Talking Movies [Christmas Day]: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Talking Movies

Released: 11 December 1992
Director: Brian Henson
Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Budget: $12 million
Stars: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Jessica Fox, and Meredith Braun

The Plot:
On Christmas Eve in 19th century London, the cantankerous and cold-hearted moneylender, Ebenezer Scrooge (Caine), is visited by three spirits in a desperate attempt by his deceased former partners, Jacob and Robert Marley (Nelson and Goelz), to teach him the true spirit of Christmas and save his soul from eternal damnation.

The Background
So…spoiler alert but The Muppet Christmas Carol is my absolute favourite Christmas movie of all time. Ever since I was a kid, it’s become a Christmas tradition to watch this film on Christmas Day and it’s a custom that I have absolutely no intention of ever changing. The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppets movie to be made following the death of the legendary Jim Henson and the directorial debut of his son, Brian, which adapted Charles Dickins’ classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol into a musical featuring the classic Muppet puppets in major and supporting roles. The Muppet Christmas Carol was the fourth theatrical Muppets movie and Jim Henson’s colourful and influential puppets had been consistently popular thanks to The Muppet Show (1976 to 1981).

Having achieved success in the seventies, the Muppets turned to feature-film productions.

Filming took place right here in the United Kingdom (at the famous Shepperton Studios), where an elaborate set was constructed to allow the Muppets and the human actors to appear on equal footing and renowned actor Michael Caine was cast in the iconic role of Ebenezer Scrooge and made the genius decision to play the entire thing completely serious and straight. Upon release, The Muppets Christmas Carol received mostly positive reviews and, despite not quite living up to Disney’s expectations at the box office (it made just over $27 million) thanks to stiff holiday competition, it has gone on to be regarded as one of the quintessential Christmas movies…and rightfully so since, for me, it’s easily the best Christmas movie ever made.

The Review:
The Muppet Christmas Carol is told to us through the presence of physically omniscient narrators, in this case Charles Dickens (Goelz as the Great Gonzo) and Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire); the two introduce the film and guide us through Scrooge’s journey, in most cases acting as both comedic relief and paraphrasing lines of Dickens’ literary classic. Although you could make the argument that their roles are largely superfluous since it’s pretty obvious what is going on and what characters are thinking and feeling without it being spelled out to us, they add so much charm and whimsy to the film that their inclusion is genuinely one of the highlights, from Dickens’ mischievous and adventurous spirit to Rizzo’s cynicism and goofball antics, their involvement perfectly encapsulates the film’s truly fantastic balance of humour and pathos.

Caine plays the part completely serious, resulting in one of the best onscreen portrayals of Scrooge.

Of course, any adaptation of A Christmas Carol lives and dies with its interpretation of Scrooge and Caine delivers a phenomenal performance as the grouchy old miser. Despised and vilified by the whole city, Scrooge is a cold, pessimistic, greedy and down-right vile moneylender who cares little for the frivolities of others or the condition of the less fortunate (“Scrooge”). The best part about this, as alluded to above, is that Caine plays the part completely straight; it’s like watching a dramatic play or theatrical production of the story with the conviction and gravitas Caine brings to the role. At the same time, he’s able to showcase a variety of conflicting emotions throughout Scrooge’s journey, showing that the character, for all his wickedness, is a bumbling old fool at heart and a tragic, haunted figure.

Despite hardly making ends meet, Cratchit does whatever he can to provide for his family.

Surrounding Caine are, as you might expect, a smorgasbord of incredibly talented and charismatic Muppet characters, chief among them Kermit the Frog as Scrooge’s head bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit (Whitmire). Cratchit is a destitute and somewhat timid fellow when at work but retains both his Christmas spirit (“One More Sleep ‘Till Christmas”) and commands a great deal of respect from his co-workers for his position as Scrooge’s right-hand man (frog?), essentially acting as a go-between between the two parties. Though Scrooge is largely indifferent towards all of his employees, Cratchit is able to convince him to close the business for the entirety of Christmas Day by talking to him in a language he understands (i.e. money).

Emily isn’t shy about making her feelings about Scrooge known.

During Scrooge’s journey through the past, present, and future, we learn more about Cratchit’s home life; he lives in a poor part of town in a tiny house filled with his large, loving family. The patriarch of the family, Cratchit is loved and appreciated by his children and wife, Emily (Oz as Miss Piggy), and even though they are paid a pittance by Scrooge and his children and wife vehemently despise his employer, Cratchit is still good enough of a man frog to raise a glass to his boss and to keep the spirit of Christmas alive even thought hey are basically slowing starving. Emily is a bombastic and out-spoken woman in both her affections and her opinion of Scrooge, making her brief appearances a constant highlight as she jumps at the chance to give Scrooge a piece of her mind only to be flabbergasted by his generous change of heart.

Tiny Tim’s unfortunate condition melts Scrooge’s ice-cold heart.

Of course, the most significant member of the Cratchit family apart from him and his wife is poor old Tiny Tim (Nelson as Robin); lame and deathly sick, Tim retains his enthusiasm and positivity, and basically embodies the spirit of Christmas as much as the actual spirits we see in the film. While Scrooge previously treated such poor children with disgust and apathy, his heart is visibly broken by Tim’s bleak condition and the knowledge that the boy is doomed to die unless their fortunes turn around is the first real step towards Scrooge’s redemption.

The Marleys deliver a haunting message from beyond the grave.

This is, as is tradition, the entire point of the film; after dying, Scrooge’s old partner Marley and Marley visit Scrooge as gruesome, haunting visions and warn him of the impending visits of the three Christmas spirits (“Marley and Marley”). This is, honestly, one of the more haunting (no pun intended) parts of the film as Statler and Waldorf are shown weighed down by hideous chains and doomed to pay for all eternity for their sins of avarice and greed.

