Director: Butch Lukic
Cast: Roger Craig Smith, Dana Snyder, Chris Diamantopoulos, Laura Bailey, John DiMaggio
Watch Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts online in the UK: iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
On Sunday mornings, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through DC’s animated superhero collection on Amazon Prime Video UK. We call it Superhero Sundays.
Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts was the first in a series of three animated Batman movies based on a line of action figure toys made by Mattel. (The other two movies are Monster Mayhem and Mechs vs Mutants.) The toys also inspired a two-season web series that’s available on the DC Kids YouTube channel. Distinguished by their different character and costume designs, the Batman Unlimited movies are primarily aimed at children and therefore significantly less dark than other animated Bat-features, although there’s still a lot to enjoy for adults too.
Set in a near-future Gotham (there are flying cars and the city looks a bit like Tokyo), the film centres on the Penguin (voiced by Dana Snyder) assembling a team of animal-themed villains – including Killer Croc (John DiMaggio), Cheetah (Laura Bailey), Silverback (Keith Szarabajka) and Man-Bat (Phil LaMarr) – that he dubs his “Animilitia”. With the villains teaming up to commit simultaneous crimes across Gotham City, Batman (Roger Craig Smith) receives help from The Flash (Charlie Schlatter) and Green Arrow (Chris Diamantopoulos), as well as his regular sidekicks, Nightwing (Will Friedle) and the slightly younger, less experienced Red Robin (Yuri Lowenthal). However, the heroes face an extra complication in the shape of a number of powerful animal robots created by the Penguin’s company, Bumbershoot Mechanics.
Director Butch Lukic is a longtime collaborator of producer and animator Bruce Timm, even though Timm himself isn’t involved with Animal Instincts (other Bat-feature regulars like Kevin Conroy and Andrea Romano are also absent). That said, Lukic has plenty of Bat-experience, having helmed dozens of episodes of Justice League and Batman Beyond. Similarly, while Conroy’s familiar Bat-voice is missed, Roger Craig Smith’s take on the Caped Crusader will at least be familiar to a certain sub-section of Bat-fandom, as he’s previously voiced the character in the LEGO Batman 3 and Batman: Arkham Origins video games. There’s character continuity elsewhere, as Charlie Schlatter has previously voiced The Flash in The Batman and Superman: The Animated Series. The voice work is generally good, with Dana Snyder’s Penguin the stand-out, mostly because he manages to make him sound a lot like Peter Lorre.
The plot may not be particularly complicated, but there’s a satisfying deduction element involved as Batman and his super-friends collectively figure out what the Penguin is really up to. In addition, the various combinations of heroes and villains lend the film an enjoyable comic book atmosphere, with a pleasing level of self-awareness – e.g. after fighting off Cheetah and Killer Croc with Nightwing, The Flash remarks, “That was a weird team-up, wasn’t it?” and Nightwing replies, “Them or us?”
However, where the film really excels is in the action sequences, which are frequent, varied and a lot of fun. In particular, the heroes make good use of gadgets (perhaps because of the toy line), with Batman somehow managing to hack one of the robo-animals and turn it into a motorbike. Crucially, because the film is aimed primarily at children, the focus here is on action without violence, which makes a refreshing change from some of the darker DC animated offerings (e.g. The Flashpoint Paradox).
Animal Instincts also has a nice line in humour, with Nightwing and The Flash nabbing most of the best lines. Highlights include Nightwing telling Cheetah that “nobody likes a Cheetah” and groaning “Ohhhh, Batman’s going to kill me” after Man-Bat flies off with Red Robin.
The influence of the toys is keenly felt in the costume designs, most of which are very appealing (Nightwing and Red Robin in particular), although The Flash’s headgear looks a little silly. Batman himself wears three different costumes, from his standard issue Bat-suit (with an odd-looking bat symbol on it) to a tech-enhanced night-suit (complete with red cape and red bat symbol) and an armoured version with special capabilities. The character designs are generally fine, although Batman looks a little too young (especially given Nightwing’s obvious age), while Nightwing sports a frankly ridiculous, immovable quiff that makes him look like a rhino in a certain light.
There are a number of odd details, particularly in terms of character continuity. For example, Batman has never met Man-Bat before and doesn’t appear to know that Oswald Cobblepot is the Penguin, even though Cobblepot looks much older here than he does in any other Bat-feature. The Flash seems relatively new at the super-hero game, displaying a certain amount of insecurity and confessing to Nightwing that that was the first time he’d tried running up a wall (“Kind of shocked that it worked”). As for Batman’s team, given the 2015 date of the film, it seems likely that The Flash and Green Arrow were included to cash in on the popularity of the CW TV shows.
All in all, this is an entertaining, nicely paced animated adventure that’s packed with action and humour and entirely suitable for young children.