Set in a techno futuristic version of Gotham City that resembles a cross between Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, although Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts initially steers us into a more fantastical direction, fortunately the latest original animated feature from DC Comics finds its footing before it goes completely off the rails.
With Batman training Red Robin and also working in tandem with (former Robin) Dick Grayson's Nightwing, Batman Unlimited is a film of doubles and doppelgangers on both sides of the law.
Outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and overwhelmed by the latest diabolical plan to dominate Gotham that’s been undertaken by a rogue's gallery of villains dubbed the Animilitia comprised of Cheetah, Silverback, Killer Croc, Man Bat scheming alongside a ruthless crop of robotic animals created by Oswald Cobblepot's The Penguin, Batman and his allies team up with Green Arrow and The Flash.
And the end result is a motley version of the much more polished and professional Justice League squad of heroes whom we've witnessed before in other comics and animated features.
Penned by Justice League: War screenwriter Heath Corson and directed by veteran DC series helmer Butch Lukic, Batman Unlimited keeps things interesting by making this group the black sheep of the DC family.
And at the heart of the film's best scenes is the friction between Nightwing and The Flash – whose annoying efficiency and "look, ma, no hands!" short term attention span is the source of a few well-earned chuckles.
Yet that dynamic aside, unfortunately it never manages to create a psychologically compelling interplay between Batman and The Penguin – most likely because the overpopulated film is bursting at the seams with characters.
Nonetheless, the thoughtful way that it compares and contrasts the many similarities between the main hero and villain in a riveting Blu-ray special feature makes me eager to see if they'll devote more time to this thesis in a standalone film or sequel.
The first part of two 2015 Batman Unlimited titles, the follow-up to Animal Instincts is currently slated for an August release.
And while this ranks as a slightly above average entry in the routinely impressive franchise of direct-to-disc Warner Brothers/DC Comics animated original films, coming right off the heels of Batman vs. Robin, it serves as a vibrant reminder that right now, Nightwing is easily the most entertaining character in the long-running series.
Filled with enviable bonus material from the DC Archives including extra episodes from series of decades past, the technically stellar Blu-ray/DVD/Digital boxed set (which also boasts a limited edition toy a la last month's Batman vs. Robin) outdoes itself with some standout shorts.
While many feature familiar faces, the Easter Egg quality reimagining of the Batman narrative as filtered through classic 1930s Chinese artistry makes the two woefully brief Shanghai shorts worth the price of the Blu-ray alone.
Originally made by Wolf Smoke Studio and screened on Cartoon Network in 2012, the works constitute a "Shanghai surprise" that more than makes up for that horrifically bad 1980s Sean Penn and Madonna movie.
While I can only hope for a feature length Shanghai spinoff (as well as a solo Nightwing venture), until then Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts not only serves as a quality placeholder but also gives us a worthwhile place for the new narrative to start.
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