The Art of “Batman Returns” (1992): a retrospective movie review

BatmanReturnsBy far, still the sexiest Batman movie! With the reviews from fans and critics alike regarding this weekend’s release of the highly anticipated Suicide Squad ranging anywhere from horrible to moderately enjoyable, I decided to rewatch and review the Batman movie that is still considered by many, and yours truly, to be the most Batman out of all of them. Released in 1992, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns boasts a star-studded cast complete with the German expressionistic filmmaking style and gothic production design often associated with this iconic superhero franchise. The brilliance of Batman Returns can be witnessed in recognizing that Tim Burton provided audiences with an art house film masquerading around as a superhero Hollywood blockbuster. From the architecture to the costumes and cinematography, this Batman movie has more in common with art than a movie. Not that movies lack artistic appeal, quite the contrary–after all cinema is the art of visual storytelling; but there is a certain artistic charm that surrounds Batman Returns uncommon in other superhero movies. In other words, the focus was more on the art of a Batman story than the plot. Many comic book enthusiasts also regard this installment (as well as its predecessor) as very close to the comics in plot and visual design. Furthermore, hands down, the most memorable element of the movie is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and with good reason. Incredibly sexy, seductive, slightly psycho, playful, and conniving. Juxtaposed against Danny DeVito’s monstrous Penguin, Michael Keaton’s timeless Bruce Wayne/Batman, throw in the self-centered and ruthless Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck, and you have a brilliant cast bringing to life iconic characters under the direction of a then-visionary director before he became a parody of himself.

Beneath the streets of Gotham City lies a world of water, waste, and The Penguin. Abandoned by his wealthy parents, Oswald Cobblepot is raised by the Penguins of the former Gotham City Zoo. He grows to resent the world above and the blue bloods of society that cast aside those who they deem as undesirable. High above the sewers, Selina Kyle is nervously tending to her boss’ every need. Not the most meticulous secretary–oh sorry, assistant–she has failed her ruthless boss Max Shreck for the last time, and gets shoved out a window to be nursed back to life by cats. Both abandoned and left to die, but return to life with revenge and warped justice on the mind. During the annual tree lighting ceremony, The Penguin and his henchmen thwart the celebratory atmosphere with gunfire, looting, chaos, and violence. Valiantly defending the good citizens of Gotham, Batman fights off the havoc that The Penguin with which The Penguin is enveloping the city. However, all the public knows is the good, kindhearted Penguin with a love of public service? Although initially setting out to kill Batman, in an ironic twist of fate, sparks begin to fly between Batman and Catwoman AND Bruce and Selina. Revenge, love, violence, and trademark gadgets. This Batman movie has it all.

Even the most dedicated Batman fans will admit that this film certainly has cinematic problems. But why are the flaws in this movie somehow forgiven but the flaws in Batman v Superman or this weekend’s Suicide Squad held against them respectively? Rewatching this Batman movie reveals that it is likely held is such high regard by superhero movie buffs and fans of the comics alike due to of the A-list talent and the artistic or stylistic approach to this story. Because the focus of the film is definitely on the art versus the plot, narrative flaws can easily be overlooked as the experience of this film rests upon the feel and look of everything more so than the plot in and of itself. It is rare for a superhero film to also be so incredibly artistic. And that is why this particular Batman movie stands unique amongst all the others that have been produced over the decades. The passion for visual design is seen in every shot, every costume, and in the sexiness of the interpersonal relationships between the characters. Just like with interpretive art, various interpretations of tone, feel, message, and impression can be found throughout Batman Returns. Regarding the tone of the film, it repeatedly switches from a campy melodrama to tragic love story to action/adventure. In many ways, this film is representative or even self-reflexive of cinema from the 1930s to the 1950s. Paralleling the film’s repeated switches of tone and pace, the characters also change personalities, demeanors, and motives. Moreover, control over situations constantly changes hands throughout the movie. Whether as the audience or a bystander in the movie, it is difficult, at times, to discern the villain from the hero. The magic of this Batman movie is that it bridges the boundaries of so many different interpretations of the Batman universe over the years into a film that embodies the art of filmmaking.

Not a direct follow up to the successful 1989 Batman, this installment is often celebrated as the most Batman of the Batman movies; it’s the one that somehow manages to reflect more about the hero and his world than any other on-screen representation he’d enjoyed before or since. It’s a celebration of the Dark Knight that succeeds, in large part, by its refusal to go too dark, but remains off-kilter and uncomfortable, just enough, all the way through. Likewise, the villains are psychotic, larger than life, and legendary. From the tragic character of The Penguin thrown into the river in a warped Moses fashion on Christmas to the beaten down mousy secretary turned bondage clad 1990s feminist Catwoman, Batman Returns is a quintessential Tim Burton film before he just went way too bizarre in recent years. Both The Penguin and Catwoman can be seen as two different mirrors for our caped crusader. Penguin represents a child of wealth who was abandoned by his parents (not unlike our Bruce Wayne) and Catwoman represents the sensual side of Batman that we seldom get to see but we know it’s there because he is human. The combination of characters, settings, and behaviors makes this film a fun, erotic, and entertaining Batman movie. The stratified emotions, experiences, and interpretations provides audiences with a dynamic story that plays out beautifully on screen. In fact, the film is so entertaining to watch that you will likely forget that the pacing, plot, and structure of the film lacks critical value.

