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'Batman Returns'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 19, 1992


Tim Burton
Michael Keaton;
Danny DeVito;
Michelle Pfeiffer;
Christopher Walken
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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To come out of the summer haze and enter the dark (and cool) wonder of "Batman Returns" is a pleasure not to be denied. Even more than before, this cartoon opera about cloistered personalities bathes exultantly in moody blues, gothic music swirls and a symphony of character tragedy.

Masterfully conducting the veritable army of actors (including Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer) and countless other collaborators that constitutes a Hollywood megaproduction, director Tim Burton has brought it all home.

Well, almost all of it. This Warner Bros. movie takes more than two hours and, eventually, it does feel that way. The beginning is tremendous. The middle is great. But somewhere toward the end, your legs may start doing the crossing shuffle.

These are minor quibblings. "Returns" is, in many ways, superior to its predecessor. Great efforts have been made to keep up (and exceed) the visual wonder and oomph of the original, and it shows. The three-way story, involving Keaton's Batman, DeVito's Penguin and Pfeiffer's Catwoman, takes place in a wonderland of moody sets by Bo Welch. The costumes, the makeup and the visual and mechanical effects -- which include armies of mechanically operated penguins -- are unforgettable.

Director Burton not only re-creates his one-of-a-kind atmosphere, he one-ups it, even two-ups it. He's best at evoking the psycho-murky worlds in which his characters reside. The Penguin holds court in a penguin-crowded, "Phantom of the Opera"-like sewer home. Keaton hides in a castlelike mansion, which perfectly mirrors its owner's inner remoteness. Comic strip purists will probably never be happy with a "Batman" movie. But "Returns" comes closer than ever to Bob Kane's dark, original strip, which began in 1939.

With three villains, including an engaging Christopher Walken as sleazy businessman Max Shreck, "Returns" has much on its plate. In fact, Batman himself gets narratively squeezed out. The movie starts with the tragic, almost Dickensian beginnings of the Penguin -- played with exquisite tragedy by DeVito. It elucidates the brutal circumstances that launched the feline life of Catwoman (a deliciously purry Pfeiffer). It then intercuts between both villainous principals, as they plan their respective revenges.

Penguin, rejected by his parents and brought up in the Gotham City sewers, makes a highly publicized bid to become mayor. Catwoman, her cowled identity in victimized response to nasty boss Walken, is one angry, lethal weapon. Batman stands firmly in their way. Yet all three share angry, split-personality reasons for dressing up in costume. Thanks to Daniel ("Heathers") Waters's multilayered script (based on an original story by Waters and Sam Hamm), you feel for all of them.

That busy interplay of plots also leads to a decentralized conclusion, in which the combined fates of Batman, the Penguin, Catwoman -- and even Walken's Shreck -- must all be resolved. At the end, they're almost standing in line for it. You're not sure where the true finale lies. If you were longing for the intensity of the mano a mano tussle between "Joker" Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton in "Batman," you're not going to get it here.

However, you will get Burton's dirgelike appreciation for all the players, especially the Penguin. In ways similar to Burton's "Edward Scissorhands," this film is a pop-cultural paen to overgrown children in their gothic hideaways. Despite its title, "Batman Returns" functions touchingly -- if indirectly -- as the Penguin's tragic story.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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