Batman Returns Blu-ray Review
There is a more striking difference in quality for Batman Returns than its immediate predecessor. In 1080p, Burton's follow-up looks quite dazzling at times and offers much more consistency of detail, contrast, grain, colour and sharpness.
The thing is, much of what I'd said about the Special Edition transfer from a few years ago, actually still stands - only much more so, if you know what I mean. So, what follows is basically just a more detailed update with a few more superlatives thrown in for good measure.
Batman Returns is a film of stark contrasts, both thematically and visually and Warner's new Blu-ray release polishes up Burton's cinematic canvas until it gleams. The snowy sets of a winter's Gotham make for an almost black and white palette, yet it is one that still throbs with vitality, the characters and pyrotechnics like beacons in the monochromatic backdrop. The 1.85:1 (via VC-1) image shows the film off at its best, with terrific clarity, authentic depth and a beautiful consistency of light and dark - the pale skin beneath the black rubber, the snow falling past the gothic structures. The blacks are classically thick and deep (everywhere, folks), the colours are bold and vivid (check out Batman's first clash with the carnival creeps or, especially, the masked ball sequence) and the level of detail can often be quite striking (the clarity of Catwoman's whipcrack-away antics, the gargoyle-encrusted cityscape, or the marvellous attention lavished upon the many costumes). I love the sheen that graces Catwoman's lithe physique and the stark effect of her ghostly white face and bright red lipstick peeking out from the mask. She cuts a captivating figure, for many reasons, but the transfer holds her up like a visual trophy and she ignites the screen.
Facial detail is considerably greater than ever before, with eyes, skin texture, lashes and hair picked-out to a surprisingly sharp new degree. Everybody benefits from this, too, with Bruce's eyes and Tom Hanks-ish hair crisply delineated, Selina's eyes and lips electrifying and Max's calm green mince-pies and wispy stitched-on brows and bouffant really presenting us with more clarity than expected. And, of course, the repulsive visage of the Penguin is also served with a clinical new visual appreciation that brings out each dribble from his lips, the madness in his eyes, the bedraggled Dickensian locks that slime their way down from his top hat and the different shades in the vast furry collar of his coat. Check out those oozing molars and the new range of ill-looking colours that surround his demented eyes - there was always purple in there as well as the grimier-looking black rings, but now it really stands out. So, close-ups are wonderful. But then so are the wider mid-range shots. The intricate sets of the Batcave and the Penguin's subterranean lair may appear masked in gloom, but peer a little closer and their true glories are still picked out with flair. The black levels on the BD are deeper than on the SD, but this has not been achieved at the expense of any detail held within.
Shreck's department store has a candy-wrapper gaiety that the transfer copes with admirably and the numerous explosions and flame-outs are crisp and full-blooded with their colours more highly scrubbed. The baubles and lights on the big Christmas Tree are more vivid than before, as are the neon signs, the Batmobile's headlights and Batman's yellow logo. Fast action - and there is much more of it here than in the first movie - is never compromised by digital demons, retaining a smart and stable vibrancy. And the many effects shots involving models, matte work or primitive CGI look altogether more accomplished, their appearance, similar to a lot of the same kind of work in the original Batman, nowhere near as compromised as you may have expected. However, there is one shot (well, we see it twice) with the Penguin's flippers clasped around the bars of a sewer-grate as he looks up at the festivities on the street, that clearly shimmers around the edges, having been matted-in. I don't recall this looking so apparent before and this is almost certainly down to the enhanced definition.
Grain is still there, but it is a very fine layer and never once distracts, apart from possibly one or two minuscule shots in which it seems to increase - such as when Batty-bobs uses his batarang to take out a circle of thugs. Edge enhancement is most certainly not a issue and noise reduction, if it has been applied, is never consciously noticeable. Three-dimensionality is well-done, too. Whether they are street scenes, rooftop battles, sewer-sequences or simple, iconic shots of Batman just standing there - especially where he and Selina first encounter one another and Keaton's eyes simply burn through the screen - the image maintains a depth that is captivating at all times. And that first swooping shot that introduces us to the frozen zoo-set is simply breathtaking in its hi-def glory, with trees, statues and structures whirling by us like some snowbound forerunner to Burton's entrance to Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas. One shot of the massed penguin army as they surround the frigid location towards the end once looked very cluttered and indistinct and, although this element is still there, it is presented much, much cleaner and sharper now.
I have to admit that this is, indeed, a marvellous transfer of an older movie that could, due to its stylistic visual approach, have proven problematic to a high-definition spruce-up. A very strong 8 out of 10. To coin a phrase - two thumbs up. Way up!