Scrooge’s heart-breaking memories haunt him almost as much as the actual ghosts!

Although Scrooge is characteristically dismissive and sceptical of his friends’ warnings, he is equally horrified when the three spirits do actually appear; even the child-like appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past (Jessica Fox) puts him on edge and he is overwhelmed by the spirit’s ability to make him literally fly into his long forgotten past. The pain of reliving his childhood and subsequent heartbreak as a young man agonises Scrooge and the events witnessed go a long way to explaining why Scrooge became the man he is; he spent all his time at study, without the influence of a loving family, and was realised to believe that one’s time should be spent being productive and profitable, which cost him both friends and the love of a woman, Belle (Braun). Scrooge’s subsequent journey towards redemption comes to be about reconciling the metaphorical ghosts of his past and learning to appreciate the present whilst living for the future rather than dwelling on heartache and cantankerous greed.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Obviously, what sets The Muppet Christmas Carol apart from other adaptations of the book are the inclusion of Muppet characters and puppets; a good, what? 97% of the cast is made up of Muppets and puppets? And all of your favourite characters get, at least, a cameo role if not play a significant part in the film (Fozzie Bear makes an amusing appearance as the younger Scrooge’s (Raymond Coulthard) employer, Fozziwig (Oz), and Sam Eagle does a delightfully amusing turn as Scrooge’s schoolmaster (ibid). the city is also populated by all kinds of amusing puppet co-stars, from singing fruit and donkeys to shivering, staring little mice, all of whom have a role to play in breaking London to life, contributing to the ensemble songs, and emphasising how hard life is for those less fortunate.

Scrooge is taught the meaning of Christmas by the affable spirit of the present.

The city really comes to life when Scrooge encounters the boisterous and magnetic Ghost of Christmas Present (Nelson/Don Austen), a full-size Muppet who resembles Father Christmas and teaches Scrooge the wondrous joy of the Christmas season; Scrooge is uncharacteristically and immediately taken by the spirit’s infectious good-nature and whimsy, laughing and even having a bit of a dance as the spirit conveys to him the true nature of the season (“It Feels Like Christmas”). This sudden rush of exhilaration for Scrooge is quickly tempered by his dismay that his nephew, Fred (Steven Mackintosh), mocks him behind his back for his cold and belligerent ways and when the spirit throws his own words back at him when he sees the condition of Tiny Tim. Still, it’s through the Ghost of Christmas Present that Scrooge realises how marvellous the season can be and he’s pretty much convinced at the appeal of Christmas and to change his ways through that interaction alone, such is the influence of the spirit’s unabashedly good nature.

The reaper-like spirit shows Scrooge a disturbing vision of his near future.

The lesson doesn’t end there for Scrooge, though, who is forced to accompany the third and final spirit, the most gruesome and terrifying of them all, the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come (Austen), on a truly disturbing journey into the near future. Here, Scrooge sees that he has died hated and alone, with the citizens callously selling off his possessions, regarding themselves as better off without him and, most devastating of all, that Tiny Tim has died and the Cratchit’s normally vivacious good nature has been noticeably subdued. Scrooge approaches the majority of this last journey with a desperate denial and it isn’t until he sees his own ominous tombstone that he truly repents for his wicked ways and vows to turn his life around, to life in the past, present, and the future, to avoid meeting such a unsympathetic and desolate end.

Everyone (well, mainly Scrooge) learns the true value of Christmas.

Accordingly, Scrooge awakens the next day and begins to make good on his word; he’s pleasant, polite, and generous, greeting others amiably, donating to charities, and leaving gifts for those closest to him (“Thankful Heart”). In the film’s finale, Scrooge resolves to pay off Cratchit’s mortgage, raise his salary, and fully commits himself to amending his damaged reputation by being the most generous and caring man the city has ever known, thus salvaging his soul, ensuring that he is remembered as a kind and loving man, and sparing Tiny Tim from death. It’s an amusing and heart-warming end to the film, especially because of the bemused and shocked expressions on everyone’s faces at Scrooge’s change of heart, and Caine, bless him, gives it his all when he is required to sing.

The Summary:
As I’ve already mentioned, The Muppet Christmas Carol is easily my favourite Christmas movie of all time; it’s a tradition for me to watch the film every Christmas day while eating Christmas lunch and opening presents, joyfully singing along and wondering if Scrooge will learn the same lessons year after year. It’s remarkable how faithful the film is to the source material, especially considering it’s a Muppets film, and the beautifully constructed sets and whimsical puppets only add to the film’s charm and appeal. Add to that the gravitas and magnetism of Michael Caine, who treats the film as seriously as anything produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and you have an adaptation that is truly special, full of allure, humour, and some unsettling moments as Scrooge learns his traditional lessons about letting go of the pain of his past and applying himself towards the greater good to ensure a better life for everyone, including himself.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What do you think about The Muppet Christmas Carol? Where does it rank for you against other Christmas and/or Muppet movies? What did you think to Michael Caine’s performance, the puppets, and the sets featured in the film? Which song from the movie is your favourite? Have you read A Christmas Carol and which adaptation is your favourite? What are your plans for Christmas Day today? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to comment down and have a great Christmas!

Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas

Talking Movies

Released: 29 October 1993
Director: Henry Selick
Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Budget: $26 million
Stars: Chris Sarandon/Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Glenn Shadix, Ken Page, Ed Ivory, and William Hickey

The Plot:
Jack Skellington (Sarandon, with Elfman singing), the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, has grown weary of embodying the same macabre holiday year after year. When he stumbles upon Christmas Town, he is enamoured, reinvigorated, and compelled to replace Santa Claus (Ivory) but, when psychic ragdoll Sally’s (O’Hara) premonitions of disaster comes true and the villainous Oogie Booie (Page) kidnaps Santa for his own diabolical plot, Jack must attempt to salvage not only the spirit of Christmas but of Halloween as well!

