The animated movie Merry Little Batman gives viewers a version of Gotham City not seen in any other story. Batman’s beleaguered hometown still features landmarks such as Axis Chemical Plant, Arkham Asylum, and stately Wayne Manor. However instead of the gothic architecture of the Tim Burton movies or the variations on Chicago and Pittsburgh in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, the Gotham of Merry Little Batman is a cheery, candy-colored utopia, free of the city’s usual criminal presence.
What accounts for the change? At the start of the movie, Batman explains that he quadrupled his efforts to clean up Gotham after becoming a dad, making the city safe for his son Damian. However, when he gets stranded in the Arctic while answering a phony distress call, Batman learns too late the truth about his perfect little Gotham, as the Joker, along with some of the worst baddies of all time, come out of hiding on Christmas Eve, leaving Damian to defend the city all by his lonesome.
With its vibrant imagination and playful take on the superhero mythos, Merry Little Batman gives every kid just what they wanted for Christmas: a rollicking superhero and a story about a parent learning to trust their kid.
The Dad Knight
Merry Little Batman begins like most stories about Batman, with a shadow cast on a wall and heavy voice-over narration. However, instead of the Caped Crusader, that brooding creature of the night that rich boy Bruce Wayne became after witnessing the death of his parents, the shadow belongs to Damian Wayne (Yonas Kibreab), donning a paper bag mask and blanket like any other kid playing make-believe. The movie repeats the gag later when Damian makes his way to Wayne Manor’s basement to find a hulking, frightening figure standing in front of what looks like Batarangs and the Batmobile. Then the lights click on, revealing the figure to be Damian’s dad Bruce, who chides the boy for rummaging around the dark.
Some Bat-fans might take exception to this vision of Batman, reimagined here not as “Mr. Vengeance,” as he’s dubbed in 2021’s The Batman, but as a loving, if over-protective, father. Instead of the growl that defines most takes on the character, Luke Wilson keeps his Texas drawl intact to play a warm and worrying Batman. When the lights come up in the aforementioned scene, viewers see a dad-bod Batman, complete with a flannel shirt and a shaggy beard, which he keeps even when back in costume (“Ups my intimidation game,” he reasons).
However, Merry Little Batman mitigates any complaints by pushing the Caped Crusader into the background and making Damian its main character. The precocious Bat-kid spends his days testing the patience of butler Alfred (James Cromwell) and chasing around cat Selina (giving Catwoman a conciliatory wink). The movie doesn’t give Damian any playmates, not even a Robin or two, but that doesn’t seem to slow him down. Instead, he whips around Wayne Manor in anarchic set-pieces, desperate to prove to his dad that he deserves to suit up and join his dad on patrol. When the Joker (David Hornsby) returns to Gotham with a gaggle of bad guys to ruin the city’s Christmas, Damian’s holiday dreams come true and he becomes Gotham’s sole protector.
For Bat-Fans Young and Old
The story of a kid becoming a hero, and showing up his old dad in the process has easy appeal for young audiences. Unlike the arrogant and murderous Damian Wayne that comic book readers know, Yonas Kibreab plays the son of Batman as a lovable scamp. His boundless energy creates trouble sometimes, but it proves useful when he has to take on the assembled supervillains.
A veteran of wacky but heartfelt cartoons such as Phineas and Ferb, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, and Regular Show, director Mike Roth and his screenwriters — Morgan Evans, Etan Cohen, and Jase Ricci — lean into the wish-fulfillment aspects of the story with an art style that evokes kid’s books more than modern comics. With his massive pecs and tiny legs, Batman evokes a rounder, softer version of the barrel-chested hero from Batman: The Animated Series. Damian’s moon face and bright, round eyes keep him feeling innocent and relatable, even under a black cape and cowl. The animation retains the wobbly inconsistencies of a pencil sketch, and the saturation of the colors shift from frame to frame, suggesting the texture of felt tip markers.
Roth and his collaborators let their imaginations run wild in their designs for side characters. The aged Alfred slouches to give him a turtle’s shape, while Vicki Vale (Cynthia McWilliams) is all angles and edges. Viewers will recognize the Joker’s pointed nose and purple zoot suit, but Roth frames the Clown Prince of Crime’s face within a curtain of green curls. The Penguin (Brian George) appears in a lumpy mess, and Bane (Chris Sullivan) looks inhuman with his exaggerated muscles and veins.
Some parents might find these designs a bit too grotesque, and the movie does indulge in occasional gross-out gags, as when Damian chokes down a nasty British delicacy prepared by Alfred. However, in the same way that the movie’s most intense moments prompt cheers instead of tears from younger viewers, the gross-out bits will make kids say “Ew!” without disturbing them.
That said, Merry Little Batman doesn’t forget about older viewers, either. In fact, most of the movie’s iconography comes from previous Batman films, the 1997 Joel Schumacher disaster Batman & Robin in particular. Voice actor Therese McLaughlin gives Poison Ivy the Mae West camp that Uma Thurman infused into the character, Dolph Adomain uses his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression while delivering winter-themed puns as Mr. Freeze, and Chris Sullivan growls and snarls every line for Bane.
Even if those references don’t tickle some long-time Bat-fans, most older viewers will appreciate the story’s ultimate lesson. Batman doesn’t save the day with all of his wonderful toys and he doesn’t protect his son by keeping him locked away. Instead, Batman, Damian, and Gotham City in general are at their best when he trusts his son and gives the boy the chance to prove himself.
An Unlikely Christmas Tale
For all that Merry Little Batman does right, it does fail to make full use of its holiday trappings. The pop songs that fill the soundtrack, which include rare cuts such as “Oi to the World” by the Vandals and “All I Really Want For Christmas” by Lil Jon and Kool-Aid Man, pour on the merriment and the Joker launches an anti-Christmas scheme. However, these attributes feel perfunctory. Outside of an early scene in which Bruce Wayne gives Damian his first utility belt (albeit filled with Nerf Batarangs and band-aids) as a present, Christmas doesn’t figure into the plot as much as one would expect.
However, few viewers will sense the lack of holiday cheer. The energetic Damian and wild villains provide plenty of hijinks and the relationship between father and son will lift the spirits of any grump. The gag-heavy action sequences and expressive art will thrill children and adults alike, as will its story about learning to let kids grow up a little. For those willing to accept Batman as an old dad and Gotham City free of crime, Merry Little Batman is a delightful Christmas gift.
Merry Little Batman premiers December 8th on Amazon Prime Video. We've got the latest on movies in theaters now.