The James Clayton Column: Bah humbug, Batman!

James has been considering the festive films that should only be watched in December. Is The Muppet Christmas Carol the best of all?

Batmit Returns

Holy holly wreath, Batman! Catching the climax of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns on TV the other day, I was reminded just how lucky we all are that Christopher Nolan came along and gave us Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The toy town vision of Gotham City presented by Burton has its fun moments, but damn: it just isn’t Batman, DC Comics’ dark vigilante crusader.

The whole camp, candy cane adaptation is only justifiable, in my eyes, if you disengage your brain, pretend it isn’t a Batman film and take it as a trashy escapist Christmas flick. The fact that this was being broadcast before the end of November, thus, makes it invalid. If the televisual authorities wanted to air a Burton film, they should have stuck on something like Sleepy Hollow or Corpse Bride. If they wanted a Batman film, they should have gone for one of Nolan’s dark crime-dramas.

Batman Returns may not be the one where George Clooney is forced to wear the nipplesuit and Joel Schumacher’s name may be absent from the credits, but that doesn’t excuse the decision to stick it on the schedules before an advent calendar has been opened. Someone, I feel, must be made to pay for this travesty of bad timing and bad taste.

Now that we’re into December, however, I suppose it would be alright to sit down and have the dubious pleasure of seeing Danny DeVito’s Penguin flirting with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Maybe, with the spirit of Christmas goodwill and generosity in the atmosphere, I could forgive the corny lines and total cringeworthiness of the whole enterprise… Nah. Bah humbug and never mind.

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Still, the point is that certain movies just seem wrong when experienced outside of a particular time of year and Batman Returns is one of them. It’s just about half-credible as a cheesy holiday crapfest and belongs in the ‘Only Acceptable at Xmas’ box. Being in this box doesn’t necessarily make a movie a bad one: I’d count classics like Home Alone and White Christmas as being members of the ‘Advent Calendar Film Club’. Outside of festive context, though, watching them would be a deflating experience that’d make you feel ill and unstable. Just as you shouldn’t be eating mince pies and Yule log in July, you should not be watching Elf after New Year’s Day.

The premature release of the most recent adaptation of A Christmas Carol way back at the start of November is a case in point. I hadn’t even contemplated Christmas when I was first assaulted by the trailer and saw adverts decking the sides of busses. Department stores hadn’t even started to crank the ‘Christmas Party Pop Classics’ compilations and tart up the aisles with tinsel in an attempt to encourage consumers to go on a festive spend frenzy. Why would I want to see A Christmas Carol before it was even December?

Now that that time has come, I’d be alright going to feel like a three-dimensional Ebenezer Scrooge (sounding suspiciously like Jim Carrey) was emerging from the screen to hit me in the face every few minutes.

Despite this, even though I’m free to see the seasonal movie at the cinema, I don’t want to. Chances are it’s not going to upset me as much as Batman Returns, but the whole performance capture treatment employed in Robert Zemeckis’ Dickens do-over creeps me out as it makes the characters look like dead-eyed plastic people. It’s the same unnerving CGI technology that the Forrest Gump director used in The Polar Express, and that movie, to me, looks like a scarier proposition than The Exorcist.

I’ll also be passing on Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol because the tale has been done time and time again across film and TV; so much so that all it would take is a Star Wars version with C-3PO playing the ghost of Jacob Marley to convince Dickens to come back to life and command us to leave his moral fable alone. Having seen enough different versions, I firmly believe that nothing can top the definitive take that absolutely trounces any other spins on the story. All others perish and pale into insignificance at the feet of the 1992 masterpiece A Muppet Christmas Carol that pits Michael Caine’s Scrooge against the entire Muppet pantheon.

If everything is ten times better with puppets (the poorest Jerry Bruckheimer movie becomes great comedy in Team America: World Police and a simple good-versus-evil tale becomes fantasy cinema gold in The Dark Crystal), then the presence of Jim Henson’s Muppets makes everything twenty times better. This has been proved recently by the immense popularity of the viral video of the Muppets covering Bohemian Rhapsody on the web. Does anyone remember the headbanging sequence in Wayne’s World? Not anymore. Future generations will first experience the genuine Queen prog-rock magnum opus and substitute the lyrics “I see a little silhouette-o of a clam!” as standard.

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If anything is going to keep out the winter blues (brought on as they are by repeated attacks from bracing cold winds and bad Batman movies on TV) it’s going to be the fuzzy form of the Muppets coming into view on my favourite viral vid floating on YouTube – even better than the Bohemian Rhapsody spoof – is of Beaker meeping his way through Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Hearing Ode To Joy – Alex de Large’s favourite tune – performed by the puppet really makes you realise how truly spectacular it would be if the Muppets were to remake A Clockwork Orange.

In fact, the Muppets should remake everything starting with the greatest movies of the early Seventies as a sort of easy introduction to grittier material for younger audiences. Dirty Harry could become Dirty Fozzie and you can just imagine how excellent The Exorcist would be with Animal possessed by Satan, standing in for Linda Blair.

Once the world has accepted that everything is improved with Muppets, they could even try and remake Batman Returns. Look closely and you can see how Kermit the Frog would easily assume the position occupied by Michael Keaton.

Right, if we’re in December, far-fetched Christmas fantasising is now acceptable. To Santa Claus or the people at the Jim Henson Company who can make it happen: this year as a Christmas present I want more Muppet movies to save me from festive film misery in the future. In the meantime, I’ll be getting into the festive mood with A Muppet Christmas Carol. “There goes Mr. Humbug, there goes Mr. Grim…”

And here’s that video:

James’ previous column can be found here.

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