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In July of 2008 something special premiered exclusively on the Internet -- for free! The three-part web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is an absolutely wonderful gem of a comedy. The relatively brief super-villain musical brings needed mirth and frivolity to a field clogged with brooding "dark" comic sagas ... what with the new Noir incarnation of Batman, we half-expect noirish, nightmarish film adapations of Dagwood and Blondie and Nancy and Sluggo to appear.
Dr. Horrible may just point toward the future of entertainment. Originally brainstormed as a creative activity to fill time wasted by the Writers' Strike, Horrible showcases the talent of Joss Whedon & company. As Whedon explains in his commentary, industry "professionals" immediately asked if the show could be extended into a TV series length, or be adapted to some other commercial format. Strike rules put a limit on the show's commercial prospects, but that's beside the point. Dr. Horrible was purposely made for free, to get mass visibility and enlarge (engorge? embiggen?) the careers of the talent involved: Maurissa Tancharoen and the collective Whedon genius of the Joss, Jed & Zack variety.
Joss Whedon's Firefly was a stealth hit yet didn't quite penetrate the culture or convince the corporate powers that, when it came to mass entertainment, smart and witty could outpace dumb and loud. Leaping completely from Left Field, Horrible resurrects superhero fun with Broadway-quality songs and hilarious characterizations. Even better, it plays to romantic frustration in a completely non-cynical way -- the characters are quite sweet and sincere. Strike rules may prevent Horrible from earning a dime, but it's the brightest and freshest film musical in years.
The story is frivolous genre joy from the very first rushed stack of title cards - Bomp! Bomp! Bomp! Bomp! The ambitious, sensitive Billy (Neil Patrick Harris, a top Broadway talent) strives for success as the nefarious Dr. Horrible, his Holy Grail being to gain entry into the exclusive Evil League of Evil. Billy remains undeterred despite the fact that, even when his outrageous Evil schemes succeed, they are thwarted by the smug, conceited & oversexed superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion of Firefly). Hammer repeatedly humiliates Dr.Horrible in public. Complicating matters is Billy/Horrible's crush on Penny (Felicia Day), the Sweetheart of the Laundromat and an activist for homeless shelters. Our lovesick arch-villain is crushed to discover that Penny is dating the insincere womanizer Captain Hammer. Horrible's sidekick Moist (Simon Helberg) delivers a final warning letter from "Bad Horse", the chairman of the Evil League of Evil: Dr. Horrible must assassinate somebody if he expects to pass the entrance exam. And who better to kill than Captain Hammer?
Perfectly cast and performed, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has the sparkle that comes when talented people do what they love: put on a SHOW! When we're not dazzled by Neil Patrick Harris's spot-on delivery and great singing, we have the charming Felicia Day to admire. Nathan Fillion is a great sport to play Bluto to Harris' Popeye. Fillion pulls off the he-man posing and sings well enough to make Captain Hammer deliciously hiss-able. Felicia Day, a completely non-standard beauty, is several times more effective for it, and sings like angel.
It would be easy to quote thirty of the show's clever gags and perfectly chosen verbal jokes, but it's far more ethical not to. Much of it was filmed in standing sets and with props recycled from other Whedon programs. The visual effects are cute but completely beside the point, as Horrible strives for a heightened sense of farce, with college-level humor too refined to be wasted on college students. Am I communicating the idea that the show is really funny?
At only 43 minutes, one might be tempted to think that the makers couldn't sustain the fun. That length is actually perfect for Horrible ... I'll be watching to see what these people come up with next.
Some Dr. Horrible comic books have been written, and there continue to be rumblings of a sequel, possibly even as a feature film. As of this writing, Joss Whedon has co-written and produced the horror movie Cabin in the Woods for MGM. It is directed and co-written by Drew Goddard, who wrote Cloverfield. Test screenings have reportedly gone well, but MGM has postponed the film because they are considering converting it to 3D. Whedon was also recently signed to direct The Avengers for Marvel, which will bring together Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and possibly other characters.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog comes to Blu-ray looking quite good in the superior format. The handsomely shot show is an improvement over the old DVD, with the expected richer, more stable image. The beefier audio track comes across as slightly better as well -- either that or I was hearing more lyrics due to my famiiarity with the music. Subtitles are accessible in English, Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Chinese.
New Video has retained the full roster of extras from the older DVD. Jed Whedon's novelty commentary track Commentary! The Musical! is completely sung by all the creatives, including Neil Patrick Harris. They explain the Writers' Strike through musical anecdotes, and demonstrate their wit by satirizing self-important commentaries -- while, of course, providing yet another entertaining showcase for their talents. The same folk participate in a second non-musical commentary that addresses the production more directly.
A trio of amusing featurettes also recount the making of the show with behind the scenes footage, coverage of the recording sessions, etc. The music and songs had to be worked out in advance of shooting, of course. During the recording the actors are understandably floored by Neil Patrick Harris's professionalism, executing the difficult songs with precision while adding additional character riffs. Frankly, it's like rediscovering the charm of old MGM musicals, when Arthur Freed could throw fantastic talent at already superior music, and come up with something transcendent.
Another unique extra is called Evil League of Evil Application Videos. This half-hour of fan productions is just what it says it is, video pitches to join the E.L.E. The bits range from very good to inspired. If the "democratization" of widely-available pro video leads to wider accessibility for this kind of talent, perhaps we're watching the beginning of a new age of good entertainment .... one that may avoid the clutches of corporate control.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.