There’s a scene late in Batman Unlimited: Monster Mayhem where I envision Heath Corson pitching it at a story meeting, followed by numerous games of one-upmanship by animators, producers, and director Butch Lukic, ultimately yielding a scene of divinely inspired ridiculousness that left me cackling with laughter at the sheer audacity on display. Despite a few nitpicks, I liked Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts for having a gutsy enough sensibilities to re-vision Ace the Bathound as a robot wolf that turns into a motorcycle. This sequel in the Batman Unlimited franchise doubles down on almost everything in that first film and turns in an even stronger and more enjoyable effort.
It’s Halloween in the Unlimited world’s Gotham City, and the usual festivities are punctuated by a breakout at Arkham Asylum. Solomon Grundy, Silver Banshee, and the Scarecrow are on the loose, and soon joined by Clayface in a variety of strange thefts that leave Batman and his coterie of heroes stymied (who, this time around, are Red Robin, Nightwing, Green Arrow, and Cyborg). The mastermind behind this gallery of evil is soon revealed to be the Joker (a mild surprise that’s spoiled by the trailer and the Blu-ray disc art), engaging in a mad plan to conquer Gotham using an advanced computer virus that takes down almost all the tech in the city. It’s up to the Caped Crusader and his friends to save Gotham and thwart the Joker’s insane plan.
Batman Unlimited sits nicely between Batman the Animated Series and Batman: The Brave and the Bold in its tone, mixing the former’s serious tone with the latter’s playfulness. While it may be true that the Joker’s plan is a genuine threat to Gotham, it’s also more than a little silly, especially the ways he deploys his henchmen when it looks like his plan has succeeded. However, the deadpan reaction that Batman and friends have to the situation they find themselves in actually make the whole thing funnier, while also making us more likely to go along with the whole thing without asking too many impertinent questions. In this, it’s rather like the 1966 Batman TV series, which is held together only by Batman’s seriousness in approaching ever more ridiculous scenarios (and from which it seems that Batman: The Brave and the Bold borrowed the same trick). This plot may have holes in it and the extended action sequences in the middle of the movie may seem a little long while also repeating the “divide and conquer” scenes from Animal Instincts. It’s all still rollicking good fun that places Batman squarely into an all-ages zone, allowing younger kids to enjoy the superhero action without losing the adults watching along. Plus, there’s that late-movie scene, which I dare not spoil, other than to say it very creatively exploits video game sensibilities to craft an extremely creative solution to a particular story problem. If the “Batman Should Be Serious” crowd is willing to deign to watch this movie at all, this scene is likely to drive them from the room screaming. Which is fine by me, since I think they’re fundamentally wrong on that point anyway.
Animation quality is good but not great, pushing just past TV quality but almost certainly reflecting a lower production budget and compressed production schedule. It still gets the job done more than adequately, though. The voice acting is also quite solid, with Roger Craig Smith nicely incorporating Batman’s grimmer edge as compared to his compatriots without making him too unapproachable. Troy Baker also reprises and lightens his role as the Joker from the Arkham Asylum video games, and brings a lighter brand of psychosis to the movie. Fred Tatasciore’s take on Solomon Grundy is a standout among the rest of the cast, managing to make him the dumb one without being completely moronic. One scene involving an extremely unconvincing disguise is another moment of divinely inspired madness. I also marvel at the skills of Khary Payton, who manages to find yet another take on Cyborg that is definitely the same character, but subtly different from the original Teen Titans version, the new Teen Titans Go! version, the LEGO DC Comics movie version, and the Injustice: Gods Among Us video game version. I’m also pleased that the franchise found some room for some women and minorities this time around (a nitpick I had for the first movie), and hope we can see more of both in future installments.
Like most modern DTV animation, there is little to complain about regarding the audio or video presentation of Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts. The Blu-ray high-definition video is sharp and clear throughout, and mated to a DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack that nicely gooses sound effects and music at the right moments. There is also a very nice selection of bonus features, including “Gotham of Tomorrow,” a short featurette on the design of this ultra-modern Gotham City; 10 DC Nation shorts, including multiple Shazam!, Green Arrow, and Animal Man installments plus C.H. Greenblatt’s wonderfully odd “Deadman” short; and the “Mayhem of the Music Meister” episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold (excellent choice). The combo pack also includes a DVD and a redemption code for an UltraViolet digital version.
Batman Unlimited: Monster Mayhem improves on the first movie in almost every way, while retaining the all-ages charm of the original. It’s a ton of fun that’s breezy and light-hearted, while some more serious superhero movies (live-action and animated) can sometimes collapse under their own weight. Fans who miss Batman: The Brave and the Bold would do well to check out this franchise.