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ANIMATED FEATURE REVIEW

Batman Versus Robin
Studio: Warner Bros. Animation
Release Date: April 7th, 2015 - Digital; April 14th, 2015 - Blu-ray, DVD

Synopsis: Gotham City is no place for a child but Damian Wayne is no ordinary child. Now bearing the mantle of Robin, he blazes a headstrong and sometimes reckless trail alongside his father, Batman. While investigating a crime scene, Robin encounters a mysterious figure, Talon, who leads him on a life-altering course through the depths of Gotham's secret society, known as The Court of Owls. It's a dangerous journey that will force Batman and Robin to face their most dangerous adversary, each other! Based on the #1 best-selling graphic novel, Batman: The Court of Owls, Batman Versus Robin is one that fans won't want to miss!

Television stars Jason O'Mara (Terra Nova, USA Network's Complications) and Stuart Allan (Son of Batman) reprise their roles as the voices of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Robin/Damian, respectively. Adding to the celebrity-laden voice cast is Jeremy Sisto (Law & Order, Suburgatory) as Talon, singer/songwriter/comedian Al Yankovic as The Dollmaker, David McCallum (NCIS) as Alfred, Grey Griffin (Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends) as Samantha, Sean Maher (Serenity) as Nightwing, and Kevin Conroy (Batman: The Animated Series) as Thomas Wayne.


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Batman Versus Robin Feature Review
By James Harvey

The follow-up to 2014's Son of Batman is an improvement over its predecessor on every front, both in terms of content and execution. The animation is slick, for the most part, the story engaging, and the characters more rounded and layered. While not a complete success when compared to earlier efforts in Warner Bros. Home Entertainment's DC Universe Animated Original Movie, especially the likes of Batman: Under the Red Hood and Batman: Assault on Arkham, Batman Versus Robin is a very worthy entry.

What gives this film a leg-up over the last few efforts is the scope. This isn't just some "villain of the week" piece, but more of an examination of Bruce and Damian Wayne's characters, both of which are thrown for a loop with the incursion of the Owls. But the Owls just aren't a physical threat, but an ideological one, as well. Damian is given the opportunity to be his "true self" and "trust his instincts" from the Owls, Talon in particular, while Bruce Wayne is offered the chance to effect change in Gotham on a much larger scale. While the film doesn't really explore Bruce's option as much as I'd like, it does briefly touch upon some rather interesting ideas on what it takes to constitute real change. And it's these ideas that actually lift this movie a little higher. There are some real neat (even deep) ideas being explored amidst all the violence. Plus, the film actually gives Batman something more to do then just punch out that bad guy. Bruce Wayne, not Batman, and his crusade to save Gotham, actually plays a sizable part in the film's story, and it's a refreshing change of pace.

The script, written by J.M DeMatteis and lightly based on the epic "The Court of Owls" comic storyline by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, is one of the stronger scripts in the recent installments to this home video line. His pacing is fantastic, as is his ability to balance the quieter, character-driven scenes with the action. The film's opening is actually one of my favorite sequences in the entire DC Universe Animated Original Movie line to date, which I'll get into later, but it shows DeMatteis' ability to really explore some dark themes without it feel tacked on or exploitative. His work on character is rather redeeming after the little one's rather one-dimensional portrayal in Son of Batman, and his more leveled take on Batman is refreshing. Yes, Batman is all dark and brooding, but he smiles and actually cracks a couple a joke. It actually reminds me of the Batman: The Animated Series version of the character.

That being said, the script falls short in a couple areas. While the film explores Talon's background, a couple twists near the end throws his motivation into question, which I suppose makes sense given his villainous role in the movie. The Court itself is touched upon just enough to retain their mysterious nature, though I feel like we're a little shortchanged with them. The script does offer some nice surprises, particularly in the form of some extended flashbacks into Bruce's past pulled straight from the "The Court of Owls" arc from the Batman comic. It's fantastic look as Bruce as a child, ending with a powerful gut-punch of a speech by Alfred. And while there is plenty of good dialogue to be found, sometimes it can sound a bit clunky and out-dated - you can practically see the speech balloons at times. Also, I'm not sure if this is on purpose, but I like the verbose, over-the-top dialogue Damian spews out. Growing up under Ra's and the League of Assassins, it makes sense his dialogue would feel out of place compared to the rest of the cast. Still, Batman Versus Robin has a great script, one that I think offers much more than what viewers expect. There's also an equally effective hallucination sequence that many fans of Grant Morrison's Batman run will appreciate.

So, the script is good, but what about the animation? Well, Batman Versus Robin features the same quality of animation you've come to expect from these animated features - good, though a shade uneven at times. It tends to go back and forth between solid and weak, with some scenes looking pretty gorgeous and top-notch, while others look jumpy and jerky. It's worth noting that the fight scenes seem a little different, as they look a little more slick than what we're used to, resulting in fisticuffs that look either nicely polished or somewhat awkward. The Nightwing/Robin training session has a mix of both, ditto with a Nightwing/Talon tussle later in the film (especially that scene – watch Talon's initial lunge at Nightwing). The animators are clearly trying to add a little extra to the fight scenes, bring in some flair and smoothness, and the results are mixed. The boarding is quite nice, though, and helps add variety to the fight scenes to keep them from getting stale. There is a wealth of fighting in this movie, and the crew successfully keeps it from getting stale. Even Batman and Robin's rooftop skirmish is interesting to watch since the boarding and posing makes it abundantly clear Batman is making a concentrated effort to hold back against Damian - a cool touch.