If you are leery about spending money to watch Suicide Squad this weekend, I suggest rewatching–or for some of you watching for the first time–Tim Burton’s artistic masterpiece Batman Returns. If for no other reason, you will enjoy the brilliantly sexy Catwoman, tragic monstrous Penguin, and the definitive Batman/Bruce Wayne as played by Michael Keaton. Such fantastic actors and characters!

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“The Jungle Book” (2016) movie review

JungleBookDisney Nature meets beloved animated classic! Disney’s newest live-action remake of an animated classic surprisingly plays out very well. Unlike last year’s CinderellaThe Jungle Book strikes a perfect balance between creating a new more visceral experience of a familiar story and paying homage to the best of what the animated version had to offer–the essence of what made it “Disney.” As I was sitting in the theatre, I was amazed at how much the film truly felt like a classic Disney masterpiece that just happened to include beautiful cinematography, incredibly well engineered CG animals, and a plot; albeit, not a dynamic, thrilling, or deep plot, but a coherent plot nevertheless. That’s more than I can say about the original. Even though, I too like the classic. After the Cinderella cinematic schlock, I was not expecting much out of this film. But, I stand (or sit, rather) corrected. The Jungle Book is encouraging in that it proved to me that Disney can still tell a good story that is great for a wide audience and includes the core of the magic of an animated classic but successfully translates the narrative into a live-action movie.

Deep in the Indian jungles, an orphan human infant is found by a wise and caring panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Knowing he would die alone, Bagheera took him to a pack of wolves to be raised as one of their own. Being given the name Mowgli (Neel Sethi) spend his childhood as a wolf. When Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), a vengeful bengal tiger, threatens the wolf pack and the rest of the jungle, Mowgli decides to leave the pack and head for the man village–the jungle is no longer a place for a man cub. Guided and guarded by Bagheera, Mowgli must begin to adapt to his soon to be new life, but is having the most difficult of time. Throughout his journey through the misty jungles, Mowgli will encounter animals and beats he has never seen and even make some new friends along the way, including the lovable Baloo (Bill Murray). All the while, he must avoid an encounter with Shere Kahn while pressing on his journey of self-discovery and wild adventure.

Writer Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau demonstrate that a live-action remake of an animated Disney classic can be the best that a modern cinematic general audience movie can be and still hold onto the magic that has made it a story to stand the test of time. As I have not read the Rudyard Kipling work of literature upon which The Jungle Book is based, I’d like to imagine that this version of Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo’s adventures does the words of the English journalist and author justice. Unlike the original beloved movie devoid of any real coherent or conventionally structured plot, this remake tells a visual story supported by a simple but effective narrative complete with proper turning points, twists, and events. The pacing is also well-engineered, which creates a pleasant journey for the mind as well as the eyes. Using mostly on location jungle shots, supported with subtle sound stage sets gives this film a natural beauty that feels like something right out of a Disney Nature documentary. Contrary to how some CG animals can look, these creations were fantastically real–like you could reach out and stroke Bagheera’s ebony hair. Newcomer Neel Sethi is impressive to watch as Mowgli. He embodied the lovable characteristics of the animated version whilst adding in a modern twist. One of my favorite ways to evaluate an actor, in a genre such as this, is if he or she looks like they are having fun. And, Sethi definitely showed that he was having fun bringing this story to live-action cinema.

One of the reasons I was disappointed with the remake of Cinderella is that I missed the magic of the timeless music. Realizing that this was the first attempt to remake an animated classic (not a reimagination as is the case with Maleficent), it is entirely possible that Disney decided to make sure the next remake included the core of what made the animated version so beloved. And you will definitely find echoes of the original Jungle Book in this live action film. Most of the characters you remember from the original are also reprising their respective roles. Some of the roles are modified to either be more or less prominent, but it’s all very effective in building the story. One of the characters that is not as prominent in this version is the bola constrictor Kaa (Scarlet Johansson). But, in the relatively short amount of screen time, she delivers an exceptional performance, inclusive of the hypnotism, and through her interaction with Mowgli, Kaa reveals his backstory that adds to why Shere Kahn has vowed vengeance on his life. Just like in the original, King Luis (Christopher Walken) want to be just like Mowgli and possess the red flower.

There are certain elements of the original that are not included in the live-action version, but they are elements that did not fit in the world Favreau created for this film. Suffice it to say, I do not think that you will greatly miss those parts of the original because this Jungle Book holds onto the original magic and brings it into 21st century cinema. What about the talking animals??? Like with many movies, I did not read up on this one too much because I wanted to be surprised. Needless to say, I did not look up the voice actors so I was not prepared for the animals to speak. When Bagheera first began to speak, I was definitely caught off guard. However, I quickly accepted that the articulating mouths on the animals speaking perfectly good English in the jungles of India were as natural as the luscious green trees and crystal clear water or as natural as Mowgli’s ability to communicate with nearly every creature. The UN must have implanted Mowgli and his friends with those instant translator devices. But, because of the quality of the production, the adherence to the Disney magic that made the original memorable, and the solid writing, I was more than willing to engage in the suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the movie to its fullest extent.

If you enjoyed the music, characters, and story in the original, then you are definitely going to enjoy this live-action remake. I am excited to see that the essence of the original animated classic is alive and well in this film. I hope this is what we are to expect from the next live-action adaptation of a Disney animated classic.