The Background:
As a child, writer and director Tim Burton, known for his macabre and gothic sensibilities, was fascinated by the grandiose nature of holiday celebrations and, inspired by classic Christmas movies, wrote a three-page poem titled “The Nightmare Before Christmas” while working for Disney in the early eighties. Burton initially envisioned the poem being a Christmas special narrated by his childhood idol, Vincent Price, and spent nearly ten years developing storyboards, artwork, and the concept while he worked on some of his most successful feature films.

Burton’s twisted vision for Halloween took years and many painstaking hours to bring to life.

This success caught the attention of Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and led to the concept being developed into a feature-length, stop motion musical to be released under Disney’s adult label, Touchstone Pictures, to avoid scaring child audiences. Burton, however, was busy working on Batman Returns (ibid, 1992) at the time (and didn’t wish to be involved in the painstakingly slow and meticulous stop-motion process) but remained heavily influential in the production of the ambitious venture, which took over one hundred people three years and nearly 110,000 frames of animation to accomplish. All of that scrupulous hard work paid off, however, as, when the film released, it received largely positive reviews, eventually (after re-releases and re-uses) earned over $90 million in worldwide gross, and the film has had a lasting impact not just on cinema and pop culture but on the animation industry as well.

The Review:
The Nightmare Before Christmas begins on the night of another successfully terrifying Halloween; the citizens of Halloween Town are in joyous rapture at having once again scared people out of their wits (“This is Halloween”) and much of the credit for their success, as always, is attributed to the “Pumpkin King”, Jack Skellington, a literal skeleton who is basically the embodiment of the season. Although Halloween Town has a Mayor (Shadix), Jack is the true hero and authority in the town, revered as a celebrity and a genius when it comes to frights and Halloween trickery.

Jack’s melancholy demeanour is reinvigorated by the wonders of Christmas Town.

Jack, though, while he appreciates the adulation, has become despondent and depressed at the monotony of the routine of it all; while his creativity and imagination remains at their peak, he’s lost his zest and passion for it all and longs for something, anything, new to inspire him once more (“Jack’s Lament”). When he wanders off from the town and finds the magical nexus between seasons, he is literally sucked into Christmas Town and is immediately besotted; having never experienced such sights, sounds, and wonders, he finds his enthusiasm and curiosity piqued by the appeal of it all (“What’s This?”) and longs to bring the spirit of Christmas to Halloween Town.

Jack struggles to explain Christmas to the citizens of Halloween Town.

The citizens of Halloween Town, however, struggle with the concept of Christmas and Jack, to be fair, struggles to quantify the things he’s seen and meaning of the season (primarily because, at that point, he doesn’t yet realise what Christmas is all about). His attempts are met with confusion and misunderstanding and the only way he can explain it all is to put it in terms they will understand (“Town Meeting Song”). Since no one in Halloween Town shares Jack’s imagination and longing for change, the resulting towns and gifts they create are far from the fun, heart-warming gifts of Christmas Town and are, instead, horrific and terrifying Halloween monsters and creatures that attack and eat people “(Making Christmas”).

The Mayor and Dr. Finklestein are two of my favourite supporting characters in the film.

I mentioned the Mayor earlier and he really is one of the highlights of the film for me; he has two moods: loud and positive (happy face) and panicked and scared (anxious face). He’s clearly a respected and influential figure, for sure, but, when it comes to actual decision making, even he admits that he’s useless and needs Jack’s guidance and influence to get anything done. While sceptical of Jack’s fondness for Christmas, he goes along with it out of belief in Jack’s abilities and is hopelessly despondent when it appears that Jack has been killed while posing as Santa Claus. Another standout character is Doctor Finklestein (Hickey), a crippled and half-addled mad scientist whose macabre technology brings many of Jack’s designs and ideas to life; while Finklestein appears to be a doting old codger, he is met with resentment by his “daughter”, Sally, a ragdoll girl he created who desires only to escape from the confines of his dilapidated gothic abode.

Sally feels she can relate to Jack’s lament but foresees disaster for his Christmas venture.

Jack, who feels he can no longer relate to his peers in Halloween Town, is so wrapped up in his depression and subsequent obsession with Christmas that he fails to truly notice Sally, the one soul in all of Halloween Town who can relate to Jack’s torment. Like everyone in Halloween Town, Sally is besotted with Jack but, rather than merely idolising him, she pines for him with all of her heart and genuinely believes that they would be able to fill the emptiness in both of their lives (“Sally’s Song”). Sally also (somehow…) possesses some limited precognitive abilities; she foresees disaster for Jack’s Christmas venture but he’s too blinded by his fixation on the holiday to even consider failure (after all, he’s never failed at anything before so why should this be any different?)

Oogie Boogie is the bombastic antagonist with his own malicious plans for Santa and Christmas.

Of course, Jack’s state of mind and fixation on Christmas is the only thing working against him; despite specifically ordering Lock (Paul Reubens), Shock (O’Hara), and Barrel (Elfman) not to involve “that no-account Oogie Boogie” in his plot to kidnap Santa Claus (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws”), the three, of course, deceive Jack and take Santa to Oogie Boogie the moment Jack has usurped Santa’s position. Oogie, who is a colony of disgusting bugs within a burlap sack, is a malicious bogeyman who lives outside of Halloween Town and makes for a boisterous and diabolical villain who has a bit of a gambling addiction and wishes to cook up Santa and, it is implied, take over Jack’s role as the spirit of Halloween (“Oogie Boogie”).

