Mid-Life Crisis (Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)

the-nightmare-before-christmas-posterAt the time when Disney was still experiencing their 2D Renaissance, Tim Burton and Director Henry Selick brought us this stop motion classic.

The story follows Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town (in a world where Holidays all have their own town).  As another Halloween comes to a close, the monsters of Halloween Town celebrate.  But Jack feels like life is missing something…and while wandering through a forest, he discovers Christmas Town.  Jack believes this is the answer he has been looking for and aims to step in and give Christmas Town some time off.

Jack has Halloween Town citizens creating toys and decorations…but because they are monsters, they make scary toys and decorations.  Of course, nothing quite goes the way Jack had hoped.  One citizen, Sally, is in love with Jack and tries to steer him from making a terrible mistake…but Jack is one determine skeleton.

Visually, The Nightmare Before Christmas is darkly beautiful.  The stop motion puppets have a delightful and yet scary design.  The songs, by Danny Elfman, are infectious (try and not get sucked into singing This Is Halloween or Making Christmas) and yet heartfelt.  Part of what makes it work is how earnest Jack is.  He is genuinely enthralled by Christmas Town.  He really thinks he is doing a good deed.

This is a real joy of a film, having earned it’s place as a Christmas Classic.

Batman Will Go On (Batman Forever, 1995)

Batman_Forever_PosterBatman Forever had some big shakeups.  Tim Burton and Michael Keaton were out.  Joel Schumacher and Val Kilmer were in.  But the real shakeup was…Warner Brothers wanted to sell more toys.  Schumacher had read Batman: Year One.  He really wanted to tell that story.  The studio was not interested.  Schumacher thought that if he gave them the movie they wanted, he might be able to persuade them on the next film to do the film he really wanted to do.

For the Riddler, the film hired Jim Carrey (fresh off Ace Ventura:Pet Detective, the Mask and Dumb & Dumber) and for Two Face?  Tommy Lee Jones (their established actor choice-no doubt selected for his uncanny resemblance to Billy Dee Williams) was their choice.

The casting of Kilmer was treated like this was a James Bond casting choice. We can replace anybody.  Anyways, The story also introduced Robin (played by Chris O’Donnell).  Batman’s love interest is sexy psychiatrist Chase Meridian.  Really.  Adding more characters means more action figures…and vehicles…Super-heroes gotta have a lot of rides…as do their arch enemies.  Well, unless you are Chase Meridian…you do not get to be an action figure.

Much of the film is given to Jim Carrey to do his typical over the top goofiness that he was known for.  This was three years before he started playing roles that required him to tone it down.  It can become obnoxious, and Tommy Lee Jones tries to keep up, going over the top himself.  Kilmer just fills his tuxedo and walks through the film.  Multiple villains make for a bloated plot.  Add to that the introduction of Robin?  This is not O’Donnell’s finest moment.  He is just not convincing as a skilled martial artist or acrobat.  Chase Meridian is a very boring character.  She seems to be a character existing solely because they felt there should be a love interest.  You know…for the girls.

Again, there is little meat for characters like Commissioner Gordon…and the films make him feel like an old man who is ever so ineffective…and knows it, so he waits on Batman to save the day.

Visually, Schumacher goes more Art Deco with his Gotham City.  He plays with vibrant colors and visual queues.  This is certainly an interesting change…except it also becomes highly implausible that such a city would be built this way.

This was the Bat Franchise teetering on collapse.  But there were no lessons learned.

Back In Gotham (Batman Returns, 1992)

batman_returns-posterJack Nicholson kind of established the villains would always be played by big names.  Danny DiVito was brought in to play the Penguin.  But this was not the traditional Penguin from the comics.  Not merely a short round guy is a top hat, Burton envisioned an origin in which Oswald Cobblepot is born to an affluent family who are repulsed by his grotesque appearance. His father (played by Paul Reubens, who would play Penguin’s father on Gotham decades later) and mother (Diane Salinger) dump him over a bridge where he is found by penguins.

Batman Returns is a rather odd duck.  Selina Kyle is a meek secretary who discovers the evil plans of her boss Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).  She is thrown out a window and barely survives…but wakes after being found by cats.  She flips out and apparently has the nine lives of cats and a really sexy persona.

