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Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts

Warner Bros. // Unrated // May 12, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 10, 2015 | E-mail the Author
Gotham City is in peril! I know, I know: what else is new? This is something different, though. Batman just squared off against a cybernetic wolf that blasted its way into STAR Labs. The Flash has been chasing after Killer Croc after he pilfered a ton of copper, and...wait, what is he doing teaming up with Cheetah, and why are they knocking over a jewelry store? Silverback -- think Gorilla Grodd, only...well, that would be telling -- is darting out of a bank with a dufflebag full of silver, and Green Arrow is the only thing standing between him and a clean getaway. Why are these animal-themed no-good-niks -- this Animilitia -- committing all these heists across Gotham? What does it mean that their crimes form a perfect circle around the Aviary, the sprawling office tower that's just about to open its doors? Maybe Bruce Wayne needs to have a chat with the billionaire who sank seven years and his family fortune into building the Aviary. I think the invitation said that the real estate mogul's name is Oswald Cobblepot. Does that ring any bells?

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DC Comics has spent the past few years in a creative tailspin that they've only just started to pull out of. It's as if a self-serious thirteen year old had been steering the ship rather than a bunch of middle-aged men, and this hypothetical teen's perception of what's adult has led the New 52 to be a grim, joyless, unrelentingly brutal miasma of misery and dismemberment. That attitude has tainted both their live-action films and direct-to-video animated movies alike. Batman Unlimited has an altogether different mission in mind. This new animated line -- with a slew of Mattel action figures to match -- is a return to the days when DC wasn't embarrassed about having fun. Its tone, animation style, and overall approach owe a great deal to the spectacular Justice League series from a decade back. Heck, DC even brought Justice League alum Butch Lukic back into the fold to spearhead the project.

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It's all about balance. More than anything, Animal Instincts really is aimed towards audiences of all ages. It's appropriate for kids but doesn't talk down to them. Spectacularly choreographed and consistently thrilling to watch, its superpowered battles royale never pull their punches but don't spill any blood either. Animal Instincts' dialogue is reasonably sharp: not reaching the same heights as Justice League but not falling all that short either. The heroes and villains alike are nicely characterized, each deftly fleshed out with distinct personalities while still keeping the overall momentum screaming forward. Animal Instincts has a pretty terrific sense of humor without ever stomping on the gravity of the crisis at hand. The voices are remarkably well cast, including a couple of DC Animated Universe alumni tackling different roles: Will Friedle as Nightwing and Phil Lamarr as Man-Bat. Charlie Schlatter returns as the voice of The Flash after a few years away, and he's joined by such seasoned actors as Chris Diamantopoulos, Laura Bailey, Roger Craig Smith, Yuri Lowenthal, Dana Snyder, Keith Szarabajka, and the once and future King Shark himself, John DiMaggio. There's not a weak link in the bunch, not that there would be with résumés as vast as theirs. Animal Instincts has a very distinctive set of character designs, with costumes that are more angular and exaggerated than any incarnation I've seen in the past. They work really well though, as does the quasi-futuristic version of Gotham City on display here. Although Batman Unlimited is intended to promote the Mattel action figure line of the same name, Animal Instincts doesn't come across as a feature-length toy commercial. Batman briefly dons a couple suits of armor he probably wouldn't have if there weren't an action figure tie-in, and the Cyberanimals do feel kind of shoehorned into match the toys' sidekicks, but neither are particularly distracting.

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If Batman Unlimited were airing every week on Cartoon Network, I'd tune into every episode without fail. Really, Animal Instincts feels perhaps too much like a TV show. As large in scale and scope as Penguin's gambit ultimately proves to be, the movie still comes across as a longer than usual episode of a weekly superhero a feature-length pilot, maybe. The animation can be kind of choppy, and some of its attempts at stylization -- the freeze-frames and anime-style speed lines in the early fight between Nightwing and Killer Croc, for instance -- don't quite work. From heat sensors to photographic contact lenses to a monocle that analyzes structural weak points, Animal Instincts goes kind of overboard with Terminator-style through-their-eyes tech overlays. The plotting can be kind of messy. How did Kirk Langstrom stand on-stage in his human form if he has no control over his transformations? What would Penguin do with his ill-gotten riches after boldly announcing to commit genocide? What's with the immediately abandoned ecowarrior angle? Did none of the attendees at the Aviary's ribbon cutting recognize the mechawolf he's showing off as being all over the news for breaking into STAR Labs and wreaking havoc on the freeway? Penguin's master scheme is complex yet doesn't seem terribly well-thought-out, and the more I think about the Cyberanimals, the sillier and more pointless they seem.

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I shouldn't let the scowling film critic in me come out like that, though, as I really did have such a great time with Animal Instincts. Batman Unlimited is a franchise that's clearly been crafted with a great deal of passion for the material and respect for its audience, and it's already gotten off to a really terrific start. I can't wait to see what DC delivers with the next installment, seemingly titled Monster Mania, later this year. Recommended.