And yes, even Alfred gets a couple awesome scenes in this film, including him taking up arms to fight side by side with Batman and Nightwing during a major skirmish late in the film. It's always a plus to see Batman's faithful butler get more screentime.

And while the violence isn't excessive, some of it is over-the-top, especially when there doesn't seem to be any real danger from our heroes getting hurt. They go through some pretty substantial beatings (particularly Batman in one brutal sequence where he crashes into a statue after an incredible drop) and seem to walk away less damaged then they should be. It'll definitely add more fuel to the fire for the "Bat-god" complainers. Even Nightwing gets pretty terribly skewered toward the end of the movie and, with the aid of some mere bandages, is good to go almost right away. Now, it's not like we expect our main heroes to die, and I get they can take quite a thrashing, but the extent of the damage they take and how they just kinda shrug it off robs the film of some of its tension.

The direction is stellar, with Jay Oliva bringing some nice flash to the story's heavy substance. The choreography for the first scenes are also top-notch, particularly when it comes to Nightwing, where his acrobatic background really comes to the forefront. You can clearly see that Oliva made sure to give each character differing fighting styles, resulting in some pretty impressive fight sequences. Oliva brings a massive, big-budget, big screen approach to the movie, and it pays off in spades, even if the budget doesn't allow for it on occasion.

In terms of voice work, save for one performance (which I'll acknowledge in a moment), there was nothing that really jumped out. Everyone did good work in their respective roles. Jason O'Mara, I find, wasn't as on-point as he was in some of his previous spins as Batman, especially during a critical scene in the Bat-Cave (you'll know it when you see it), where his delivery of what should be a crazy bad-ass line falls a bit short, but he still did well. Stuart Allen brings Damian's pomposity and smugness to full effect, though gets to add a bit of nuance later in the film that helps add a bit of vulnerability to Batman's son. Jeremy Sisto is pretty straightforward as Talon, bringing a nice air of menace to the character, though doesn't really deliver more than what the script offers. Of note, Sean Maher brings a nice softness to Nightwing, providing a nice "older brother" heft to the role. In short, it's basically just good work all around.

I find that "Weird Al" Yankovic deserves some specific acknowledgment and major credit for his turn as The Dollmaker, whom Batman and Robin run afoul of in the movie's pre-credit sequence. It's an understated, subdued performance that just gets increasingly creepy as the scene plays out. By no means is his character original, nor his sickening tendencies anything new, but "Weird Al" performance absolutely sells the character. How "Weird Al" slowly elevates his performance until his character gets increasingly desperate during his stand-off with Batman and Robin is genius work. It is an absolutely thrilling way to start the movie, and "Weird Al" makes it all work. Voice Director Andrea Romano deserves a nod for her work with "Weird Al" in creating such a legitimately disturbing character and successfully executing a very creepy opening sequence.

And yes - Kevin's Conroy cameo role as Thomas Wayne is a nicely-performed nod to the long-time fans.

One thing I also appreciated about Batman Versus Robin is that is seems like the creators are starting to find a good balance with the more "mature" aspects of these DC Comics-based PG-13 movies. The violence didn't feel overly excessive, save for one heart-stopping moment early on, nor did there seem to be any unnecessary "edgy" "adult" language. It seems like the creative team is starting to slowly annex some of the more superfluous aspects of these films that really do nothing more than hold them back, and it's long overdue. They were always more of a distraction that I found pulled viewers out of the film than anything that added any real maturity to them.

And just to touch upon one more potential beef before wrapping this review, Batman Versus Robin does kind of play with fast and loose with Batman's moral code. Depending on how you look at the film, it is quite possible that Batman knowingly breaks his "no killing" policy and it pretty cool with it. We know he's not, as we - the viewer - know more about what these Talons are than he does, but there's some dialogue later in the film, where he says he doesn't know if they're "actually alive," that might raise a red flag for some.

Batman Versus Robin is a fantastic entry into the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line, one that I found actually digs deeper into these characters then any of the recent installments in the line. It's entertaining, gives Damian a nice arc that sets him on the path to redemption, and provides comic fans with a nice nice taste of the source material that inspired it. Actually, I'd love to see these animated features dig a little deeper into the Court in a future Batman DTV if possible. To get back to this one, however, it succeeds thanks to the strength of it's solid script and nice animation. Neither are perfect, but they nicely execute the story. I personally find it to be one of the better the animated DC DTVs since Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, maybe just a shade below the super-fun and gonzo Batman: Assault on Arkham. Batman Versus Robin is one tussle you should consider getting ringside seats for.

[ Continue on to the Batman Versus Robin Blu-ray review ]

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