The Nitty-Gritty:
Of course, the most striking and memorable aspect of The Nightmare Before Christmas is the painstakingly detailed stop-motion animation used to bring Burton’s twisted, gothic imagination to life; every frame is full of little details, many of which no doubt took hours or even days to complete, and needlessly complex creatures such as a melting sludge man, Oogie Boogie’s bugs, and the elaborate sequences where Jack is delivering his horrific gifts as Santa. It’s impressive, to say the least, and make the film a must-watch venture even if only from a purely technological standpoint. Of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas has much more to it than the remarkable and ambitious animation work on show; it also has an extremely catchy and unforgettable number of songs, all of which perfectly convey a variety of emotions and characterisation for each of the film’s characters to help bring Burton’s world to life.

Jack’s attempt to usurp Christmas is a failure but his passion is reawakened regardless.

There are several poignant themes at work in The Nightmare Before Christmas as well: alienation, loneliness, the desire for change, and obsession being chief among them. Jack is so disillusioned with Halloween and so tantalised by Christmas that he rejects his former position as the Pumpkin King and fully believes that he will be able to take Santa’s place and claim Christmas as his own. He is astonished when the human world opens fire on him and blasts his sleigh from the sky and, in his defeat, realises that he has ruined the once pure-hearted holiday. However, he still feels his stagnated passion reignited and reclaims his position, vowing to apply himself even harder to making Halloween as memorable and terrifying as possible (“Poor Jack”).

Jack defeats his rival, saves Santa, and he and Sally finally admit their feelings to each other.

Sally’s frantic attempts to reach Jack fall on deaf ears and nothing she does to sabotage his attempts work; in her desperation  to save Jack and get things back to normal, she proactively tries to rescue Santa but ends up being kidnapped as well. Seeing Sally and Santa held at Oogie Boogie’s mercy enrages Jack and, after defeating Oogie Boogie, he finally realises that what he’s been searching for all this time has been standing right in front of him from the start (not just the spirit of Halloween but Sally, with the two of them finally admitting their feelings and appreciation for each other in the film’s heart-warming conclusion (“Finale/Reprise”)).

The Summary:
It’s extremely difficult to put into words how much I enjoy The Nightmare Before Christmas; it’s not only a technical marvel but also a pretty flawless achievement in filmmaking. “Unique” doesn’t seem like a good enough adjective to describe the film, which is both macabre and terrifying while also being heart-warming and genuinely touching. It perfectly encapsulates the feeling the Christmas isn’t something that can simply be appropriated or distilled; it’s a spirit of giving and joyous celebration that requires a certain level of belief and understanding to pull off. Jack’s mistake was thinking that he would be able to usurp Christmas as his own without really understanding it; he just wanted to experience something new for a change and could have just as easily become as equally besotted by Easter or Thanksgiving or any other holiday had he entered a different door.

Nightmare Before Christmas is a technical wonder and a fantastic Christmas film to boot.

What makes The Nightmare Before Christmas truly unique is Burton’s ingenious idea of what these holidays are; disparate fantasies embodied in a magical, fantasy world separated form ours only by the veil of imagination, the holiday seasons are depicted as being the work of largely benevolent mythical denizens of these worlds who are fully committed to delivering the spirit of each holiday. With his twisted, gothic imagery and distinctive depiction of such a dream-like fantasy world, Burton’s imagination makes for an entertaining and enthralling film that is more than suitable for Christmas or Halloween viewing and is a timeless classic through and through.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Are you a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas? If not…seriously, dude, what the hell’s the matter with you? If you are a fan of the film, do you watch it at Christmas or at Halloween and which do you think is more befitting? Are you a fan of stop-motion animation and Burton’s gothic sensibilities? Which character was your favourite and what did you think to Jack’s surprisingly complex characterisation? Have you got a favourite song from the movie (or one of the many remix albums) and, if so, what is it? Would you like to see a sequel produced some day or do you think it’s best left as a stand-alone, cult classic? Whatever your thoughts on The Nightmare Before Christmas, leave a comment down below and join me next Saturday for Christmas Day!

Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Batman Returns

Talking Movies

Released: 16 June 1992
Director: Tim Burton
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $65 to 80 million
Stars: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, and Michael Gough

The Plot:
Gotham City’s preparations for Christmas are interrupted by the emergence of Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (DeVito), a deformed former circus performer who quickly wins the hearts of the city and is manipulated into running for Mayor by Machiavellian businessman Max Shreck (Walken). While Bruce Wayne/Batman (Keaton) works to uncover the Penguin’s truth motivations, he faces a secondary threat when Shreck attempts to murder his assistant, Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer), instead causes her to become Catwoman and wage a vendetta against him and Batman while also being romanced by Bruce!

The Background:
In the eighties, DC Comics readers saw the culmination of a long period of alteration for Batman who, for the majority of the sixties, had been transformed from a ruthless vigilante and into a colourful, camp, family friendly figure. One of the principal examples of this change was Batman (ibid, 1989), a dramatically different take on the DC Comics staple that saw noted auteur Tim Burton bring his signature gothic flair to the character, transforming both Batman from a spandex-wearing goof and into a stoic, armour-clad urban legend and “Mr. Mom” Michael Keaton into a brooding, tortured vigilante, and resulting in a surge of popularity for the character as audiences flocked to see the movie. Despite some criticism regarding the film’s tone and pacing, Batman was an incredible success, making nearly $412 million against a $35 million budget. Although Warner Bros. wished for a sequel to begin as early as 1990, Burton held back on returning to the franchise until he was ready, and, when he did return, he was successful and proven enough to be granted far more creative control over the film’s production.

The original draft of the film was quite different from the finished script.