As with the other discs in this Blu-ray series, Batman Returns is furnished with a cleaner-sounding, more aggressive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track than its prior DD and DTS mixes. Immediately, this track delivers a rich and very detailed sound-design, with its emphasis spread generously across the front, but with plenty of rear support when called for. As with Batman, I was impressed with the clean and sharp sound of the smaller things like footsteps, city ambience and the general detail from the crowd scenes. The field is considerably widened, generating space and depth for Elfman's score to swirl and soar, and the bombastics to whirl and roar. The Penguin's goon squad on the rampage is full of vigour and aggression, the doctored-Batmobile plunging around Gotham and ripping up two rows of cars has the speakers groaning and squealing with crunching metal, and the cat-on-bat scraps have a lusty weight of impact-heavy dynamics. The sub is used considerably more than in the first instalment and its sheer weight is very rewarding. You have only to hear the moment when Batman is first summoned via the cloud-emblazoned signal and Elfman's theme swells majestically out at you, the floor reverberating with the presence of it all. And then, when the Dark Knight sets off to fight the good fight, the Batmobile is provided with some terrifically boosted gut-rumbling energy. From this point onward, all bass impetus is catered-for with more aggression than you will have heard before, and it is extremely welcome in anchoring the movie with a very modern sense of dynamism.
The many subtleties of the track have been honed and toned, acoustically speaking, as well. The echoing down in the Penguin's lair has an extra resonance, the cries of his waddling army are accurately shrill and the roar of Batman as he speeds down the tunnel is throaty and authentic and now contains more detail within the engine thunder. Even the likes of Penguin tossing aside a paper-cup of water, that clatters and splashes at us from the front left (but seems to emanate from much further away) is treated with extra eloquence and realism. But, for some other delightful improvements that the lossless mix boasts over the DD 5.1 track that is also supplied, or even the DTS revamp that adorned the Special Edition, you have only to listen to either of Selina's most spectacular falls - her first one at the hands of Max Shreck has much clearer shattering of glass and the wind-rush has a keener sense of directionality, and her plunge through the rooftop greenhouse offers more of that scintillating glass and also her own amazing scream of rage. The DD and prior DTS tracks pale in comparison. Gunshots also have a greater power and suddenness to them - Penguin's umbrella-gun peppering the wall behind Shreck at the big party, for instance, now punches quite violently through the air.
Dialogue is clear and distinct and has some fair degree of steerage. Thankfully, it is also consistently prioritised in the mix, unlike the speech in the first movie's new hi-def release, which can lose steam during some moments. The wonderful score billows around the room but never drowns out the dialogue or the atmospherics, and the observation of individual instruments within the music is much more acute, particularly of the carnival-style compositions for Penguin and his circus-mob. The older DTS track seemed somehow reticent when it came to amount of activity that the rears brought into play, and I have to say that the TrueHD actually appears to address this complaint by providing a little more movement and ambience over the shoulder. Hubbub is there, Elfman's score is superbly bolstered by rear encouragement and the action scenes gain ground with the added dimensionality. There is definitely a lot more going on back there, and with the added bonus of impressive width from the frontal array right from the get-go, the film now feels incredibly spacious and grand.
I have to say that I was enormously pleased with the audio for Batman Returns. Wasn't this the first film to incorporate Dolby Digital sound? Well, its channelling and detail has now received a very commendable makeover, ensuring that it sits very nicely in the new age of lossless audio.
As with the other Batman Bds in this franchise, all the goodies from 2005's Special Editions have been brought over for a welcome return. Tim Burton's Commentary is, once again, a chat-track with the idiosyncratic director that is typically full of lethargic pauses and dry, laid-back musings. He offers up a fair bit of insight but it is severely handicapped by his continual stuttering and stammering. He seems unable to string a sentence together without saying “you know” at least a half-dozen times. Listen to his attempts to put into words his feelings for his cast during some of his favourite scenes - he gets lost, confused, and is often painfully slow to get to the point. I found this track very hard to stick with, unfortunately.
After this, we get the main body of features. Kicking off with The Bat, The Cat and The Penguin (21.48 mins), we get to meet Robert Urich as he hosts an initially quite naff TV promo-piece from the time of the film's release. The moments where the commercials should have been are dumbly handled and the picture quality is grainy, blurred and sprinkled with pixilation. There are interviews with Keaton (tired and monosyllabic), DeVito (quite enthusiastic) Pfeiffer (interesting - but she could just sit there in silence and still be great value, as far as I'm concerned) and Tim Burton, but this is hardly in-depth stuff. In fact, the longer it goes on, the more comical and knowing it becomes, with some supposedly clever dialogue-splicings between the participants. The good bits, unsurprisingly, cover Pfeiffer's costume and her amazing - and genuine - skills with the whip. Her whip-co-ordinator, Anthony Delongis, confirms that she took those mannequin heads off for real, and in the first take. Yowza! There's a tiny moment when Bob Kane crops up to recall the genesis of the Penguin. But this segues more determinedly into Burton explaining how he had virtually a free-reign in cooking up his haunted history a bit more since his origin was practically non-existent in the comics. As well as meeting fx wizz Stan Winston and his animatronic penguins, we even get to see the real things rehearsing their candy-missile procession. God, those guys are cute. There's some behind-the-scenes stuff and a little bit of Keaton goofing around on the Bat-phone, but this is really just filler.
