For many Batman fans, there is no comparison. More than the live-action movies, more than the 1960s TV series, more even than the original comic books, Batman: The Animated Series was and remains the definitive presentation of The Dark Knight. Taking bits and pieces from the best that had come beforehand, creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski (later aided by Alan Burnett and Paul Dini among others) ushered in a whole new era of childrens' animation and created frankly one of the finest television programs ever aired.
The voice acting is beyond compare. For many (including myself), when they read the comic books, the voices they hear for the good guys are Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Efrem Zimbalist Jr (Alfred), and Bob Hastings (Jim Gordon). Unlike some recent Batmen, Conroy knew how to differentiate his voice as Batman without coming off like McGruff The Crime Dog. And Loren Lester even managed to make Robin/Nightwing sound almost cool. And let's not forget that the show invented the long-running character of Rennee Montoya (who was absolutely NOT Detective Anna Ramirez from The Dark Knight, arguably for the same reason that Lt. Max Eckhardt from Tim Burton's Batman was not Lt. Harvey Bullock).
As for the villains, more than enough has been written about Mark Hamill's work as The Joker, as well as Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn ( The Joker's henchwoman/battered girlfriend who was later ret-conned into the Batman comic book world). But let's take a moment to remember Michael Ansara's cold-bloodedly monotone Mr. Freeze, David Warner's deliciously arrogant Ra's Al Ghul, John Glover's deadly serious Riddler, and Richard Moll's terrifically likable and sympathetic Harvey Dent and his cruel, conflicted Two-Face (yes, his transformation made more psychological sense here than it did in The Dark Knight). Special mention must be made of Roddy McDowall. His stunningly touching and operatically emotional Jervis Tech was a highlight, especially in a powerful moment later in the series where The Mad Hatter explains just what lengths he would go to to get Batman out of his life. He only appeared in a handful of episodes, but, along it was a hell of a swan song (he died in 1998).
Tonally, the show seemed to put itself mainly in a 1970s Dark Knight Detective template, but also tossing in bits from the Tim Burton movies, the 60s TV show, the Dick Sprang/Bill Finger 1940s stories, and the darker late 1980s comic books. Like those Dennis O'Neil/Neal Adams stories, Batman was a dark and brooding adventurer, and a whip-smart detective. But he was not obsessive and not a psychopathic jerk incapable of having forming relationships. And Bruce Wayne was just foppish and playboy-ish enough to get giggles from his fellow socialites, but he never went so far as to render Bruce Wayne impotent in the business world and useless as a force for good. Conroy's Bruce Wayne was a publicly respected figure and a genuine philanthropist. The villains were menacing and (within the limits of BS&P) murderous, but their violence was never so grotesque as to render Batman's efforts futile. There was plenty of action and adventure, but never at the expense of story and character.
The groundbreaking designs were straight out of 1940s art deco, taking a bit of inspiration from the 1940s Fleischer Superman cartoons but with a twist. In order to capture the darkness and shadowy mood of Gotham City, the artists actually worked from a black canvas, adding color to the already existing blackness. The Gotham City of this show is a timeless one, with black and white TVs and tommy guns mixed with computers and cell phones.
The stories are timeless too. In fact, that is the key to the show's lasting success. Take away the artwork, the acting, the music, the violence, action, and suspense, and you still have something has yet to be replicated in American childrens' animation. I'm talking about the scale of the storytelling. It was rarely epic and it was rarely larger than life. The storytelling was exactly to scale of human experience.
While there were plenty of escapades involving battles with Batman and his gallery of rogues, as well as gritty crime stories involving the less flamboyant outlaws, many of the episodes stepped back and took a look at the regular people living in Gotham in the midst of this 'never ending battle' (yes, I know that's a Superman reference, sue me). Some of the very best episodes involved the smallest of stories involving these always three-dimensional characters.
A typecast actor, struggling to survive after a role in superhero show has rendered him unemployable (Beware The Grey Ghost). A divorced ex-convict, willing to go to dangerous lengths to see his daughter (See No Evil). A mob moss deciding whether to turn state's evidence after his son gets hooked on drugs (Never Too Late). A disgraced doctor, forced to kidnap a colleague to assist in life-saving surgery on his crime-boss brother (Paging The Crime Doctor). A veteran cop coming to terms with his loneliness and emptiness as someone from his past marks him for murder (A Bullet For Bullock). The Gotham City of Batman: The Animated Series was a real city, filled with real people living lives not unlike you and I. But in this city, that guy who you cussed out after he cut you off -- he might just be The Joker (Joker's Favor - my all time favorite episode).
Sixteen years later (dear God...), the show still holds up as an intelligent, exciting, tragic, funny, and moving action drama. It is the highest quality adult entertainment, that just happens to be pitched at a level that still renders it appropriate for children. It is easily one of the finest cartoons ever made, and perhaps the very best adaptation of a comic book in any medium.
The DVD set? Oh right, the DVD set. Well, the content is basically the same sixteen discs that made up the previous four-volume box-sets that came out between July 2004 and December 2005. There are eight featurettes, the longest being seventeen-minutes long. There are twelve commentaries on various episodes (including, amusingly, a commentary on the volume 4 episode Critters, in which they defend one of the most loathed episodes in the series run). These are literally the exact same discs, right down to the cover art. There is a bonus seventeenth disc, which contains a 22-minute retrospective documentary as well as (I think) the same 10-minute preview of Batman: Gotham Knight that was on the Justice League: New Frontier DVD set.
The packaging is a real keeper, which is I suppose the point. The seventeen discs are housed in two extra large clear plastic keep cases (the two cases take up less room than the boxes for 2 of the 4 boxes from the original releases). On top of them is a 40 page book of DVD contents and original production art. It's nothing special, but it's nice to glance at if you don't already own Batman: Animated. The collection is housed in a very snazzy dark blue case, with thick, hard plastic. It's, comparatively, a little longer than The West Wing series box, but not nearly as thick. While I usually disdain special boxes for complete series collections (which Warner seems to make a habit of), this will look very nice next to my other awkwardly shaped TV series collections (Homicide, Alias, The West Wing, Macgyver, Get Smart).
For what it's worth, I doubt this series will ever come out on BluRay, since the non-restored cell-based animation won't look nearly as snazzy as the more recent Justice League series (that season 1 BluRay set has colors so bright and vivid that it hurts my eyes). Frankly, the slightly worn-looking video and dirt and grain actually makes the series look more like something from the 1940s, so that's an accidental plus (they look sharp on a normal size TV, but my 56" DLP emphasizes the fact that Warner did not spend Looney Tunes-money updating the transfers). Of course, if you already own the previous four volumes, I can't completely recommend paying $75 on Amazon for the same discs, plus a new twenty-two minute documentary and a slim art book. I bought it because I'm a completest. If you don't own the series, I absolutely recommend this set as the way to go. If you already own everything prior, it's a judgment call.
Series - A+
Video - B
Audio - B
Extras - B
Packaging - A-
The 'Lost Episode' (cinema scenes from the Sega CD game that contained the original voices and artists):