- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2017

A superhero team of mystical misfits saves the world from evil magic in the mature-rated animated film Justice League Dark: Deluxe Edition (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Rated R, 76 minutes, 1.78:1 aspect ratio, $24.98).

Loosely adapted from a 2011 comic series of the same name, this direct to Blu-ray release is the 27th entry in DC Comic’s adapted cartoon universe and the second to brandish the mature “R” rating.

The story highlights a group of odd heroes who, with Batman’s help, must find the source of humans going mad, causing them to see demons and kill one another in the process.

Led by cynical sorcerer John Constantine, the team also includes magician Zatanna, wisecracking specter Deadman (aka Boston Brand), earth-loving beast Swamp Thing and Jason Blood (aka the rhyming Etrigan the Demon).

Well, the good news is director Jay Olivia worked with a team of creators that delivered two out of three reasons to view this mature-rated cartoon.

First, a coherent story by Ernie Altbacker and legendary comics scribe J. M. DeMatteis relies on as much character interaction and development as large-scale battles.

Sure, viewers get a fair share of spell-casting fights tied to solving the mystery and a strange encounter with a beast made of fecal matter, but moments with Deadman possessing Batman or Mr. Blood and Constantine bantering during a game of poker are classic.

The tale also manages to offer appearances by Wonder Woman, Superman, Black Orchid and even King Arthur’s famed wizard Merlin along with the villains Felix Faust, Ghast (aka the Demons Three) and Doctor Destiny.

Also, to clear the bloody elephant in the ratings room, the “R” is due to a peppering of profanity and the violent clashes that are not so much visceral but of the swords-skewing-a-torso variety. It could have easily been PG-13.

Next, the enthusiastic voiceover work is noticeably top-notch and keeps the story entertaining. Besides Nicholas Turturro as Deadman and Jason O’Mara back again as Batman, especially notable is Matt Ryan as Mr. Constantine. Fans will remember that Mr. Ryan played the hero in the short-lived, live-action series on NBC last year.

Alas, the third, and most critical point — animation design — falls flat, yet again. It’s a habit of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation to deliver a fairly uninspired representation of the comic book universe and the trend continues.

I was so hoping that with a film crafted for adults, Mr. Olivia would have taken much greater chances on the art style to deliver a more dynamic and even abstract experience.

A story delving into the paranormal seemed the perfect time to go as radical as possible, possibly tapping into the best and latest of Japanese anime techniques and computer-crafted modeling.

I suggest the director and his team next time look at Pixar and Walt Disney short-film collections for ideas on the potential of animation for future releases.

Best extras: Besides a 26-minute enlightening panel discussion from the 2016 New York Comic Con with a few actors and crew, fans get the definitive, albeit compacted tribute, to my favorite talking foliage.

Specifically, “The Story of Swamp Thing” offers a roughly 14-minute look (I’m deducting the 4 minutes devoted to promoting the cartoon) at the origins and evolution of the tragic monster. It’s revealed mainly through interviews with co-creator Len Wein and the artist of the 2016 comics series, Kelley Jones.

Unfortunately, due to what I believe is health reasons, original Swamp Thing artist Bernie Wrightson was unable to participate. His insight would have made it the perfect segment.

However, the best of the extras are two included episodes from my favorite cartoon series in the past decade — “Batman: The Brave and the Bold.”

The show ran from 2008 to 2011 and embraced the vibe from the 1960s live-action Batman television series. The pair of toons featured — “Trials of the Demon!” and “Dawn of the Dead Man!” — offer stories tied to the villain Gentleman Ghost.

Of course, as normal for the show, guest appearances abound in the episodes and include heroes such as Kamandi, Deadman, Green Arrow, Speedy, Golden Age Flash and Etrigan the Demon. Heck, even Sherlock Holmes and Watson stop by to help Batman.

Owners of the package also receive a plastic, 4-inch-tall figure of the animated version of a bearded Constantine in a trench coat. He’s perfect for display on a shelf in any desk cubicle.

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