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Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts

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ANIMATED FEATURE REVIEW

Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts
Studio: Warner Bros. Animation
Release Date: April 28th, 2015 - Digital; May 12th, 2015 - Blu-ray, DVD

Synopsis: When Gotham City is plagued by a rash of bizarre crimes committed by the animal-inspired villain squad, the Animilitia (made up of Silverback, Cheetah, Killer Croc and Man-Bat), Batman swings into action to investigate. But could the Animilita be working for powerful businessman Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin? How does Cobblepot's new invention of robotic Cyber Animals fit into the mix? In the end, it'll take the combined forces of Batman, Green Arrow, Flash, Nightwing and Red Robin to fight off these animal instincts!


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Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts Feature Review
By James Harvey

The first installment of an ongoing series of Batman Unlimited animated projects, Batman Unlimited: Animated Instincts finds Batman and a squadron of DC Comics heroes facing off against The Penguin and a plethora of animal-themed adversaries. Trying to figure out the reasoning behind a series of thefts, Batman will have to use all the gadgets in his utility belt to save Gotham City from certain doom.

Taking place in a futuristic Gotham City (extremely futuristic, with flying cars, holograms and the like), Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts is a light and breezy adventure, one that waives intricate plots and layered characters for flashy action and quips galore. And robots. Lots and lots of robots. And lasers. This film is bathed in familiar sci-fi tropes, which is actually fairly suiting for this all-ages feature. And while young boys will be particularly taken with this animated feature, and the subsequent tie-in toys, adults might have a harder time finding a reason to revisit the movie. While a solid plot, featuring a couple nice nods to DC Comics lore and serviced well by some nice animation, it may not strong enough to warrant multiple viewings.

Admittedly, the film is a bit of an adjustment. Gotham is bright-ish and full of high tech gear everywhere – sometimes outdoing the futuristic gizmos found in Batman Beyond. Everything looks amped up, from the cars to buildings to even the main heroes. The main crew – Batman, Green Arrow, The Flash, Nightwing and Red Robin – all have suits that look visibly upgraded from their usual comic duds to fit into the more high-tech happenings of the film. Extra lines and details are added to give the appearance or armor, though they look a shade busier than they should.  The updated designs are fine, yes, but they seem a bit unnecessary and rob a couple characters of their iconic looks. Red Robin looks nothing like his comic book counterpart, for example.

Most of the villains get redesigned too, including a fitter design for The Penguin and a metal jaw for Killer Croc. The other main bad guys get slight touch-ups, though a change to one character involves a plot twist best left unsaid.

Also, what the heck is going on with Nightwing and Commissioner Gordon’s hair? They have some major cowlicks going on…

That’s very, very minor, to be honest. Nitpicking, really (though still oddly distracting). To get back on track, the story is what you’d expect based on the trailer, though it does add just a shade more to up the stakes to not just Batman and his team of heroes, but to the whole city, as well. And while the story is enjoyable, it's also really nothing that breaks the mold. Good guys fight Batman, minor plot advancement, repeat two or three more times, then roll end credits. If anything, writer Heath Corson plays it safe, perhaps to counterbalance some of the very obvious hi-tech changes to the character mythos we've grown so used to. The film doesn't negate any of those, really, but the designs and overall approach to the characters are tweaked to appeal to a younger set. The approach is more The Batman than Batman: The Animated Series. Characters fit into a pre-established mold and don't really get any development beyond that. They actually come off as pretty predictable and, in Batman's case, somewhat bland on occasion. Really, only the Penguin and maybe Man-Bat get any real distinguishing personalities, the rest are all pretty cookie-cutter. You know exactly how these characters are going to be portrayed just by looking at them. Batman is the infallible anchor, The Flash a fast-talker, Robin the youthful jokester, etc.

And to touch upon the cast one last time, its lack of diversity is actually pretty disappointing. The cast of heroes is very vanilla, lacking any female characters or persons of color. While I understand the cast chosen - the Bat-Family and the main characters in two of The CW's highest rated shows - it's still a miss on the part of Warner Bros. It just feels too safe and ordinary, which perhaps is meant to balance out the futuristic aspects, but it's still no excuse.

