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Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an impressive work of art that resisted film adaptation for thirty years. Filmmaker Tim Burton's expensive, gory version carefully reshapes the material to fit his personal, peculiar visual universe. So few musicals are made these days (not counting animated films) that nobody knew what Burton might make of it. As it turns out, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a highly entertaining success in its own right, although Burton and adaptor John Logan's more realistic characters can't help but diminish the Grand Guignol glee of the original.
The added precision of Blu-ray shows more detail in the dark recesses of Burton's blue-gray rooms, adding texture to the costumes and more light to characters' eyes. With the enhanced resolution, the stylization seems more exact -- and when a bright primary color does intrude, it really gets our attention. It's odd to see the Dreamworks logo on this film -- we expect to see the logo's "moon boy" fishing in a pond of blood.
Burton's Sweeney Todd is as firmly planted in nightmares as all of his earlier films, with their Edward Gorey / Charles Addams designs and their pale leads with their tiny faces, pointed chins and Margaret Keane eyes. Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Jane Wisener all fit this pixie-Goth mold that goes all the way back to Burton's short subject Vincent. Depp is Burton's long-time filmic proxy; one of their more notable pictures together was Edward Scissorhands, another story of a strange man with uncanny haircutting skills. The film opens with a mock 2D entrance into London under a full moon, a title sequence that recalls the opening of Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, only with more blood. The broodingly stifled atmosphere is dominated by dark grey-blues: all the better to make the scarlet blood stand out.
The structural adaptation of the play is outstanding, dropping the chorus scenes and peripheral business to concentrate on Sweeney's dark mission. Burton's Todd and Bonham Carter's Lovett are more internalized types, partial to moody understatement instead of the play's exuberant exhibitionism. This is more in keeping with Tim Burton's sensibilities and to be expected, but it also robs Sweeney Todd of its manic, barnstorming vitality. The highlight of Victorian horror from Richard Mansfield to Tod Slaughter to The Phantom of the Opera is the moment when the hero-fiend proclaims his demonic destiny, with all the stops pulled out. The stage version rocks one back in one's seat when Sweeney brandishes his razor to shout that his arm is now complete again. It's like The Phantom grimacing when his mask is removed -- it's high opera, with a villain enraptured by his own delicious Evil. Johnny Depp hisses out his line with conviction, but it's pitched at a lower level of hysteria.
What's missing is the MADNESS. Mrs. Lovett is a full-on schizophrenic, babbling in denial about the status of her pie shop and dreaming of love-er-ly vacations at the sea. In the play, the business of her stepping downstairs to butcher bodies for her pies is treated with the kind of goofy, sick comedy found in old James Whale movies. Sweeney Todd the movie is psychologically more realistic. We really can't picture the sensitive Lovett having the stomach to attend to her daily 'knacking' chores -- she's not mad enough.
The mistaken identities and horrible ironies retain the play's grim dread, but they're not as wonderfully deranged. Sweeney and Lovett aren't quite the fiends they need to be -- Todd cuts throats rather casually, instead of reveling gleefully in his slaughter. The film is certainly Guignol in both the number and frequency of its realistic throat slittings but the Grandness of Guignol is missing, despite all the gore. See one gullet slashed, you've seen 'em all.
Frankly, the volume of blood in Sweeney Todd is a surprise. Things must have changed at the MPAA, as Burton's Sleepy Hollow had to arrange to chop off five or six heads with barely a drop of hemoglobin spilled. And I suspected that War of the Worlds' dust-ball killings were a dodge to avoid R or X-rated bloodshed, just the way parts of scenes in Kill Bill reverted to B&W to avoid painting the walls with Type AB negative. Sweeney Todd has much more blood, in at least eight close-up throat slashings, each lingered on in gory detail. The most perplexing thing about the killings is explaining how Todd keeps things tidy when he's showering daily in fountains of blood. Perhaps someone told the censors that it was all just a musical satire.
Johnny Depp is grave and intense as needed. His singing is certainly adequate, although he hasn't the power that makes some of the songs startlingly aggressive on the stage. Helena Bonham Carter fares somewhat better, managing well the tricky phrasing of Sondheim's faster lyric lines. Jamie Campbell Bower and Jane Wisener's characters, previously the picture perfect hero and heroine we would normally expect to triumph, are also diminished. Bower's adolescent Anthony seems ill equipped to save a heroine, or make a life with her if they do survive. The original Judge Turpin was a one-dimensional perverted monster, and the slight humanization of his character through Alan Rickman doesn't add much. Played almost the same is Timothy Spall's Beadle Bamford, and Sacha Baron Cohen is precise but unexciting as the mountebank Pirelli. As Toby, the shop helper who becomes attached to the fiendish Mrs. Lovett, Ed Sanders is an excellent youth in the Willy Wonka mold. Everyone in the show uses his or her own singing voice.
Originator Stephen Sondheim has given his blessing to Burton's Sweeney Todd, emphasizing the idea that his play has been re-interpreted, as opposed to merely restaged or 'opened up.' Taken on its own terms, Burton's show is the most elaborate expression to date of the director's familiar personal world, a visual match for Corpse Bride or Sleepy Hollow. Burton's eccentric, bleak romanticism has become overly familiar through the years, to the point that Burton almost fits the old definition of an 'auteur' -- he seems to be making the same movie over and over again. Did the box office failures of the oddball exceptions Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! direct Burton back to his main groove?
Dreamworks' Blu-ray of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is handsomely mastered in widescreen, with its narrow color range carefully modulated down to the pasty texture of the leads' pale faces. After an hour of gloom, the bright hues of the sunny seaside vacation scenes almost hurt our eyes.
The extras are so numerous that one really needs to pick and choose which to see. Some interviews and taped panel discussions are repetitive in content, while the edited featurettes rehash large sections of the film, multiplying the razor scenes until we've seen the same slashings four or five times apiece. But good content is to be found. The general making-of docus show the amiable relationship between Burton and Depp; we also see that the majority of wide exteriors were added digitally, with the actors working on green-screen stages. The crane shot on Jamie Campbell Bower wailing for his Johanna is not that much different from the On the Street Where Your Live number from My Fair Lady. A special effects man demonstrates the complicated mechanics used to pump more blood out a man's throat than is contained in an entire human body. Best of all, Stephen Sondheim is present for a lengthy discussion of his play and the adaptation.
Various featurettes explore the original stage version, the historical basis of Sweeney Todd in 'penny dreadful' horror publications of the 19th century and the expected visits with the hardworking designers and costume wizards that give Sweeney Todd its signature look. We aren't surprised to learn that Tim Burton has used the same costume designer, Colleen Atwood, on almost all of his pictures. He hasn't cramped her style, as Atwood's highly varied filmography contains some of the most creative films of the last twenty years.
The main making-of featurette is formatted for 480, but most of the other extras have been mastered in HD. Happily, most of the extras are also subtitled for the hearing impaired. The feature also has 5.1 Surround tracks in French and Spanish ... but only the dialogue is dubbed, not the songs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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