Review Summary: The best Christmas score of all timeBatman Returns
has always been a misunderstood film. It’s not your traditional hero versus villain comic book flick, nor is it bloated with lousy CGI and big scale fights. There are no high-stakes involved, no doomsday scenarios are being played out. It’s not even a Batman movie, at least not in the traditional sense. No, this movie is all about outcasts and scarred psyches. It’s about doomed relationships, and inner struggles, forgiveness, and redemption. Had it been released today, it would threaten to bring a premature end to the franchise. It was a risky decision, but the studios executives were desperate to capitalize on the first film’s massive success. A sequel was inevitable, and loads of cash were laid at Tim Burton’s feet, who was at first hesitant to helm a sequel. In addition to his paycheck, Burton was granted total creative control as well. The offer was too good to turn down, and Burton returned to direct a motion picture that is first and foremost his own twisted creation, and secondary, a superhero film.
It goes without saying that Batman Returns
is not a Batman movie; it’s mostly a contemporary psychosexual, gothic tale that so happens to take place in Gotham City. The star of the show is taking a backseat to the villains who share the spotlights. In return, we get to see the best version of those characters; this film provides the definitive Catwoman and Penguin. There’s nothing that compares to her kinky sensuality or his unsettling, frightening freakishness. We also get to receive the greatest anti-Christmas gift of all time; a superhero film without superheroes, as such, there are non to find in Batman Returns
. Tim Burton’s sequel ends in misery and cynicism, just like all the great tales should. Bruce Wayne fails to save the day and all he gets is a lonesome ride to his home with nothing but his trusted butler and a cat for company. That bitter ending is more accurate than anything in Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.
Just as Tim Burton took many creative liberties, so did Danny Elfman in his subsequent score. The composer’s work echoes that of the first movie, but with a much greater emphasis on complexity, expression, and orchestration. Elfman takes far more chances and his coworker’s direction allows him to open up his sonic palette and deliver a classic but drastically different soundtrack. Instead of rehashing cues from the first movie, he creates a score that consists mainly of new material and themes. Tim Burton’s approach accentuates the polar opposites that made his first film; a bunch of caricatures and misfits surrounded by a dark, freakish environment. Danny Elfman follows suit and dresses the film with an -almost- nightmarish sound-scape drenched in “clowny” effects. Any association to the previous score would be ill-judged since that was action-driven, and Batman Returns
is motif oriented. The music’s gothic profile is still attended with a circus-like attitude and an intricate rhythmic configuration, especially during the dramatic sequences. The operatic cues are even more theatrical in their vivid orchestrations and perfect timing, a never-ending vibrant parade of sparkling musical colors. Another major difference is that this soundtrack can be heard independently, while the previous one worked mostly like a canvas background image. The pipe organ plays a prominent role again though its application in parts is overbearing and sounds cheaply synthesized.
Elfman’s technical proficiency for thematic transformation is exceptional in this continuation. The signature Batman March
marks a return but is reworked and breaks into new territory. This arrangement comes complete with arias, brass, low harps, and eerie woodwinds. By no means a Batman-related theme this is; the heroic identity is replaced with bleak darkness, its ambiance reverberates the tragic nature of a heinous crime. Elements from the first title march drift in and out of the movement and the increasing use of unusual instrumental tones lend some extra gravitas and atmosphere. As the film unfolds, Penguin’s theme is repeatedly reprised in all its multifarious glory. In Catwoman’s theme, Elfman appears to be in high spirits, treating the listener with some of his best work. Kitty Party/Selina Transforms
is one of the most tragically romantic pieces ever composed in modern film history. The composer is simply brilliant in his employment of screeching violins to resemble a feline’s call and playful behavior. Surprisingly enough, no romantic motifs have been conducted for this soundtrack. To counter effect such an absence, Elfman overlaps elements from Batman and Catwoman and creates an almost unfinished melody full of sexual tension. It’s a witty trick that works ergonomically since we have plenty of material for the three characters.
The entire score is in many ways much more subtle than its predecessor and reflects the characters. It’s what I would call a musical gallery of personalities. As the Penguin character, it is tragically alluring, perplexing, but in its core, cold and heartless. The performances on the batman-related titles sound as if Elfman purposefully forced the entire mystique and triumph out of the picture. This approach of blurring the lines with the villain’s style, gives the impression that our hero will not emerge victoriously; it’s a welcoming contemplation that fits the film’s unclear and somber tone.
While almost everything appears to be in order, this record is not without its problems. The biggest one lies in its inadequate production and execution. The soundtrack for Batman Returns
was recorded by an entirely different orchestra. That happened because the whole crew had to relocate from London to Los Angeles, so a separate studio was hired to perform the music. Unfortunately, the new ensemble couldn’t replace their English peers successfully. Whether it is the uninspired playing or the deliberate alternate pacing, the two soundtracks’ divergence couldn’t be more evident. What’s more, many of the tracks are separated in parts, confusing the average consumer. The remastered versions of this score offer a sensible chronological presentation of the songs, but unfortunately, the sound quality never improved.
If you can get past the bad sound quality and unfortunate packaging, you get the work of a composer who’s arguably on top of his game. It’s a brilliant score that can melt your little heart and make you feel for the characters. The entire album is fascinating and represents a significant maturation of style for Danny Elfman. It could very well be the best soundtrack he ever wrote.