Originally known as Batman II, Batman Returns underwent numerous rewrites, with both Harvey Dent/Two-Face and a version of Robin originally being included and the original character of Max Shreck originally intended to be the Penguin’s brother. The majority of the filming took place on sound stages that included full-size sets of downtown Gotham City and the sewers, the many real-life penguins featured in the film were given special treatment, and Keaton received not only top billing this time around but also a significant salary increase. Upon release, Batman Returns received largely positive reviews from critics and made over $280 million at the box office. However, there was a prevailing sense that the film was too “dark”; parents, especially, were horrified at the film’s macabre content and McDonald’s weren’t too thrilled at being associated with such a controversial picture, this backlash, of course, led to Burton being replaced by Joel Schumacher and a dramatic reinvention of the franchise for the two subsequent films but, for me, Batman Returns remains one of the quintessential formative movies of my childhood and an often overlooked entry in the series.

The Review:
Right off the bat (no pun intended), Batman Returns separates itself from its predecessor in a number of ways: first, it’s set at Christmas so Gotham City is blanketed by flurries of snow and full of Christmas trappings (if not yuletide cheer); second, it’s far darker and much more brooding in its atmosphere and tone. Burton’s vision for Batman and Gotham is of a nightmarish, gothic landscape full of ominous, intimidating structures, gargoyles, and an overall sense of foreboding hanging in the air. All of this is expertly punctuated not just in Burton’s distinct aesthetic style but also Danny Elfman’s peerless Batman theme, which is now mixed with a haunting chorus of chanting and a tragic ambiance amidst its bombastic and heroic overture.

Bruce is more brooding and violent than ever despite the catharsis he achieved in the last film.

Some time has passed since the events of Batman; it’s not clear or made explicit exactly how much time but Gotham has adjusted to the presence of Batman, with Police Commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle) calling for the Caped Crusader’s assistance at the first sign of the Red Triangle Circus Gang. Though Batman’s relationship with the police, particularly Gordon, is much improved, he’s still a stoic and mysterious individual, talking very little and in a blunt, gravelly whisper. It seems avenging the death of his parents has done little to assuage his grief at their deaths or bring him any semblance of peace; instead, he’s more brooding than ever, literally sitting alone in the dark at Wayne Manor until being called into action by the Bat-Signal and more than willing to kill even regular thugs like the Penguin’s colourful goons.

In a city full of monsters, the twisted and manipulative Shreck fits right in.

Max Shreck is introduced as “Gotham’s own Santa Claus”, a beloved and well-respected businessman who has captured the hearts of the city between films. Shreck is, however, a devious and snake-like individual; he plots to construct a massive power plant to monopolise Gotham’s energy supply on the pretence of having a legacy to hand over to his cherished son, Chip (Andrew Bryniarski), but truly desires simple accolades such as power and control. In a world seemingly populated by freaks and monsters, Shreck fits right in as he is twisted on the inside, more than willing to threaten the Mayor (Michael Murphy) with a recall and to kill to get what he wants (he pushes his absent-minded assistant, Selina, out of a window with the intention of killing her and it’s heavily implied that he killed his wife).

Selina undergoes the most dramatic change from a meek victim to an aggressive vigilante.

Speaking of Selina, of all the characters in the film, she is the one who undergoes the most dramatic development throughout the story. She begins as a meek, helpless woman; she stutters and struggles to speak her mind to her boss, is little more than a witless hostage for one of the Penguin’s goons, and lives alone with nothing but her cat and her nagging mother’s voicemail for company. After her brush with death and subsequent…resurrection (seriously, Selina’s rebirth is one of the stranger aspects of an already-batshit (also no pun intended) film), she becomes an enraged, vindictive, aggressively confidant and capable woman. As Catwoman, she begins a short-lived campaign against Shreck but comes to violently oppose all men, especially those in positions of authority, and even women who allow such men to walk all over them.

Despite his eloquent persona, the Penguin is constantly at odds with his more animalistic nature.

Catwoman’s outward transformation into a monster pales in comparison to the Penguin’s position as an actual monster; far from an upstanding crime boss or distinguished member of high (and low) society, Burton reimagines the Penguin as a horrific circus freak who eats raw fish, spits black goop, and is completely maladjusted to humanity and society. And yet, the Penquin is an eloquent, intelligent, and ruthless villain; while Shreck believes that he is the one  manipulating Oswald, the Penguin is actually the master manipulator as he uses Shreck to glorify his ascension to the outside world in order to enact his twisted plot to kidnap and kill the first-born sons of Gotham. Like Shreck, the Penguin is fully capable of blackmail, murder, and violence but he takes this to the next level, eventually launching a desperate campaign against all of Gotham City once Batman scuppers his scheme.

Batman is noticeably more mobile and far better equipped this time around.

While Keaton’s range of motion is still restricted by his absolutely bad-ass Batsuit, Batman’s action scenes are much improved over the previous film; Batman fights with a simple, blunt efficiency, making full use of his many bat-themed toys and even busting out some new ones, like his inexplicably rigid gliding ability. Batman’s suit is far less anatomically correct this time around, resembling armour more than anything; as a kid, I disliked these changes but, now, I’ve come to regard the Returns Batsuit as one of the top live-action costumes for its impressive appearance, being both practical and frightening. Burton’s awesome Batmobile also makes a return, now sporting all kinds of new gadgets and even being featured in one of the most entertaining sequences of the film when the Penguin is bizarrely able to take control of the Batmobile, with Batman in it, and take it on a destructive joyride through the snow-strewn streets of Gotham.

Practical effects and miniatures are used to great effect throughout the film.

