Thursday, May 28, 2015

Animated Discussions: Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts

I try to get these animation reviews up promptly within a couple days of release, but the past couple weeks have been busy, and so I didn't even get to watch the first movie in the all-ages Batman Unlimited line until Monday, two weeks after it's release. But I decided I wanted to write this review anyway because I was really impressed by the movie and figured many people might have passed on it, since it was clearly aimed at younger audiences and is part of a program to push a new toy line.

I won't deny that you can see the influence of the toy line in the movie. Batman wears a huge variety of different costume variants that are just there begging to be made into action figures, and robot animals that turned into vehicles, which would have been a dream toy for me if I was eight.  Each of the heroes and villains are slightly redesigned to make for a unique action figure of their own. But most of the designs work, they have a very dynamic look to them. I was especially pleased to see Green Arrow in his goatee look; while I have no problem with the Arrow based look, that Neal Adams vibe is a classic. I was less enamored with Flash's redesign (there's something about the way the lightning bolt ears attached to the cowl that seemed off), but it wasn't offensive and still carried the Flash spirit, so I could understand it.

One of the things that jumped out at me from the first moment of the movie was how indebted it was to previous animated Batman, and that the creators were going to run with that. The Gotham of Batman Unlimited is much more sci-fi than the classic Burton Batman movies/Batman: The Animated Series art deco look, or the grotty urban feel of the Nolan movies. The opening scene has a flying police car, which clearly drew its design inspiration from Batman Beyond, and the flying costume Batman is wearing in that opening scene is black and red in a color homage to that particular series. It was a nice touch that was there for Batman animation geeks like me to smile over, and I always appreciate those extra little touches.

The plot of the movie is pretty straightforward. A group of animal themed villains calling itself the Ani-militia, consisting of Silverback, Cheetah, Killer Croc, and Man-Bat, and aided by robotic animals, are pulling heists in Gotham, and Batman and his allies, including Nightwing, Red Robin, Green Arrow, and Flash, are trying to stop them. Meanwhile, Oswald Cobblepot is opening the tallest building in Gotham, and there is talk that the Midas Heart Comet, a comet that's core is made entirely of gold, will be passing over Gotham in a few days. If you know anything about Batman, you know who Cobblepot is (spoilers if you've never read a Batman comic, seen Batman '66Batman Returns, or Gotham, or seen a Batman cartoon before: he's arch-villain The Penguin), and his scheme and involvement with the other villains isn't hard to figure out.

The nice thing is that while the plot is simple, it doesn't talk down to the audience. In the same way Batman: The Brave and the Bold was an all ages show that adults could enjoy, this movie works the same way. The nice rapport between Batman and Green Arrow, not the competitive one of B:TB&TB, but more the one of old comrades, Nightwing's frustration with the A.D.D./act first/ think later Flash (one who I have to assume is Wally West, since his personality is much closer to Wally than to Barry Allen, although we never see him unmasked), and Red Robin's attitude as a still in training hero are all solid character beats that keep those of us who are looking for more than just Batman fighting robots engaged, although the robot fighting is pretty great too.

There's also a nice character arc for Kirk Langstrom, the villain known as Man-Bat, a sort of werebat creature. Langstrom is mild-mannered scientist who, like all good comic book scientists, experimented on himself and his experiment went wrong. When Batman figures this out and works up a temporary cure, we see Langstrom is haunted by what he does as Man-Bat and does his best to make reparations while he's still human, and makes a connection with Red Robin. In the end, Red Robin is able to get through to Langstrom in Man-Bat form and we get a nice little redemptive thing with him at the end of the movie. It's not something you'd do in one of those old cartoons that were big toy ads, and I like that we get that kind of character depth.

The voice cast is an excellent line up of established voice actors. Roger Craig Smith voices Batman, reprising a role he played in Arkham Origins, and he's clearly influenced by Kevin Conroy's seminal performance. Will Friedle, best known as Terry McGinnis/Batman in Batman Beyond, does a great job as Nightwing. Yuri Lowenthal, who has spent years as Ben 10 on various incarnations of that franchise, brings his youthful exuberance to Red Robin. Another interesting return to a character is Alastair Duncan, voicing Alfred, a part he voiced in The Batman, the series that aired between Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and is often forgotten these days. And on the villain front, Dana Snyder (Master Shake on Aqua Teen Hunger Force and The Alchemist on The Venture Bros. to name a couple credits) does an exceptional job as the Penguin, giving him not just the haughtiness, but a touch of humanity as he deals with the way the people of Gotham look at him.

For one of these younger audience directed animated movies, I was pleased to see a couple solid special features. There's a short documentary on The Penguin, talking to the movie's screenwriter Heath Corson, TV comic writer Adam Glass, and one of Glass's children. about the Penguin's personality and history. It's not as in depth as the ones you get on the DC Animated line, but it hits on a lot of the important character points, and I like that they discuss the Penguin as a victim of bullying who turned on his bullies, something that comes up in the movie. There's also a selection of DC Nation animated shorts, the ones that used to air in and around Young Justice and Green Lantern. Not surprising with the animal theme of the movie, these are mostly the DC Superpets shorts based on the style of Tiny Titans artists Art Baltazar and Franco, and are adorable. There's also a Justice League of Animals short where Batmongoose encounters his nemeses The Croaker, Catcat, and Moo Face, and Wonder Wombat teaches us an important lesson about wombat's dietary needs. But the highlight is the three part Batman of Shanghai, a gorgeous anime influenced three part caper involving a Batman, Catwoman, and Bane redesigned to be set in 1930s Shanghai. Hey, Warner Home Video, any chance we cold get a DVD that's just a massive anthology of all the DC Nation shorts? There were a lot of really amazing ones, and I'd love to see them again.

A couple of final random thoughts. I would have liked to see a little more diversity in the team of heroes. It's clear that there was a, "strike while the iron is hot," idea by having Batman and his usual allies team up with the leads of DC's two big hit TV series, but I would have liked to see Black Canary thrown in there too. That's a minor quibble in an all around fun movie. Oh, and the robo-wolf that Batman is able to reprogram to work with him (and turn into a motorcycle)? He names him Ace. Don't get the reference. Look up Ace the Bathound when you have a second. It'll be worth your time.

There has been no further movies in the Batman Unlimited brand announced yet, buy from this one, hopefully there will be. There's enough room on the DVD racks for both these all ages adventure movies and the darker Batman Vs. Robin style movies. I'd be curious to see what other characters would look like with these new designs. It's nice to see that, as I've said before, there are a lot of people with a lot of different versions of Batman, and this one is a pleasant surprise that you can enjoy with your kids.

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