Mad Hatter is a great villain that has had a strong track record on this series, but “Animal Act” is a disappointing story for Jervis Tetch’s final appearance on Batman: The Animated Series/The New Batman Adventures. Spotlighting Dick Grayson’s circus past, the script is exceedingly juvenile and the animation is inconsistent. There’s not a solid motivation for Mad Hatter’s actions or a reason to connect him to Haley’s Circus, and the episode ultimately feels inconsequential. It’s nice to see Nightwing gets some attention and there’s campy enjoyment to be had in watching Batman and his former partner team up against a pair of bears, but “Animal Act” is never able to rise about forgettable.
The late Hilary J. Bader joined the DCAU writing team on Superman and remained a regular writer up through Batman Beyond and The Zeta Project, but her episodes never had the consistency of writers like Paul Dini or Rich Fogel. Her stories are more childish, with a tone that is more appropriate for the bright and cheerful Man of Steel rather than the brooding Dark Knight. “Animal Act” begins with a routine patrol by Batman, Nightwing, and Robin, who encounter a giant thief in the night that turns out to be a gorilla in a trenchcoat. Dick recognizes the animal as Peaches from Haley’s Circus, and takes Tim to his old stomping grounds so that they can investigate, encountering Dick’s childhood friend-turned-sassy ringleader Miranda Kane while touring the tent.
There’s a lot of dramatic potential in bringing Dick back to the circus that is only partly explored in Bader’s script. When Tim exclaims that the circus must have been a great place to grow up, Dick looks up at the acrobats soaring in the air and says that it was. It’s a bittersweet moment of Dick remembering his parents, and this episode could use more of that type of emotional storytelling. In the New 52 Nightwing comic book, Kyle Higgins did great work on the opening storyline that had Dick returning to the circus and reigniting a relationship with an old female friend. It was an arc that balanced superhero action with quieter moments that explored Dick’s past and his relationship with the circus, making this episode seem even more like a missed opportunity.
Batman is convinced that Miranda is behind the robbery, and when he and Nightwing fight two bears that can walk on barrels, it becomes very clear that the trouble is coming out of Haley’s Circus. Dick goes to confront Miranda, saying that he saw the bears on television, and she tells him that someone has been messing with her animals, a theory that is supported when they watch the security tapes from the previous night’s robbery. The bears are able to shut off lights and input I.D. codes, showing that there’s something going on beyond circus training. There’s one big Batman rogue when it comes to mind control, and Jervis Tetch is hiding as a clown in Haley’s Circus, putting his devices on the animals and controlling them from a distance. He’s also used his technology on the circus workers, including Miranda, pitting them against Batman and Nightwing when they discover his plot.
The team of Koko and Dong Yang isn’t the most consistent when it comes to animation, and the characters go off-model when the action becomes too intense. Nightwing’s almost entirely black costume and slender physique cause the most problems; there are times when his body looks like Catwoman. That said, there are some nice visual flourishes courtesy of director Curt Geda, like having an out-of-focus Batman and circus performer fighting in the foreground while Mad Hatter rambles behind them. In general, though, the action is as bland as the script, and the episode’s big climactic fight under the big top is a bore. We’ve seen this fight over and over again. The entire episode has a “been there, done that” feel, and Mad Hatter deserves better.
- Batman Beatdown: When attacked by a fire blower, Batman sets himself up so that he’s directly in front of Mad Hatter, jumping away when the flame comes rushing at Tetch so that it burns his hat. Taking out the villain with his own brainwashed minions is always a good feeling.
- Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s is the voice of Miranda. The squeakiness should be a dead giveaway.
- Miranda has got to realize that Nightwing is Dick, right? Especially with that haircut.
- Dick stops a bunch of axes with a whip and it doesn’t break. That’s some strong equipment.
- “Oh, just following a pattern of obsessive behavior instilled in me at an early age.”
- “I know that gorilla.”
- “Wonder where you learned that?”
- “Want some jam with your toast, Batman?”
- Dick: “I miss it.” Bruce: “What?” Dick: “Show business.”