While the film still  has the gothic visuals, it really feels all over the place.  Adding the secondary “villain” of Catwoman means there is that much more story to address.  On top of that you have a villain in the name of Max Shreck.  Add to that a few moments of implications of Penguin being a bit of a sexual creep (for instance, he is running for mayor and he puts a button on a young woman, groping her breast as he does it).

The film has a more interesting plan than the first film, but still, the sheer goofiness makes it almost to campy.  You have penguins fitted with rocket launchers, weird carnival henchmen, evil businessmen, latex covered secretaries…It never really comes together, and falters repeatedly.

Last Laugh (Batman, 1989)

batman-poster1989 saw the release of the most controversial Batman casting until Batfleck.  Michael Keaton, known almost entirely for comedies such as Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously and Gung Ho was cast as Batman…oh the horror and oh the wailing.  A long tradition of freaking out over casting began right here.  People were a bit more open to Jack Nicholson playing the Joker.

As it turned out, Keaton was okay in the role.  His Batman was appropriately serious, while his take on Bruce Wayne was an interesting approach.  His Bruce Wayne seems to be constantly distracted.  After the 1960’s series, Batman’s comics had returned to a darker version of the character.  A dark soul, haunted by his parents’ deaths at the hands of a low level criminal.  People feared Keaton would make this more 60’s Batman, rather than the Dark Knight Returns.

With Tim Burton at the helm, the film was a dark and gothic affair filled with crime bosses and corrupt police officers.  And the fabled Batman haunting the city.  In a attempt to thwart a mob crime, Batman knocks aspiring Crime Boss Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals.  He emerges with a chalk white complexion and a new smile.  He goes off and takes over the Grissom (Carl Grissom, played by Jack Palance) criminal Empire.  This leads to an ongoing battle with Batman.

The film has a great cast, headlined by Keaton, Nicholson and Kim Basinger.  They are supported by a crew of character  actors and well known faces.  You have Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon and the glue that held the franchise together?  Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s trusted butler and aide.

While the visuals are grand, the Joker’s motives seem supremely mundane.  He wants to be a mobster.  And woo Vicki Vale.  He may be cruel and ruthless, but so are lots of mob bosses in the movies.  Take away the grin and face-paint? He would not stand out.  Batman’s greatest weakness is not Keaton, but the fact that he cannot even turn his head.  The costumes look good in still shots, but seem goofy when Keaton is having to turn his whole body to look around.

In addition, Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent feel more like set decorations than characters.  They are almost entirely inconsequential to the story.  They seem to be there because they have to…it is a Batman movie.  Gough is the bright spot in the film.  His Alfred is kind and wise.  He is not as involved in the day to day support of Batman, he is more there to support Bruce Wayne.

While 1989’s Batman is not terrible, it does not quite stand the test of time.  It is still enjoyable, but it does not live up to the character’s full potential.

He Lives! He Dies! He Is Canceled! (The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, 2015)

death_of_superman_livesIn 1998 the comic world was abuzz with talks of a new Superman movie.  We heard talks of a script, a director (Tim Burton) and a star (Nicholas Cage).  And then one day it was dead, and Superman did not return to the screen until 2006 with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.

Since the comics internet was barely a thing in 1998, the film remained shrouded in mystery for almost a decade.  We had no idea really how far it had gotten until a few years ago when pic of Cage in a shiny Supersuit surfaced on the web.  Kevin Smith had shared some tales as the second screenwriter.

Really, the story behind the story is quite intriguing. Cartoon Network animator Jon Schnepp decided to investigate how the film went so wrong, exploring the story by talking to almost everyone involved.  John Peters, Tim Burton, Kevin Smith and other screenwriters and producers and production designers all contribute to tell the odd tale of Burton and Cage’s goal of a lonelier Superman who struggled as an outsider.  Superman Scissorhands, if you will.

Oh yeah, and Peters’ desire to get another Giant Spider and some polar bears on screen.

I was impressed by how many people Schnepp was able to get to sit down and discuss the project.  The only person that seems to be missing is Nick Cage, who is represented via archival footage.

The film is thorough in it’s research and leaves no stone unturned.  Schnepp fills the documentary with cool graphics from the comic books, images of production art and everybody is quite forthcoming.

The film does not persuade me that it would have been a disaster, but it is an entertaining peek into film history.

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