One of the most appealing aspects of Batman Returns is its fantastic use of practical effects, camera tricks, miniatures, and elaborate sets; Gotham feels noticeably more claustrophobic this time around but that actually adds to the ominous nature of the film and positions the city as an gloomy presence in its own right. Not every effect is a winner, of course; Batman’s glide through the bat-swept skies of Gotham hasn’t aged too well but the digital effects of the Penguin’s rocket-firing troops is still impressive, Penguin’s prosthetic make-up makes for an unsettlingly horrific villain, and Batman’s Batskiboat chase through the sewers and the destruction of the Penguin’s frozen zoo hideout are all impressively realised through the use of models and miniatures. The film also goes to some effort to tie up some loose ends and complaints about Batman; Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) is mentioned a couple of times, with Bruce explaining that their relationship “didn’t work out” because he couldn’t give up being Batman and he and his father-figure and loyal confidant, Alfred Pennyworth (Gough), debating his much-contested decision to reveal Bruce’s identity to Vicki. As I’ve explained, I never had a problem with this scene but I’m sure it did a lot to quell the complaints.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Batman Returns contains some of my favourite moments of any Batman film, from Batman and Penguin’s intimidating first meeting outside of Shreck’s shop to the heart-breaking death of Oswald at the conclusion (I remember, as a kid, being somewhat distraught at Penguin’s emperor penguins being left without their master and wondering who would look after them with him dead). It also stands out as being one of the first big-budget superhero films of its time to not only feature multiple villains and masked characters but also to balance them extremely well. Sure, Batman still doesn’t have as much screen time as you would expect considering his name’s in the title but it’s easy to infer much of his motivation and development from Keaton’s characteristically stoic and haunted portrayal of the character and through the parallels between Batman’s dual nature and those of his villains.

Bruce continues to be more comfortable as Batman and struggles with his dark nature.

I can understand why parents and audiences were more than a little perturbed by Batman Returns when it was released as it’s not only full of dark, gothic imagery but also some puzzlingly ghoulish choices on Burton’s part. However, I watched this film as a kid both alone and with my parents and it never did me any harm; plus, I feel like Batman is a character and concept that can never be “too dark” and grisly as he works best when depicted as a dark and terrifying force in an increasingly insane world. Furthermore, Batman Returns is rife with subtle (and explicit) themes duality, humanity, and deception. All four of the main characters wear a mask of some kind, whether explicit or metaphorical (or both) and is hiding their true, darker nature. Bruce is, of course, one of the most obvious since he literally garbs himself in a heavily armoured suit and becomes an entirely different person when acting as Batman. There’s again a sense that he’s not entirely comfortable being in public or out of the suit as he is only truly able to confide in Alfred before becoming attracted to Selina and, though he openly opposes Shreck’s plans as Bruce, he’s seemingly only able to make a real impact on the city when operating as Batman.

Catwoman’s appearance degrades alongside her mental state as the film progresses.

Selina, too, hides behind a physical mask; after her rebirth, Selina becomes more and more disassociated with her former life and revels in the freedom and power of being Catwoman. Previously, she was timid and powerless but, once she has power, she exercises it without restraint or mercy; when she first encounters Batman, she attacks with a combination of sexuality and violence, seeing him as the ultimate symbol of patriarchy. He fractured state of mind only degenerates further as the film progresses and this is reflected in the explicit destruction of her alluringly skin-tight outfit; by the film’s conclusion, she’s hardly recognisable, resembling little more than a besmirched wild animal who feels she has to reject Bruce’s advances and offer of a “normal” life because of her altered nature that drives her to obsessive pursue Shreck’s death even at the potential cost of her own life.

Though a tragic villain, the Penguin is still a monstrous individual willing to slaughter all of Gotham.

The Penquin doesn’t hide being a mask in the way as his adversaries; indeed, because of his monstrous appearance, he is forced to literally hide from society first in the circus and then, for many years, in the sewers and when he does emerge into the limelight, it’s under the guise of being a misunderstood outcast. Ironically, this isn’t actually too far from the truth as the Penguin is a truly tragic figure within the film but, even as a baby, his violent tendencies are made explicit so, in many ways, he’s the opposite of Catwoman: his true nature is to be a wild animal and he masks it with the shroud of respectability. It’s an ill-fitting persona for Oswald, though, as his animalistic urges and lack of social graces make him undignified; indeed, as eloquent and charismatic as the Penguin is capable of being, he descends into a monstrous individual that salivates over the merciless death and destruction of everyone in Gotham.

Shreck’s true, twisted nature is revealed when he meets his gruesome end.

And then there’s Max Shreck; yes, I would have preferred Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) to have returned and supplanted this character but Christopher Walken sure as hell does steal the show, every time he walks into a room, the scene becomes about him, with the camera seemingly naturally focusing on him even when he’s standing next to vivid characters such as the Penguin and Batman. As fantastically alluring as DeVito is at portraying this nightmarish version of the Penguin, Walken’s natural charisma and bombastic acting method makes him an undeniable highlight of the film. Like the Penguin, Max doesn’t where an actual mask but his is a mask that is far more subtle and all the more dangerous in its application; having won the hearts and minds of the city, and being a wealthy businessman in a position of great power, Shreck represents the horror of aggressively ambitious capitalism and the power of the social elite. Confidant to the point of arrogance, Shreck exudes authority and ensures that he is always the most powerful man in any given situation; he barely flinches when he first meets the Penguin, immediately attempts to bargain with Catwoman, and defiantly stands up to both her and Batman but his true, twisted nature is revealed for all to see after he meet his gruesome, explosive end in the finale.