Some minor banding aside, this high-def presentation of Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts teeters on the brink of perfection. I'm really impressed by how crisp and clean the linework is here, not going nearly as nuts with that soft, diffused glow that DC's more 'adult' animated movies drench everything in. Its colors are very nicely saturated, muted just enough to reflect the gravity of the movie's Gotham-in-peril storyline. If there are any hiccups in the AVC encode, I couldn't spot 'em. Terrific work all around!

Animal Instincts and its extras just barely creep over onto the second layer of this BD-50 disc. The movie is presented at its native aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

I can't say enough good things about this six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack either. Every last element in the mix is rendered cleanly, clearly, and distinctly. Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts does a brilliant job seizing hold of every channel at its disposal. For one, there's an extremely strong sense of stereo separation up front. Starting just about with its very first frame, the subwoofer immediately unleashes a low-frequency roar. The score constantly thunders with bass, and the LFE reinforces quite a few key sound effects nicely as well. Sometimes I wish it more consistently packed a wallop; there's a battle royale early on, for instance, where the electronic score is thumping from the sub, but an explosion in the middle of it sounds kind of meek and lifeless by comparison. From a police hover-cruiser soaring from the front speakers to the rears, reverb and a little robotic sparring in the Batcave, and Silverback blasting away with his laser gauntlets, Animal Instincts utilizes the surround channels more effectively than the majority of DC's direct-to-video animated fare. This combo pack has so many different options that you can watch Animal Instincts on basically any device or player you can think of, but you definitely ought to give this one a shot on a proper home theater rig.

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No matter what language you speak, there's a pretty good chance that Animal Instincts has you covered. Along with the lossless English track, this disc also offers up Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps) dubs in French, German, and both Castilian and Latino Spanish. Subtitles are offered in each of those languages as well.

Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts has gotten the combo pack treatment on Blu-ray, and that means you score an anamorphic widescreen DVD and an UltraViolet digital copy code as part of the deal. Not only does the set come packaged in a glossy slipcover, but a Fire Bat figurine tying into Mattel's toyline is riding shotgun:

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The pegs make it look as if the Fire Bat snaps onto something, and...well, I can't help you there. I can talk about the rest of the extras on this disc, though!
  • Penguin: High Society Criminal (13 min.; HD): The only extra that really revolves around Animal Instincts is this featurette that delves into one of Batman's most iconic nemeses. Told through interviews and a slew of comic book panels, "High Society Criminal" delves into Oswald Cobblepot's dark, troubled past and charts what led him to become Gotham's most gentlemanly criminal mastermind. It's a really nice overview of all Penguin's most defining and distinctive characteristics, particularly the stark contrast between his upbringing and Bruce Wayne's. Although Penguin is definitely the marquee draw here, this featurette briefly shines the spotlight on Animal Instincts' other badniks as well: Man-Bat, Cheetah, Killer Croc, and Silverback. I especially appreciated this because I shamefully had never heard of Silverback until giving this movie a spin!

  • From the DC Comics Vault (46 min.; HD): This Blu-ray disc also piles on two episodes from The Brave and the Bold's second season: "Super-Batman of Planet X!" and "Gorillas in Our Midst!". Both episodes are a whole bunch of fun, and "Gorillas in Our Midst!" -- which pits Batman, Detective Chimp, B'wana Beast, and Vixen against a gaggle of gorillas -- pairs especially nicely with Animal Instincts.

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  • DC Nation Shorts (24 min.; HD): Last but definitely not least, Animal Instincts heaps on ten shorts from Cartoon Network's DC Nation block. There's the Farm League short "Snack Run", the complete, interconnected three episode run of Batman of Shanghai, the Plastic Man / Batman team-up "The Bat and the Eel", and a barnful of Super Pets shorts: "Jokes on You", "Have Your Cake and B'Dg Too", "The League of Just Us Cows", "Krypto vs. Streaky", and "World's Finest Bark". For anyone keeping track at home, that's a complete collection of DC Super Pets too. The styles vary wildly, from anthropomorphic animals all the way to hyperfluid, strikingly stylized inkwork. Each short clocks in a little shy of two and a half minutes in length, but as their credits run a hair over a minute, that 24 minute runtime listed above probably delivers closer to 13 minutes of animation.

The Final Word
Although it admittedly doesn't feel like a movie to me, exactly, I still had a blast with Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts. In a lot of ways, it's a return to the days of Justice League Unlimited, back when DC wasn't afraid of having fun. While it's DC's most (and only, really) kid-friendly animated movie from the past few years, Animal Instincts doesn't pander to the younger crowd, and it never comes across as a seventysomeodd minute toy commercial either. If this were a TV show, I'd be tuning in every week even though I'm nowhere close to being a parent. Here's hoping that there's plenty more to come. Recommended.
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