope that the film might address some of these issues in its own small way. Beyond the fact that it is simply nice to have a film focused on lesser known characters from within the DC lore instead of the standard duo of Batman and Superman, the use of the pair here mark the first time that I can remember where a DC DTV animated film has been primarily focused on characters of colour. As written in this film though, Dawnstar and Karate Kid are exceptionally dull, with both being defined by single character traits: Karate Kid is a hothead, and Dawnstar is extremely timid. That’s it. I know it is a bit much to ask for character nuance in a short film made for kids seven and under, but this is a film coming from the studio which managed to rip my heart out in twenty minutes with the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Baby-Doll.” As such, I don’t think it is unfair to have higher expectations of the film’s character work. Even if one is willing to forgive the weak character writing of the film, the filmmakers still loose points for the uncomfortable gender stereotyping of the characters, and for scenes such as a would-be comedy moment that relies on East Indian stereotypes.
The problems with the film don’t end with its characters and casual racism. The film’s plot is a complete mess of time travel paradoxes which follow no discernable logic or rules, while other plot points rely on characters being idiots (I’m looking at you, Martha and Jonathan Kent). Even the basic mechanics which set the plot in motion make no sense: why is the Eternity Glass in a public museum? It strikes me that keeping a potential universe ending item out in the open as being just a tad dangerous. I’m sure someone is going to make the argument that I’m overthinking a film meant for children, but to be blunt, that argument is nothing more than a slight on the intelligence of the young. Yes, many-a-child will not pick up on these narrative issues, but are we really willing to accept that as a reason to set the bar low for kids?
Still, there are some elements of note in the film. As ever with Warner Brothers Animation, the animation is solid, if unremarkable, and while Steve Jones and Danny Kano Kimanyen’s character designs are fairly generic, the duo does get credit for giving Wonder Woman a decent costume design that DC Comics could stand to borrow from. And while most of the acting in the film is serviceable, Diedrich Bader continues to prove that he is the best voice actor to take on the role of Batman since Kevin Conroy. In both Batman: The Brave and the Bold and this film, Bader manages to walk a fine line of making Batman someone who is focused and determined while still being approachable and human. This unambiguously heroic characterization of the Dark Knight is a nice change of pace in an era where his default portrayal seems to be “paranoid psychopath.”
None of these positive qualities are able to overcome JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time’s overwhelming problems however. Yes, the youngest of the young will likely find something to enjoy here (a comedic fight sequence between the JLA and the Legion of Doom over a baby Superman will score some laughs), but that doesn’t change just how low aiming the film is. Given just how competitive the family film market is overall, there is simply no excuse for a film this weak, and even less of an excuse for parents actually looking to give their kids something of value to watch.
Justice League Adventures: Trapped in Time (2014, USA, 53 minutes). Directed by Giancarlo Volpe. Written by Michael Ryan. Starring Diedrich Bader, Laura Bailey and Dante Basco.