The Summary:
When I was a kid, I always preferred Batman to Batman Returns; I think this was mainly because of the iconography of the Joker as a character and it being a little less heavy-handed with its themes and imagery. As I grew older, though, I came to really appreciate all the positives of Batman Returns; in many ways, it’s a far superior film, which a much more unique visual identity, far superior costume design, and even improving on Elfman’s already flawless score. While it’s far more of a standalone sequel than a direct continuation, Batman Returns drops us into a twisted, nightmarish version of Gotham City that seems to have been physically changed because of the city’s adoption of Batman as its protector. My appreciation for the film’s themes of duality and humanity came to a head during my studies at university when, asked to produce a presentation on a film, I spearheaded Batman Returns as my group’s project and, in the process, delved deep into the way it deals with its complex themes. Getting an A in that presentation encouraged me to further pursue writing about the things I loved from my childhood and influenced my eventual PhD and I owe most of that success to Batman Returns, a film that, while probably not too suitable for young kids and despite not being massively accurate to the source material, remains one of the darkest, most visually engaging, and thought-provoking Batman movies ever made and, to this day, is a must-watch film during the Christmas season.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What are your thoughts on Batman Returns? How does it compare to the first film, and the other films in Batman’s long cinematic history? Did you see this as a kid; if so, did you enjoy it or were you traumatised by its dark, macabre tone? Perhaps you were one of those parents who kicked off about the film; if so, what was it that set you off and how do you feel about it now? What did you think to Burton’s twisted interpretations of the Penguin and Catwoman? Did you enjoy Christopher Walken’s performance? Were you a fan of Michael Keaton’s performance this time around? Which Batman film, and actor, is your favourite and why? Do you consider Batman Returns a Christmas movie and, if not, why not and what the hell is wrong with you? It’s set at Christmas! Whatever you think about Batman Returns, go ahead and drop a comment down below and be sure to check in next Saturday for more Christmas content!

Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Jingle All the Way

Talking Movies

Released: 22 November 1996
Director: Brian Levant
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $75 million
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Jake Lloyd, Robert Conrad, Rita Wilson, and Phil Hartman

The Plot:
Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) is a workaholic husband and father who, after missing his son Jamie’s (Lloyd) karate class graduation, promises to make it up to him by buying him the hottest action figure of the year, Turbo-Man, for Christmas. But, having forgotten to by the toy ahead of time, he must race both across town and against a similarly motivated mailman, Myron Larabee (Sinbad), on Christmas Eve or risk once again breaking a promise to his son.

The Background:
It’s easy to forget that, amidst all the action and science-fiction movies of the mid-eighties and nineties, Arnold Schwarzenegger also dabble din a bit of comedy. Not all of these ventures were successful, mind you, but it was a decent attempt by the Austrian Oak to showcase some range to his acting ability. Arnold joined the film for a reported $20 million salary, attracted to the idea of portraying an “ordinary man” for a change, and having experienced the difficulty of last-minute Christmas shopping itself. The script, which originated from a screenplay by Randy Kornfield, drew upon the mad rush shoppers faced to purchase some of the most sought-after Christmas toys over the years, from Cabbage Patch Kids to Power Rangers and the much-coveted Buzz Lightyear. Ironically, the film was shot so quickly that there wasn’t enough time to produce much in the way or merchandising for the film, which went on to gross nearly $130 million and received mixed to average reviews at the time. Perhaps because of its bonkers nature, it has become something of a cult classic over the years and a standalone, straight-to-DVD sequel was even produced in 2014 with an entirely new cast.

The Review:
Jingle All the Way is the story of Howard Langston, a workaholic father and husband who is such a big-wig at his company (which, I believe, is a company that sells bedding and furniture) that he’s working up to the wire on Christmas Eve-Eve during he office party. Though Howard is very much consumed by his work and ensuring that his many “number one customers” are satisfied, he’s not a maliciously neglectful father; I never got the sense that he was a bad Dad or husband, he’s just a cliché mid-nineties businessman whose primarily about the business.

Howard grossly underestimates the popularity of Turbo-Man.

When Howard misses his son Jamie’s karate graduation, he desperately tries to make it up to his son but the only thing that really works is him being honest; by admitting that he screwed up, Howard is able to turn Jamie around and learn about his Christmas wish for a Turbo-Man action figure. Sadly, Howard doesn’t twig to this revelation so, when his wife Liz (Wilson) asks him if he bought the doll when she told him to “weeks ago”, he opts to lie to her to cover his ass and avoid further reprisals. Unfortunately, while Howard is a great liar and a convincing act, he greatly underestimates just how popular the Turbo-Man action figure is. Seriously, this guy is like the Power Rangers on steroids, having a super cheesy television show, comic books, and all manner of merchandise and, despite Jamie clearly being besotted to the point obsession with the character, Howard is too thoughtless to notice that Jamie has greater respect and admiration for a fictional character rather than him before it’s too late.

In place of his neglectful father, Jamie idolises Turbo-Man to the point of obsession.

If there’s a weak link in the film, I’m sorry to say that it’s Jake Lloyd; it’s painful to say it about a child actor who was once so prominent in the industry, and considering everything he went through later in life, but Lloyd is pretty insufferable in the two films I’ve seen him in (three guesses what the other one is…) and even more so here. To be fair, much of this seems to be due to the script as Jamie is quite the spoilt, condescending little brat at times. I get that he’s desperate for his Dad’s attention but, as I said, he’s taking his love of Turbo-Man to an unhealthy obsession at times; however, this just goes to show how powerful and influential television, merchandise, and advertising can be on a young boy since he has based his entire life philosophy and morals on the teachings of a Saturday morning show in place of his inattentive father.

Sinbab’s bombastic comedy is a particular highlight of the film.

Being a comedy film, much of Jingle All the Way’s success lives and dies on the content of the actual jokes and gags; for the most part, these come from the comedic chops of Sinbad, whose character, Myron, is a troubled mailman who is equally desperate to get his son a Turbo-Man after experiencing a similar let down as a kid. Myron represents a different social class compared to the fairly well-off Howard; Myron is the working class everyman, a man driven to desperate and near insanity by the thankless nature of his job and the pressure of living up to the expectations placed upon him (and all fathers) by television advertising.  Because of this, Myron tends to go off on increasingly ridiculous tangents, ranting and raving about the season and his lot in life to the point of hilarity; Sinbad pretty much steals every scene he’s in, chewing the scenery and delivering a performance that is the perfect blend of bombastic and belligerent.

