Never Fear

An anticipatory response to Batman Begins might be that it surely should have been called Batman Continues or Batman Resumes or at least, for a finer shade of meaning, Batman Changes. The casting of a new man in the role of the DC Comics superhero -- Christian Bale succeeding George Clooney succeeding Val Kilmer succeeding Michael Keaton -- hardly gives the series leave to pretend it is no longer a series. But British director Christopher Nolan -- succeeding Joel Schumacher succeeding Tim Burton -- is indeed not looking to follow in anyone's footsteps (much less to do further damage to his reputation, founded solely on Memento, than he did already in his Hollywood remake of Insomnia). He is instead looking to strike off on his own, to return to square one: how and why Bruce Wayne came to be Batman; the psychological root of his fixation on flying mammals; the part this played in his guilt over his parents' murder; in short, the logic, the reasoning, behind the selection of his chiropteran crime-fighting persona. Burton, if I remember right, went over some of this ground in the original Batman of 1989, or maybe I'm thinking of Schumacher digging into the background of the sidekick, Robin, in the 1995 Batman Forever. In either case, the ground was not gone over in such detail, nor with such a straight face, a grim face, a "game face." Should you still bristle at the title, think of it rather as Batman Starts Over or Batman Backs Up. Think of it, in other words, as a prequel, if only to link it with Star Wars III and Dominion to form a summer cycle. Mind you, it's a much better film than those, easily the best Batman film since the 1989, and possibly better than that one by a whisker. Batman Recovers.

The starting-over will naturally mean that the storytelling takes a good long time to get to the Batsuit, the Batcave, the Batmobile, and all the appurtenances, a time taken up with flashbacks to boyhood and young manhood, and with a present-tense plotline that picks up in an Asian prison, where a scruffily bearded Bruce Wayne is commingling with the lowest form of humanity and learning firsthand about the criminal mind, and where he is visited in solitary confinement by a nattily attired and smoothly groomed Liam Neeson, neither a phantasm nor a fairy godfather, who poses him a challenge out of the Arabian Nights: pick the rare blue flower that grows on the eastern slopes, carry it to the top of the mountain, and join the path of the League of Shadows, in order to find what he seeks. And what's that? "To turn fear on those who prey on the fearful," he answers, ever mindful of his father's dying words, "Don't be afraid." All of this, and the subsequent training in Eastern martial arts and eventual disillusionment with the League of Shadows, produces surprisingly little impatience, thanks to the straight face, the grimness, the gameness, the unflagging intensity, the hammering on the motif of fear, the percussive musical accompaniment credited jointly to Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard (which one's the drummer?).

But the intensity, etc., cuts two ways: it lends a degree of conviction to the goings-on, and yet it risks looking ridiculous once it runs into the Batsuit, the Batcave, etc. Can an air of seriousness feasibly be sustained? (For all his lack of superpowers, the hero floats through the air with the ease of Spider-Man if not Superman.) To help sustain that air a bit further, there is no jokey villain this time (notwithstanding a forward-looking nod to the Joker at the fadeout), but rather an apocalyptic criminal plot, fully worthy of a Fu Manchu, to do to Gotham what God did to Sodom and Gomorrah, and for similar reasons. And the nightmarish visions evoked by a "weaponized hallucinogen" (a sign of the times, a salute to Al Qaeda) are genuinely scary. On balance, the two-way cutting goes deeper in the direction of conviction than in that of ridiculousness. Nolan is somewhat less successful as a handler of hot-and-heavy action, pulling us in so close to it that we can barely follow it; and we can only react with a sigh at the sight of this Caped Crusader adding head-butts and kung-fu kicks to his repertoire. Even so, Nolan merits much credit for filling the Batsuit with the low-wattage Bale, an actor as opposed to a star, a more credible sufferer and struggler and a less certain victor. And the support team, aside from the kewpie-doll Katie Holmes as an incorruptible D.A., is solid: a dry Michael Caine (taking over for Michael Gough, one constant in the Batman series) as the loyal manservant, Alfred; a wry Morgan Freeman as the supplier of gadgets (what "Q" is to James Bond); and a world-weary Gary Oldman as the town's one honest cop. No Robin and no Batgirl equals less silliness.

Howl's Moving Castle, imported from Japan and distributed through Disney, is the second film from Hayao Miyazaki, the acknowledged master of anime, since his announced "farewell" one, Princess Mononoke. The latter, to our shame, was but the first of his works to receive a wide release in the U.S.; and, to my personal shame, it served as my belated introduction to him. So, while I am not complaining about the deferral of his retirement, neither am I rejoicing. At least not at the pitch of other critics I've read. I still have several earlier Miyazakis to track down on DVD, and I still intend to follow through, but Howl seemed to me really more of a snore, a dreamworld that doesn't so much pull the spectator into it as push him towards his own. It certainly, in common with the other ones I've seen, doesn't lack for imaginative detail. On the contrary, it could have made do with a little less. The French novelist and essayist Anatole France, who went on a few flights of fancy of his own, once made the point in a fictional dialogue that the human imagination can come up with nothing the human eye hasn't already seen; it can only come up with new combinations. ("The Greeks used to see centaurs, sirens, and harpies, because they had previously seen men, horses, women, fishes, and birds.") In that sense, Miyazaki here combines too much. Piles too high. Blends too thick.

The titular castle, to begin with, is an amalgam that might symbolize the entire project: a fused junkpile of architectural odds and ends lifted from Medieval fortresses, 19th-century factories, Spanish galleons, WWII battleships, countryside cottages, boiler rooms, God knows what all, walking around on giant chicken's feet and dragging a dinosaur's tail, the residence of a glam-rock wizard called Howl (voiced, in the English-dubbed version, by our new Batman, Christian Bale) and a Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost fire demon called Calcifer (expressing himself with the Borsht Belt shtick of Billy Crystal), and the refuge of the demure heroine, a young milliner transmogrified into a hunchbacked crone by the multiple-chinned Witch of the Waste. It looks -- and this is not meant as a compliment -- like something you might encounter in a live-action Terry Gilliam film, right down to the computer animation that so contaminates Miyazaki's hand-drawn purism. The setting is a similar amalgam: an alternative Europe of past and future, history and fairy tale, naturalistic novel and prettified operetta, pastoral ideal and urban dystopia, model T's and s-f flying machines, grazing sheep and ambulatory edifice, mythical birdman and Disney ingenue, all jammed together, with a lot more besides. It's too much of a good thing. Or anyway, too much of a thing, whether or not good.

What the film most definitely does lack is adequate mundanity to ground the runaway whimsy (the breakfast of bacon and eggs stands out as an exception), and, more importantly, adequate narrative drive -- an adequate narrative motor -- to propel the viewer through the long, slow couple of hours (the very vague Orwellian war in the distance never acquires any clarity or urgency). There is nevertheless a good deal to like: the pogo-sticking scarecrow, the wheezy little terrier, the authentically dreamlike bit of the hero and heroine walking on air to escape a mob of faceless tar-blob creatures, the comical bit of a snail-paced race up a mountain of stairs between the corpulent witch and the hunchbacked crone, the temporary smoothing-out of the crone's wrinkles at moments when she recaptures her youthful ardor. Miyazaki maniacs, of which there are more than a few, will doubtless find much else to like. As for me, I'll stick with the anime from earlier in the year, Steamboy.

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