Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sweeeney Todd

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd is a comeback for Burton, not quite matching his late 80s to early 90s golden era, but it’s easily his best film since Ed Wood. For most of his career, Burton has making musicals in one form or another, the fantastic Elfman scores for Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns turn them into operas, but this is his first full fledged live action musical, and he handles it well.

I’m a huge fan of musicals. Film is inherently unrealistic, and it’s odd that people will buy giant monsters, ridiculous action sequences, but a character singing is too much. It’s inherently melodramatic, but some stories have emotions that big. As we watch Benjamin Barker’s story unfold in the past, music building, I needed to have a big emotive moment from Todd, and his songs provide that. If anything, the music doesn’t go quite big enough sometimes. I wanted something absolutely massive, and in its best moments, the film achieves a sinister grandeur, the beautiful songs shadowing its darkest moments.

While Depp is indisputably the lead, Helena Bonham Carter steals the film. She’s the one you leave the theater talking about. I love her total lack of morals, and hilariously sinister nature. Not having seen the original show, I may not be the best judge, but I thought she nailed all her songs, as did Depp.

Burton styles them both to look like live action stop motion characters. The exaggerated pale makeup and dark eyes are striking, echoing the film’s almost black and white palette. Visually, the film is stellar. The only misstep is the awful CG effects in the opening travel through London shot. The trip through a city over opening credits is a Burton staple, but the CG in this and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is just appalling. It’s like watching a cartoon, and that takes you out of the film. However, once the film starts, the design is fantastic. The actors and sets and integrated and everything is stylish. I particularly like the incongruous trip to a beach scene, which manages to give even a sunny day some goth visual flair.

There’s not that much to say about the plot. It’s a simple story, and as in most musicals, is generally besides the point. There’s a fantastic tension in the buildup to Sweeney’s killings, every time that straight razor goes near a neck, you’re fearing and anticipating a gush of blood. The most shocking, and probably best, moment of the film is when Sweeney hurls Mrs. Lovett into the pie oven. It’s a crazy visual, and the film’s most over the top moment.

The major issue with the film for me was that there wasn’t a really coherent emotional build. While it was fun that the characters were so unaffected by the murders they do, it also means the characters have basically no arc. Sweeney killing his wife was a bit contrived, and didn’t hit on a particularly emotional level. It’s tricky to bring humanity to something so over the top, but I feel like a deeper emotional engagement would have made the end emotionally devastating, instead of just shocking. It’s only in the kid’s story that we get a sense that what is happening is real and matters. Part of that may be compression from the stage show, but I would have liked to see either Sweeney or Lovett exploring the issues that arise from what they’re doing.

But, the film still works and is full of wonderful, exciting moments. The songs are generally stellar, the performances are great, and the film is visually dazzling. Burton still hasn’t matched the open wound emotion of Edward or Batman Returns, but this is a definite step up for his recent work.

Side note, was it just me or did the kid in this film look exactly like McNulty?

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