Ted is Howard’s annoyingly helpful neighbour who has his sights set on Liz.

Speaking of scene-stealers, Jingle All the Way also includes a fantastic turn by Phil Hartman as Howard’s overbearing next-door neighbour Ted Maltin; if Ted has a counterpart in the world, it’s Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer) as he’s overly polite, super helpful, and can seemingly never put a foot wrong. When Howard is late or misses Jamie’s big events, Ted is there with his video camera; when Howard is too buys to put up Christmas or be at home with Liz and Jamie, Ted is right there. So beloved is Ted that all the neighbourhood mothers swoon over him, openly flirting with him and attracted to how handy and capable he is, but Ted has his sights set on Liz. Interestingly, though, as accommodating and as a nice a guy as Ted seems to be, there are some interesting cracks in his persona: he snaps at his son Johnny (E.J. De La Pena) and Jamie after burning his fingers when watching over them and delivers a very icy quip to Howard after he wrecks his house. Ultimately, though, Liz is somewhat repulsed by Ted’s advances and he receives his comeuppance when Howard upstages him in the film’s finale.

Howard repeatedly runs afoul of Officer Hummell, who constantly ends up worse for wear.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Howard constantly runs afoul of Police Officer Alexander Hummell (Conrad) in a recurring gag in the film; Hummell pulls Howard over and causes him to miss Jamie’s graduation, then gives Howard another ticket when he accidentally reverses into his police bike, and responds to the radio station’s call for help when Howard and Myron burst in in a desperate attempt to win a Turbo-Man. This results in one of the best, and most cartoonish, scenes in the film when Myron threatens the cops with a mail bomb that turns out to actually be real. Conrad delivers a very dry and sarcastic performance, which makes for some fun exchanges between him and Arnold.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Jingle All the Way is quite the madcap film, with a near relentless pace as we follow Howard on his desperate search for a Turbo-Man. At every turn, he finds nothing but empty shelves or units of Turbo-Man’s weird bear/tiger sidekick, Booster, crazed fellow shoppers, and overworked, underpaid, jaded retail staff. I’ve worked in retail at Christmas time and I can say that I fully understand the attitude of the staff Howard encounters as shoppers go absolutely ape-shit at Christmas time, literally clambering over each other to get at products, and it’s only gotten worse over the years as Black Friday sales have been extended to an entire week! Still, you can make the argument that Liz should have known that Howard couldn’t be trusted to buy the doll and should have picked it up herself, since she’s much more attuned to her child’s needs, but then we wouldn’t have the movie now, would we?

Howard ends up in some weird and uncomfortable situations in his quest.

Amidst Howard’s dire quest, he ends up in some really weird situations: there’s the uncomfortable moment where he chases a little girl through the mall to get a lottery ball and is attacked by rightfully concerned mothers, for one thing, and his encounter with the mall Santa (Jim Belushi). Santa turns out to be one of a number of Christmassy crooks who sell knock-off toys from a warehouse at a criminally inflated price and, when Howard tries to get his money back, a massive fight ensues between him and the Santa’s (including Paul Wight, better known now as the WWE’s Big Show, and Verne Troyer). This sequence is another highlight of the film thanks, largely to Belushi’s memorable performance; he’s not in the film for longer than a cameo but he makes an immediate impression once he shows up and you almost wish he could have had a large role in the film’s events.

For the finale, the film descends into full-blown cartoon buffonery.

Of course, the biggest and most ridiculous scenario Howard finds himself in is when, after being chased by Hummell, he ends up being forced into the Turbo-Man suit for the “Wintertainment Parade” when the organises mistake him for the replacement stunt man. In the process, Howard not only finally gets his hand son the Turbo-Man doll but ends up in an elaborate and overly cartoony fight with Myron, who disguises himself as Turbo-Man’s arch-nemesis Dementor to steal the toy. This leads to a Myron chasing Jamie up a fire escape and across rooftops and Howard inexplicably activating the actual, fully functional jetpack built into the suit to rescue his son and defeat Myron. It’s a massively over the top sequence that is, in many ways, at odds with the generally more grounded, if wacky, antics that have followed but it certainly makes for a memorable finale in which Howard learns to appreciate his family, Jamie gifts Myron the Turbo-Man doll, and everyone ends up in a better place than they originally started (…except for Myron, who ends up in prison…).

The Summary:
Jingle All the Way is far from the best Christmas movie and is definitely one of the weaker films in Arnold’s impressive resumé; it’s a schmaltzy, over the top cringe fest of a festive comedy with some really weird cartoonish moments, some dodgy performances, special effects (especially noticeable in the finale) and line delivery from Arnold and Lloyd, and all the clichés you’d expect from a film of its kind. And yet…there’s something about it that I find unironically entertaining. Nostalgia helps, of course, since I grew up watching this film, as does the festive nature of the movie and the feelings of yuletide joy it inspires within me but, even disregarding those obvious aspects, Jingle All the Way is a wild, but entertaining, ride with some amusing moments and exchanges that really bring it up a notch. Not only that, but the film’s excess actually contributes and plays into the overall plot concerning consumerism and Christmas mania, which remains as relevant as ever, meaning there’s plenty of different elements at work in the film to appeal to kids and adults. Plus, you know…it’s a Christmas movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger so a certain amount of cheese is to be expected but you can certainly find worst Christmas movies out there.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

What do you think to Jingle All the Way? Is it a Christmas tradition of yours or do you prefer another Christmas movie; if so, what is it? What did you think to the performances of the actors? Do you enjoy seeing Arnold playing against type or do you think he should stick to what he’s best known for? Have you ever had to face last-minute Christmas shoppers? What was the hot Christmas toy when you were a kid? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and be sure to check in next Saturday for another Christmas movie review!