Thursday, January 17, 2008

Review: Sweeney Todd (movie)

I saw Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd over the Christmas Break, and I regret that I'm only now getting around to reviewing it. If you have not seen this, drop everything you're doing (including reading this post), and go see it. I'll wait. (some spoilers)

Okay, now that we're all on the same page...

This film marks the intersection of three masterful artists in their respective fields: composer Stephen Sondheim, director Tim Burton, and actor Johnny Depp.

Everything Tim Burton touches is magic. I am neither a movie critic nor a movie connoisseur, but I have loved every Burton film I have seen. With Sweeney, he performs precisely the necessary transformations to lure in the typical movie-goer while remaining quite faithful to the original score. All the characters sing well (though not spectacularly), and the songs not suitable for this cast are cut logically and seamlessly.

While largely respectful to Sondheim's work, this movie's target audience is, unsurprisingly, movie-goers. Fans of musical theater may be quite let down by the sufficient but unremarkable singing of an entire cast of actors-who-sing (not the other way around), especially in comparison to the outstanding roles created by the overpowering Angela Lansbury and distinctive Len Cariou. These nostalgic listeners must settle for the 1982 musical film version with Lansbury. This movie, however, was intended to provide what modern films do best: spectacle and emotion, and in that, it certainly delivers.

The cinematography beautifully reflects the complex emotions conjured by the score: the frantic darting through dirty London streets, the odd juxtaposition of the dark "family" enjoying a too-sunny day at the beach, and who can forget the horrific yet comical dropping (and landing) of all those bodies? Thud! Repeat.


Like most young women in America, I drool over Johnny Depp. Unlike most young women in America, mine is an intellectual, artistic man-drool, as opposed to the more common physical-sexual (and at times literal) variety. From his classically dark Edward Scissorhands, to his strung-out Raoul Duke (Fear and Loathing), to his just plain cartoonish-creepy Willy Wonka, Depp is perhaps the most versatile and fascinating actor working today.

And Depp's Sweeney is certainly drool-worthy. While few could rival the impassioned vocal growlings of the original Mr. Todd, Len Cariou, Depp's serious introspection and smoldering rage are his forte. His acting is a skilled actor's equivalent to a skilled singer's vocals. I will concede what many colleagues have argued recently: Depp's voice is more light Brit-pop than Broadway, but this comment says more about the audience's expectations (my own included) than about his performance.

Helena Bonham Carter played a cool, coy, wicked Mrs. Lovett. I don't know about you, but I would certainly find it difficult to sustain her aloofness whilst baking human-meat pies. (Believe me, I've tried.) This go-with-the-flow attitude contrasted beautifully with the calculating intensity of Depp. Her aloofness, however, pervades her singing as well, and her vocals are the weakest of the show. Of course, the power of Angela Lansbury's voice and presence in the Broadway cast would be overwhelming for most anyone trying to play the role, and perhaps even for the average movie audience member to hear. If cast alongside Depp in this production, Lansbury, even in her twenties, would have stolen the show with her Broadway presence - and not in a good way.

In truth I was actually dreading only one scene: Mrs. Lovett's idealistic "By the Sea." This light, tuneful ditty straight out of the 50's (or is it the 30's?) always struck me as the weakest of the musical. At best it was a feigned attempt to provide a necessary relief of tension. Through Burton's direction and a masterful stroke of color and light on the part of the costume and lighting designers, though, this scene was at the same time refreshing, tragic, and hilarious. From the moment this "happy family" is placed in such a brilliant and beautiful scene, it becomes obvious that, despite Mrs. Lovett's best attempts and dreams, this story can only end in darkness.

Chilling, isn't it? Further evidence that this movie version is not about the music - not entirely, anyway. Overall, I give the music a 6 out of 10. The acting, directing, and spectacle, however, are right on, and deserve a 9.5 out of 10. Assuming, of course, that you first shed your squeamishness and certain expectations about musical theater.

Until next time... keep your enemies close, and your barber very, very far away!

Caveat: this was the "short version" of my review, which was originally 2-3 times longer. If you want more opinions or an argument, comment specifically, and I will be happy to provide.


  1. I want to reeeeeead it... but I haven't seeeeeeeeennnnnn itt!!!

  2. everything is so simplistic with you, isn't it.


    Hey I got your card yesterday! Thank you! AND MOVE TO MN! (along with Gregg, Karyn (sp???), their kids, Alison, Mary, Diana, oh duh Natalie, Stamos, and some other awesome people, of course. The solution is obviously for you all to come out here and rile up the situation in MN :)

  3. I am not going to move out there to live with 10+ people. That's just ridiculous.

    Can I link to your blog? You post more than me. :)

  4. no no no, you don't see the point, you don't have to live WITH them, just NEXT DOOOOOOR!

    hehe but yes you can link to me, I'd be quite happy :)