Given that his visual sense and keen ability to evoke an exotic, creepy atmosphere are much stronger than his storytelling skills, Tim Burton usually does his best work when putting his own unique stamp on someone else's material, rather than trying to create something from scratch. This doesn't always work out as planned (his version of Planet of the Apes was admittedly a disaster), but when the stars align properly the fusion of Burton's vision and a better writer's story can make for a giddy concoction. Arguably the best of his "reimaginings", Sleepy Hollow is an ideal pairing of the director's brooding Gothic sensibilities with the time-tested Washington Irving fairy tale, twisted by way of a clever reworking from screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en).
The Ichabod Crane of Irving's tale has been transformed from a spindly schoolteacher into a progressive police constable in 1799 New York City, played by the decidedly ungawky Johnny Depp. Not to worry, Depp channels all of the character's awkwardness from his appearance into his behaviors instead. Portrayed as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Clouseau, Crane fancies himself a most modern of detective, a firm believer in science over superstition, but at the same time is laughably prissy and squeamish, and lacks proper social interaction skills. Depp's performance is a riot of tics, on the one hand putting forth the demeanor of a dashing hero, and on the other retreating at the slightest hint of danger and constantly fainting whenever in peril. If the mix sounds on paper like a recipe for bad comedy, Depp knows exactly how to pull it off, perfectly balancing the character's exaggerated mannerisms without going too far over-the-top into blatant farce.
As the new story tells it, Constable Crane's newfangled scientific techniques don't much impress his superiors, who decide to punish his insubordination by assigning him to investigate a string of murders upstate in the tiny village of Sleepy Hollow. The victims, naturally, were all beheaded, and the locals insist that the culprit is the infamous Headless Horseman, a demon wraith sent from Hell. Arrogantly believing himself above such ignorant superstitions, Crane sallies forth to debunk their silly myths, until running headfirst into the evil apparition and having a sudden change of heart. He'll either pull himself together to solve the mystery behind this supernatural menace, or lose his head and fail.
Although certainly retaining all the basics of Irving's archetypes, the film is unmistakably a Tim Burton production through and through. The director infuses every frame with his signature style of beautifully dark imagery and morbid gallows humor. He gleefully indulges his most demented fantasies, filling scenes with gruesome decapitations and dismemberments (the movie earns its R rating for graphic violence), yet playing the whole thing tongue-in-cheek. It's quite a blend, both thrilling and funny, the laughs taking the edge off the scares. The movie has a strong script, sterling production values, and a fantastic cast featuring the likes of Christina Ricci, Christopher Lee, Michael Gambon, Christopher Walken, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, and Jeffrey Jones, all playing their parts to perfection (we'll forgive Casper Van Dien, who really isn't that bad in it). Sleepy Hollow is terrifically entertaining, perhaps Tim Burton's best film to date.
The HD DVD:
Sleepy Hollow debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Sleepy Hollow HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame with negligible impact to the composition.
The movie's photographic style is one of darkness upon darkness. The disc will likely put most video displays to the test. Shadow detail is encoded within the picture, but the overall image is so dark that many digital screens may not be able to fully resolve it. I'd almost hate to try watching this disc on a plasma set. In comparison to the standard DVD edition of the movie, black levels on the HD DVD are much deeper and inkier, though the lighter blacks made shadow details easier to see on the older copy. If your display can handle it, the HD DVD looks a lot nicer, with particularly rich colors that extend into a deeper palette than available in Standard Def, a trait especially noticeable in the costuming. Flesh tones have been intentionally drained of color, and look a more precise shade of pale on the HD disc.
The picture has a nice sense of detail and texture but is not exceptionally sharp. It may not quite leap off the screen like some HD eye candy, but does look very film-like and is a decided improvement over the DVD. Details are much clearer in medium and wide shots, and the HD disc is free of edge enhancement artifacts. Grain is visible by design in many scenes, more so than the DVD by virtue of the better resolution exposing it in greater clarity, which may not please viewers hoping for a squeaky clean digital image. The opening credits look the roughest in this regard. Fortunately, the compression quality is well handled and maintains the look of photographic grain, not video noise.
The Sleepy Hollow HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or DTS-HD 5.1 formats. Note that the "DTS-HD" track is not the "DTS-HD Master Audio" lossless format that HD DVD will some day be able to deliver. Regular "DTS-HD" is just a rebranding for standard DTS audio as found on DVD (the 1509 kb/s full bit-rate variety).
I was surprisingly disappointed with the DD+ track, which sounds lifeless and dull. The DTS option has a lot more body to the sound. Even so, I found it a little too bombastic, with dialogue mixed low and many details muddled in the middle of the audio spectrum. The movie's sound mix makes only sparse use of surround activity, primarily balanced in the front soundstage. Bass gets a fair workout during the trampling of horse hooves, but not as much as you'd hope during the big scary scenes. It's plenty loud to be sure, but lacks the clarity and finesse of the best soundtracks.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression, except the trailers which are encoded in High Definition using VC-1.
All of the video-based supplements from the DVD have carried over. Unfortunately, they don't amount to much.
Missing from the DVD edition are a photo gallery and some cast bios. Neither is a significant loss.
- Audio Commentary by Tim Burton - One of the most notoriously poor commentaries ever recorded, Burton spends most of the movie pointing out the obvious and laughing at odd things that don't seem particularly funny. I wouldn't call this track unlistenable, but it is very dull and I had to give up about halfway through.
- Sleepy Hollow: Behind the Legend (30 min.) – Blatant EPK material, this supposed making-of is very promotional and obnoxious.
- Reflections on Sleepy Hollow (11 min.) – A collection of interviews not interesting enough to make it into the above piece.
- Trailers - Two trailers are offered in High-Def, though neither is in great condition.
No interactive features have been included.
One of Tim Burton's best films gets a very nice HD DVD treatment. The movie is great fun and the video transfer does its gloomy style justice. The bonus features may not be worth much, but the disc is no worse off than the DVD edition in that respect. Highly recommended.
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