Battier and Better

Batman Returns is a funny, gorgeous improvement on the original and a lesson on how pop entertainment can soar into the realm of poetry

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Burton knows that moviegoers, just like the Penguin, need their oversize playthings. So he and production designer Bo Welch provided toys for the kids. The new-model Batmobile can get ultraslim (fast!) and slip through the narrowest crevice. The Penguin's parasol becomes an Umbrella-Copter, spiriting him out of the trouble he loves to make. At the end he sends his commando squadron of penguins to destroy the city: tuxedoed birds wearing embossed shields, tiny helmets and missiles with candy-cane stripes ( it is Christmas) on their backs. Some of the penguins were real, some were robot puppets, some were little people in costume and others were computer generated.

There are lovely toys for adults too. From the 8-ft. logs and 6-ft. andirons in Bruce Wayne's fireplace to the neon lettering (HELLO THERE) on Selina's bedroom wall (which Catwoman alters to read HELL HERE), the picture gives you the chance to luxuriate in a cartoon world made flesh and concrete. Massive Deco-style buildings -- a Rockefeller Center gone bats -- stretch skyward to put heroes and villains in ironic perspective. "The movie is very vertical," says Welch, who also designed Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. "It goes from the penguin in the sewers to a flying rodent. So these are aggressive sets, not passive backdrops incidental to the action." The visual contrasts -- big on little, bright on brooding, snow on soot -- give the film a distinct, witty style: Dark Lite.

There's wit aplenty in Danny Elfman's discordantly lush score, with its sugarplum fairy exploding over meowing violins. And imposing performances from Walken, as a master builder who out-Trumps himself, and Keaton, sturdily imploding from Batman's unresolved, not quite explicable nobility. But the flashy turns are from DeVito and Pfeiffer.

In the '60s Batman TV series, Burgess Meredith played Penguin as a kind of deranged F.D.R. This was not for DeVito. "I didn't see myself playing a weird Nick Charles with a martini glass and a tuxedo," he says. "It just didn't tickle my fancy." Then Burton showed him a painting he had done of "a toddler with a big round head and big eyes and a protrusion in the nose and mouth and a bulbous body with little appendages. And there was a caption that said, 'My name is Jimmy, but they call me the hideous penguin boy.' And I got this weird chill." As Penguin, DeVito gamely spewed black bile (food coloring and mouthwash) and ate raw fish (seasoned with lemon). DeVito, auteur of his own dark comedies Throw Momma from the Train and War of the Roses, is now directing Nicholson in Hoffa. He says the only thing he would have done differently if he had directed Batman Returns is "make love to the leading lady."

In the movie, Penguin and Catwoman make hilarious hate. Pfeiffer had cats crawling over her supine body and, in one scene, a live bird in her mouth. "Fortunately," she says, "I have a pretty big mouth." She also had a longtime crush on her character. "Catwoman was a childhood heroine of mine," she says. "She's good, bad, evil, dangerous, vulnerable and sexual. She is allowed to be all of those things, and we are still allowed to care about her."

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