Speaking of a safe approach, the directing by Butch Lukic is pretty standard here, foregoing flashy camera tricks and dramatic angles for straightforward storytelling. Instead of close-up shots, quick edits and extreme angles, Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts instead employs steady camera work and far shots for the action scenes. While the film likely could've used a bit more flash, the safe approach actually works well with the action bits, allowing the scenes to breathe without ever really overstaying their welcome. The animation, nice for the most part with the odd hiccup, manages to stay on point for the movie, though we do get the odd bit of jerky movements and off-model moments. It seems like some of the extra linework used on the costumes is also a point of issue from time to time in some of the scenes where characters are performing some quick actions (flips, running toward the camera, etc.). Also worth noting is the score, which actually sounds more heroic and energetic than what we're used to with Batman.

In terms of voice cast, it's a solid collection of actors. Roger Craig Smith as back as Batman, reprising the role after a successful stint as the Dark Knight in the Batman: Arkham Origins game. Smith plays Batman as more straight forward and noble, very heroic, as opposed to the grim loner from the recent video game. Will Friedle, from Batman Beyond fame, is nicely cast as Nightwing, and Yuri Lowenthal brings a nice, youthful exuberance to the role of Red Robin. Chris Diamantopoulos as Green Arrow and Charlie Schlatter as The Flash do fine work in their roles, nicely rounding out our group of heroes. Neat fact, Schlatter is reprising his role as the Scarlet Speedster from his appearance on Superman: The Animated Series. Also, in a cool bit of casting, Alastair Duncan returns to the role of Alfred Pennyworth. Duncan played the character in The Batman and, honestly, it was nice to hear his voice again. In terms of the villains,  Dana Snyder performs admirably as The Penguin, nailing the voice with near perfection, while the rest of the bad guy brigade fill their roles just fine. John DiMaggio's turn as Killer Croc, however, is nearly identical to his stint as King Shark in Batman: Assault on Arkham.

All in all, it's a good movie but one that doesn't really go out of its way to exceed any expectations. While the movie just dives into its story, it's also about setting up this new world. Granted, there's really not much to set up - we all know Batman's basic story - but the movie still walks viewers through. We don't get any background on Batsy, but we don't need it. The film does make sure we're familiar with the rest of the cast though, with character names usually being said upon arrival, which I suppose will be needed so kids can easily scoop up their favorites off toy shelves after checking out the movie. There's a lot of emphasis on gadgets and technology, so much so I was actually surprised to see Green Arrow use normal bows on occasion in here. 

At the risk of repeating myself, again, the film hits basically all the right notes, though never going further than it needs to. The character interactions are enjoyable, especially the budding bromance between Nightwing and Flash, though nothing to really write home about. The villains manage to keep our heroes busy for the majority, and The Penguin's plot is fun in that old-school Silver Age way. The film could've been trimmed a shade, perhaps, but I never found myself bored for the 75-minute runtime. Nearly the entire cast, good and bad, get a moment or two to shine, which helps break up the somewhat cookie-cutter character work and plotlines. Still, Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts does deserve a nod for showing a few of our heroes outside of costume, even if it's only for a brief scene that is focused more on plot than character exploration.

Overall, Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts is a solid start to the line of all-ages Batman movies. The cast is robust, the action fun and the story enjoyable. It's nothing ground-breaking, but it doesn't set out to be, nor does it ever come across as a toy commercial. The movie simply wants to tell a fun, light story about Batman in a  futuristic setting and, on those accounts, it succeeds. It establishes a new world for Batman, one that is rife with potential (and even has an homage or two to Batman Beyond). Hopefully, in future installments, we'll get to see more of Batman's friends and foes re-imagined in this new world, as I'm genuinely curious to see where it could take them. As for this movie right here, Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts, it's a fun yarn that, while likely not for everyone, serves as a welcome entry point for those looking to try a different take on the classic character. Recommended.

[ Continue on to the Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts Blu-ray review ]

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