Then we get the next instalment of Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight. This chapter, Part 4 (the first three are to be found among the extras for Batman), is entitled Dark Side of the Bat and runs for 30.12 mins. Now this is a lot better, but it does feature an annoying amount of interview re-runs with the stars. The usual suspects of cast and crew (minus Walken, though) line up with plenty of input - Sam Hamm reveals that he did two drafts only for Daniel Waters' script to get the green light. Burton admits that the hook to get him back on board was the challenge of rooting about in the deep, dark psyches of all these strange “animal people”. He's also quick to defend his Batman from those who dismissed his earlier outing for being too sidelined by the villain, claiming that the Bat should remain in the shadows. Casting choices are dutifully covered, with DeVito being the first and only choice - we even get to see the quirky and sad painting of a young Penguin that Burton created to persuade him to don the flippers - whilst Annette Benning was in pole position for the coveted role of Catwoman. Ironically, Sean Young, who missed out on playing Vicki Vale in the first movie, also missed out on the feisty feline character this time out. Burton also tells of the franchise mentality that saw toy companies demanding imagery from the film to help spearhead their merchandise. Fittingly, the bizarre reactions to the new movie upon its initial release are mentioned too. Hamm likes to point out that it was never meant to be a kids' film and the fact that Batman makes a couple of obvious kills gets a nod, too. Check out the canny responses as to why Burton did not return to the franchise after this.
Next up is the Heroes and Villains section. Batman: the Heroes (7.04 mins with a Play All) covers the remarkably stark ranks of just Batman, himself, and trusty old Alfred. Such luminaries as Kim Newman, Paul Dini (from the Animated show), Michael Keaton, Alex Ross and screenwriter Daniel Waters discuss the progression of the character. Waters defends Batman's kills and admits that he removed some out-of-character ranting from the hero when overpowered by Keaton and Burton. Batman: the Villains (11.15 mins with a Play All) musters the trio of the Penguin, Catwoman and Max Shreck. We get more snippets from the same old interviews with all the usual participants - actors, crew and comic-book folk - some pretty cool stills and a fairly obvious dissection on the duality and fractured minds of the dark trinity. But, stand by your beds, because, finally, the great Christopher Walken gets a second or two to comment on his role in the film. Well, where has he been hiding all this time, then? In fact, his little section here is so short, literally a couple of minutes or so, that I feel it is practically an insult. Considering that he was actually created just for this film, it is bewildering that such a good character as Max Shreck is given such short thrift.
Then we have the stack of seven production featurettes that make up this release's instalment of Batman Beyond. Using the Play All option, this comes to over sixty-five minutes on the key elements that went into bringing the film to the screen.
Gotham City Revisited: The Production Design of Batman Returns introduces Producer Denise DiNovi, Production Designer Bo Welch and Art Designer Tom Duffield into the mix. This features a lot of clips from the film (which is typical) but allows the technicians and designers some freedom to talk over the scenes in question and discuss their relevant issues (which is not so typical). To make Gotham bigger, darker and more of a visual extravaganza this time around, they tried to create a contemporary expressionist look, utilising the bold black and white contrast of a snowy-gothic cityscape. A fascistic approach to the architecture and the statuary helped enormously, too. To be honest, this brief look barely even scratches the surface of the work done here.
Sleek, Sexy and Sinister: The Costumes Of Batman Returns is much better value - if only for the time spent discussing and examining Catwoman's streamlined and provocative look. Apparently, Bob Ringwood designed it after seeing a bizarre photograph he'd seen by chance (hmm ... are you thinking what I'm thinking?) and confirms that it was built with pure sex appeal in mind. The whip became the tail that Burton had initially conceptualised. Mary Vogt (Costume Designer) and Vin Burnham (Costume FX) then turned Burton's eclectic designs into a reality. We see how the new art-deco Batsuit was sculpted by Steve Wang with an eye for looking sleeker, sharper and far more effectively iconic. It is definitely an improvement over the first one. The Penguin's grotesque romper-suit and Shreck and Son's turn-of-the-century industrial look are peeped at too. But again, as with so much of the bonus docs presented here, we get a lot of repetition with the same old interviews being dug out and dusted down time and time again.
