Bless the Beasts and Batman
It's little wonder why Batman has received so many reinventions in the nearly eighty years since his creation. As one of the most popular superheroes of all time, it's natural that the Dark Knight would be ripe for interpretation, with various media casting him as everything from a pirate (you heard me) to an honest-to-Crom vampire. Presenting the crimefighter in new settings and under alternate guises is nothing new, so the idea of a flick like Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts turning up doesn't really bother me. In fact, with the recent animated adventures of DC's prized property skewing grim and uber-brooding, a colorful, flashy, and kid-centric outing sounds like just the ticket. Unfortunately, despite being armed with a spirited attitude that its namesake hero hasn't seen in a while, Batman Unlimited unfurls a disappointingly dull caper for its fans. From its action to its one-liners, this is the very definition of "just enough," a flick content with hanging up its cowl and calling it a day after achieving the staggering feat of not being totally awful.
Our story begins in a Gotham City that's a far cry from the gothic metropolis we're familiar with. The future is now, and the entire place has become abuzz with the latest technology, but Batman (voice of Roger Craig Smith) still maintains his vigilant watch over the innocent. However, the changing times have birthed a tougher breed of foe, one that the Caped Crusader comes face to face with during his nightly rounds. Animal-themed villains like Cheetah (voice of Laura Bailey) and Killer Croc (voice of John DiMaggio) have banded together to raise a ruckus throughout Gotham, and they're accompanied by deadly robotic sidekicks, to boot. Luckily, Batman has plenty back-up of his own, in the form of fellow heroes such as Green Arrow (voice of Chris Diamantopoulos) and the Flash (voice of Charlie Schlatter). Still, the closer these defenders of justice get to finding the mastermind behind this bizarre crimewave, the closer they get to uncovering an even greater plot that threatens to wipe Gotham City off the map forever.
Released to coincide with a new line of toys, Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts is destined to be singled out and condemned as a shameless commercial. However, I'm not so quick to go the cynical route in this case, for other merchandise tie-in movies like DC's Lego comedies have proven quite entertaining in recent years. Plus, with the comics industry heavyweight straining to be taken seriously with overly "adult" flicks such as Son of Batman, it's high time that something came along to celebrate the fun, whiz-bang qualities the Dark Knight possessed long before pop culture decided he should hate being a superhero. It was my hope that Batman Unlimited might follow in the footsteps of last year's JLA Adventures in delivering a free-wheeling romp in crime-busting. But unfortunately, despite its brighter visual sheen, it has the same lack of genuine pluck that plagued its more grown up-geared brothers. While the film has an interesting premise going for it -- with a tech-savvy Caped Crusader battling animal-inspired eco-terrorists -- there just isn't any ambition to see it through here. Barely an effort is made to play up those underlying themes that are absolutely present, as it settles instead for becoming the sort of by-the-numbers endeavor its detractors have already written it off as, sight unseen.
Batman Unlimited may see our hero steeped in more actual detective work than he's seen in a while, but the mystery at hand is an obvious case that takes him a shockingly long period of time to crack. Seeing the Dark Knight ponder transparent leads and take down baddies in uninspired action sequences gets to be a real snooze, and although the flick certainly cranks up the color, the animation's overall quality and consistency seems fairly lacking. The dialogue sounds heavy on the quips, too, some of which elicit courtesy chuckles but mostly get tired groans in response. But if Batman Unlimited has a saving grace, it's that the film's voice actors are pretty much on point. While Smith supplies a passable Caped Crusader (he sounds tough and gravelly, so he's set), the other performers try admirably to perk up a ho-hum script with their personalities. But while Schlatter, Diamantopoulos, and the remaining do-gooders all come across as suitably heroic, those actors playing the bad guys of the hour (err, hour and change, for this flick) are undoubtedly having the bigger blast. DiMaggio, Bailey, and crew live it up with their roles, and Dana Snyder does a fine job giving viewers a crotchety main villain in the one and only Penguin. In fact, it's the Penguin's subplot about using his family fortune to get back at the society snobs who rejected him because of his looks where the movie strikes one of its few narrative chords that actually resonates.
All in all, Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts was created with the little ones in mind, and they will glean the most enjoyment out of the picture. There are enough explosions, punching, and gadgetry around to get the job done, although the presentation reaches such a listless point, don't be surprised if you catch the kids turning it off to act out more compelling adventures with their action figures. Though I'd call it neither soulless or immature, Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts is still an unremarkable superhero jaunt that feels stuck on autopilot.
(Released by Warner Home Video; not rated by MPAA.)