Making Up The Penguin comes next, with Danny DeVito stating that it felt nice once he was in the makeup. It is kind of creepy to see Tim Burton's spooky drawings of the character being twisted by creative artists to fit around DeVito's real face. Ve Neill (Key Makeup) gives great value as she breaks down how she achieved each specific element that went into creating the final ghoulish look. And DeVito gives a good insight into the thoughts of the guy beneath the mask. Not sure about his ideas for a Penguin in Vegas act, though.
Assembling the Arctic Army addresses the difficulties of working with penguins, big and small, real and not so real. We meet the trainers of the adorable two-tone performers and see how Stan Winston incorporated real people in penguin suits with animatronic heads and beaks and learn how the mingling of all these different sizes and species helped to disguise the fake from the genuine article. If, like me, you love penguins, then this little feature is for you.
Bats, Mattes and Dark Knights: the Visual Effects of Batman Returns is superb little feature that puts my faith back into these mini-docs. Craig Barron talks us through the digital fx of a couple of great scenes - the Bat-sign lighting up Wayne in his fantastic library and the snowy walk through Gotham Park of baby Cobblepot's parents. We also get a little look at Dennis Skotak's tremendous work on the Bat-vehicles, and the efforts made to replicate the penguins for their massed assault on Gotham. But it's hard to believe that the final shot of Catwoman looking up at the Bat-sign amid the snowy night sky proved to be so problematic. Just look at what went into getting it on-screen. Great feature.
Inside the Elfman Studios: The Music of Batman Returns sees us reunite with the maestro Danny Elfman as he talks us through the score, discussing how he placed the story and the characters back into the gothic, grandiose style of the vintage monster movies, like Frankenstein. He even gives a good commentary for the scoring of the slinky Batman-Catwoman rooftop seduction scene. Very amicable and fun to listen to, he nevertheless gives us an understanding of the commitment it takes to compose for a film like this, and how he and Burton have reached a similar wavelength over the years they have worked together.
And finally, folks, we get the Music Video for the tremendous Face to Face from Siouxsie and the Banshees. Running for 4.21 mins and cut expertly to scenes from the movie, this captures the mood of the duality and the mental states of the story's two main players, the Bat and the Cat. Elfman had a hand in writing this and, unlike Prince's abominations for the previous outing that didn't fit in at all, sexy-Siouxsie's lamenting here is precisely in keeping with the tone and the motives of the film. And she looks adorable in her pseudo-Catwoman outfit, too.
Overall, these extras are a nice addition. Walken is disappointingly dealt with, though, and there is a little too much in the way of repetition. Surely, they could have got hold of some more varied interview material, instead of just snipping out the bits relevant to each movie from the same, tired old Q&A sessions. Not bad, but could certainly have been better, in my opinion, considering the reverence that this entry is held in.
Batman Returns marked a turning point in the movie legacy of the Dark Knight, and can lay claim to being the most faithful rendition of Bob Kane's creation thus far. Tim Burton's interpretation visually assumes the role of a comic-book come to life, but retains the inherent darkness and gothic grandeur in which Batman's crusade exists. It was the last great film the Caped Crusader appeared in, until Christian Bale donned the costume. But, whereas Bale made the Bat a living, breathing and altogether more tangible character, Keaton's last foray in the cape and the cowl beautifully captured the baroque and frightening hinterland of Gotham's alternate reality. I can't quite forgive his unmasking in this, but his relationship with both Selina Kyle and Catwoman is absolutely perfect. Or should that be purr-fect?
This new Blu-ray certainly trounces the previous DVD incarnations in almost every way. The AV quality is magnificent - with the Bat's Return never having looked or sounded better - but the extras still fall short of its mythic stature. There's a lot of ground covered, but it just doesn't seem to hit the right notes - more of a quick cat-scratch and penguin-peck than a full-on, comprehensive bat-swoop. As with the other BD releases of these older movies, it seems a shame that nothing new could have been added to the selection - I mean the franchise has been reborn and hearing how things were perceived back then now sounds a tad artificial and short-sighted without some form of historical context. But I still have no reservations in recommending this release as pretty much essential. Batman Forever had some merit - and probably for all the wrong reasons (erm, Nicole Kidman, who I've always, ahem, adored) - while Batman And Robin can only ever be thought of in terms of an extension to the newer and more vibrant “The Batman” animated show and should never be mentioned in the same breath as Keaton's films.
The Bat is enjoying a tremendous renaissance at the moment ... do yourself a favour and join in the dark celebration.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.99
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